Thursday, September 08, 2011

Why the Digital Classroom is Here to Stay, part two

It might not be the messiah, but it sure beats the competition...

Having publicly entered the fray regarding the boon (and possible bane) of the digital classroom, I've gotten even more emails and, wow, my Twitter feed's been active as well.  Not sure if that's a good thing, but by Friday night, I intend to be unplugged anyway.

My original post was a short and pointed reply to Matt Richtel's September 3rd New York Times article, which drove home a well honed critique of digital classroom initiatives.  It's fair to sum up Richtel's reportage as follows:  The digital classroom is potentially just another edu-fad, an initiative that is not supported by hard data on educational outcomes and one which might even be harmful, as it bleeds funding away from core educational programs.  (OK, Matt? Promise, I read the whole article, and in print no less.)  My initial reply argued that 1) Tech should come as an addition to a solid core program; 2) Pedagogy still matters most and 3) Reading and math scores are not the sole valid measures of educational outcomes.  While these claims remain valid, the full discussion about educational technology needs to include four final points.

1)  The cow is out of the barn.  From an early age, our children are exposed to a broad range of media delivered via a dizzying array of devices.  Educational researchers increasingly suggest that the saturation of technology is prompting a fundamental shift in the way children's brains access and process information.  The news...good or that this shift has already occurred, and the students that we receive in our classrooms will increasingly bring "digital" as opposed to "analog" brains.  Some argue that we can't beat this trend, so we might as well join it lest we risk losing our students' attention entirely.

2)  Technology is itself a new literacy.  Simple argument:  One hundred years ago, we would never dare send a child into the workplace without teaching him how to use a pencil.  He would be un-employable.  The corollary?  Today, a child that cannot navigate the internet, create interactive presentations and develop simple spreadsheets is functionally illiterate and has extremely limited prospects in the employment market.

3)  Pedagogic advantages.  Educational technology can do several things that few other vehicles can match.  It can instantaneously connect learners from around the world.  It can allow educators to create and deliver content that is consistently professional looking and truly interactive.  Ed tech supports differentiation by allowing children to access multiple content levels within a lesson or to demonstrate their knowledge by creating a range of products that are driven by student interest.  Why wouldn't we want these tools?

And for all that?
4)  Ed tech will not bring the Messiah.  Even as my school, the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School, strings Cat-5 cable and hangs wireless APs from pillar to post, we are drawing some lines.  Our early childhood program will remain a low-tech or even a no-tech zone.  In fact, we just invested in some really exciting technology for ages 2-5:  Water tables.  Sand boxes.  Clay for sculpting.  Wooden blocks.  Lots of paint, all in primary colors.  So far, we have found that these "open ended materials" have had a powerful impact on spurring creativity and encouraging children to imagine their own categories of work and play. 

So Matt, even as we invest in dozens of new laptops, fast wireless and (coming soon) a tablet computer roll-out in grades 5-8, we have kept balance within our program.  We are not doing this as a way to chase test scores or to impress parents.  Rather, we want to invest resources wisely so that our students develop creativity, a strong cluster of basic skills...and yes, a finesse with Wikis, Wordles and Wifi.  It's the best way we have found to prepare our kids for the confounding, brave new world that awaits them.

Dr. Allen Selis can be reached at
Then again, there's always Twitter!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Why the digital classroom? A response to NYT

So just what IS the case for the digital classroom?  (Part One)

Around midnight on September 3, my BlackBerry started to ping.  One, then another and still one more parent of children in my school were all forwarding links to Matt Richtel's New York Times article on the failure of digital classroom initiatives to raise test scores in Arizona.  (Note to self--leave BlackBerry off next weekend!)  By sunrise, I had collected a few more replies.  No surprise.  My parent body is pretty well connected to digital media.  Lots of them work in Silicon Valley for firms that range from Google, Microsoft or Apple to small tech start-ups that they have invested blood sweat and tears to launch.  But the most important reason for the emails was a series of public statements that I made during our back to school night as we announced the largest investment in educational technology by my school in the last decade.

