The changing role of technology departments in education

In a previous job, I worked for a few months in an advisory role to several executive members in a school district. I wasn’t a director, but we didn’t have one so I was really all they had at that time. I was still technically a systems administrator, so that’s the approach I took to most all purchasing decisions. My questions for them always revolved around whether a new system was to be hosted or in-house, what level of support they would need from me, and what the deployment considerations were from a technical perspective.

In my current role, I find those questions don’t matter as much any more. Most of the software applications we evaluate use a typical SaaS model and I don’t have any more to worry about, from a technical perspective, other than any firewall permissions might be needed and whether they will integrate with our authentication solutions. Instead, I find myself much more concerned with the educational value of the tool and how it can support student learning or student engagement.

There was a time when technical considerations deserved a great deal of attention. I think, for the most part, we’ve moved past that. Not everything meets standards yet, but it’s getting closer. One of our vendors is in the process of converting all of their content from Flash content to HTML5. Others are starting to follow suit, finally.

So now what? How do I, as an IT director, evaluate new tools? To be honest, I can’t do it alone. Instead of instructional services deciding we need ‘x’, the teachers demanding ‘y’, and the IT director telling both groups it won’t work, the decisions have to become more collaborative. I’m not a teacher, I don’t profess to understand how one application supports a learning goal and the other one doesn’t. What I can do is work with the other stakeholders to show them that it really doesn’t matter anymore what device is in someone’s hand.

This understanding is critical to building successful technology integration in our education system. More and more, I hear that students that can’t operate in a digital environment are at a disadvantage when they enter the career field – whether immediately or after four years of higher education. We owe it to them to teach the skills that will help them become successful. Curriculum is important, but the digital skills they use to engage and show their learning can be even more important in the long-term.

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No more silence

No more silence

I’ve been reflecting on the events in Charlottesville and UVA for the past few days. I’ve been reflecting on how I should respond, or if I can do so and get my points across. I feel the need to write about it, regardless of any one else’s personal views or beliefs. I’d like to think we all fall on the same side of this argument, but based on what’s happened, I know that’s simply wishful thinking. So I’ll do my best to distill my thoughts into a coherent message.

The actions of “the other side” don’t matter

There is a quite a bit of controversy now because President Trump denounced “both sides” as committing heinous, violent acts. While I believe Antifa has been violent in the past, hurting people because they disagree with them, that’s irrelevant here. I understand what the President is saying, I really do. But it doesn’t matter. Had a bunch of white supremacists shown up and been violently attacked and then not retaliated, it would be a different story.

That’s not what happened though. In this case, a bunch of people on both sides starting fighting and then someone from only one side decided to escalate the violence by running through a crowd of people with a vehicle. That’s when the actions of Antifa, counter-protesters, or anyone else from “the other side” stop mattering. Two groups were willing to commit violence to be heard or to prevent someone from being heard – only one side resorted to murder and assault with a deadly weapon.

I believe that’s why President Trump has been, and deserves to be, criticized for his remarks. Understanding why he feels the way he does doesn’t mean that I agree with him. This escalating violence needs to be dealt with, certainly. However, the time to claim that both sides are out of line is not when one side has escalated far beyond what the other