I'm planning to send out a detailed response to Richtel's superbly written article by this coming Friday, September 9, 2011.  For the full piece, stay tuned to this blog or follow me on Twitter @SPHDS_DrSelis.  In the meantime, a brief preview of my replies to important issues that the New York Times article raises.

1)  The ideal deployment of educational technology is in addition to, but never instead of, appropriate investments in core program.  Richtel's article is striking for its discussion of how the Kyrene School District froze teacher salaries and reduced investments in facilities and textbooks at the same time as it purchased millions of dollars of new technology.  No surprise that their test scores are stalled.

2)  At some point, Larry Cuban is certainly right.  It's all about metrics--so just where is the evidence that educational technology improves learning outcomes?  Well, to take a poke at the chicken-or-the-egg side of this question, let's start by getting a clear fix on what our students will need for the coming decades.  Skills like creativity, adaptability, entrepreneurship and inventiveness.  If you've not had a chance to look at Dan Pink's A Whole New Mind, then drop everything and have a look.  These are critical skills that our children will need for the future, in addition to the four classical skills that standardized tests measure such as math, reading, composition and how to negotiate cultural differences in a global landscape.  Oops, sorry, make that "the three classical skills..."  If you get the joke, then you probably get the point.  If not?  Well, have another look at Pink, OK?

3)  Ultimately, good teaching is always going to depend upon good pedagogy and quality educational design.  How so?  If you were to visit a great classroom in the Kyrene School District as well as an outstanding Montessori classroom, you would find very few aspects of the learning experience in common, with the following exceptions:  Teachers create challenges and let students grapple with them.  Students are independent learners, charting their own course for how they will engage materials.  Students are given a large degree of responsibility for their learning.  Students have the opportunity to express themselves and communicate what they have learned within a wide range of venues.  The bottom line:  Nine times out of ten, a great teacher and a great curriculum matters more than the specific technology that he or she uses.

So, then, just why is my school so excited to invest nearly a quarter of a million dollars in educational technology over the next three years?

Stay posted.  See you in this space or up on my Twitter feed this Friday.

Dr. Allen Selis is the Head of School of the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, CA.  He can be reached at

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The NY Times Weighs In On Ed Tech

I’ve been meaning to post an entry about the uses of tech for research – an area of edtech that I think has enormous potential to transform a crucial aspect of high-school education – but I just read today’s New York Times extensive cover story on ed tech (“In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores,” by Matt Richtel; September 4, 2011) and wanted to share it and my response. The article addresses the sobering reality that research does not (yet?) indicate that technology is improving learning. It’s a confusing landscape on this point, but clearly lots of money is being spent in the hope that technology will make a difference – with not a lot of data to support this outcome.
On the one hand, I think the article, or at least a few voices in it, get it exactly right, among them Bryan Goodwin, spokesman for McREL (Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning), who argues that “Good teachers… can make good use of computers, while bad teachers won’t, and they and their students could wind up being distracted by the technology.” (Note that those aren’t his own words – he’s being paraphrased by the article’s author.) I’ll add that even great teachers can find that technology occasionally wastes classroom time and energy. I shudder when people think that technology can replace a good teacher, or make it possible to cram more students into crowded classrooms. Until a computer learns to give targeted, thoughtful feedback on writing, for example, an English teacher who has 30 students in his or her classroom will simply not be able to assign the amount of writing, or give the kind of feedback, that a teacher with 15 or 18 students can – and no amount of peer feedback is going to substitute for that teacher’s insight and coaching through the writing process.
However, we know that technology makes the writing process easier for students – if only because they can edit without white-out, erasable pens, and endless recopying. And the reality, of course, is that technology allows them to do so much more to make writing easier, better, more purposeful; to share it with an audience; to read the writing of others and debate, discuss, revise, publish anew. And the transformation of research with high-speed Internet access and digital tools is nothing short of amazing. So I also agree with the voices in the article who note that test scores are not the only measure of educational value-added. How frustrating to work hard to implement technology well only to have nay-sayers use ill-aligned standardized tests to point fingers.
But what do we do without measures? Where does this gap between practice and researchable gains leave us? For those us fortunate to be making decisions on a schoolwide basis, rather than for entire school systems such as the 18,000 elementary-school students in Kyrene, Arizona (the focus of the article), it seems to me the key is knowing one’s students, one’s teachers, and one’s school mission; taking cues from the teachers in the classroom; and designing careful pilots to achieve specific learning goals. We don’t need to rely on standardized tests to assess value, and we don’t need to rush to scale every tool. We can experiment, play, investigate – and assess, using student work, teacher action-research, and other strategies that can guide us on the human scale of a school despite being impractical on a district or national canvas. Ultimately, our focus has to stay on the learning goals we establish, separate from the tools. Wasting money on the wrong technology is bad – but wasting learning is far worse.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Mobile Devices (and cell phones) in Schools

(cross posted on The AVI CHAI Foundation blog)

For years educational technology advocates are preaching that our schools need to reach a “one to one” device per student ratio. After all, the first thing most employees now get in any new job is some form of computation device with internet connectivity. It can be a laptop, a netbook, a smartphone, tablet, etc. Think about it, in many places, especially in an information intensive workplace, before one gets a desk and a phone number a corporate email is assigned. The good news: in many high schools we have gotten to the 1:1 ratio, middle schools are following closely. Are schools an information and communication intensive environment? I sure hope so. The bad news: we do not really know how to take full advantage of this, so we ask our students NOT to use these devices. In many places we actually ban them. What a shame.
Let me back off a little, and get a bit technical (you may skip this paragraph…): We used to think we needed a desktop or laptop per student to realize the potential of educational technology in our schools. Two things have changed: cloud computing and smart mobile devices. Cloud computing means much of the heavy lifting that we used to have our computers deal with is now processed elsewhere, on servers connected to the internet. We no longer need a huge amount of storage on our device – we can save the files on a Microsoft, Google or Amazon server as well as smaller options (such as Dropbox orEvernote).  Now that the computing and storage demands are lowered, smaller and cheaper devices can function like some former laptops (see explanatory video below).
Moreover, computing and processing power on servers are sometimes bundled together in a very “educational friendly” manner – using Google Docs teachers can share materials with their students, use online surveys, let kids collaborate etc. with all of these features accessible from any connected device: the teacher’s home computer, the classroom desktop, the students’ home machines, and yes those small devices we all walk around with formerly called “phones.”
I think our schools need to change their mindset about mobile devices: from “technological distractions” to “educational technology opportunities.”  We need to have wifi access all over our schools. Content wise, we can start where it is simple: Many schools are looking for “student response systems.”  These enable teachers to poll their students during the lesson and get an immediate response, sometimes embedded in a chart displayed in front of the class. But if your students have a mobile device, cell phone, Smartphone, tablet, netbook, whatever it is – I would recommend you first try a free option. In the long run, I think we are going into a “bring your own device” (often referred to as BYOD) era, and there may be no need for an expensive response system. One simple way is to use Google docs.
Some schools are using free tools based on student cell phones or laptops. The New York Bronx office of educational technology ran a session at the last ISTE conference titled “7 Free Mobile Participation Tools for Classrooms”, the session was taped (you can find it here and the lecture notes are online as well). I have seen the use of text messaging tools as well as internet based tools (and combinations of both).
But it does not end with simple participation tools. We need to embrace mobile devices, and use them as much as we can. We should ask our students to use them for learning, just as we use them for work. It may be that tablets (such as the iPad)  have a greater potential to serve as digital books then larger screen smartphones which are showing up more and more, but those are minor distinctions – we have reached the point where most high school students have the hardware to make good educational technology work. Looking up information and communicating is part of it, but I hope that more robust educational products will emerge in the near future in Jewish studies, so we can really leverage educational technology in the classroom.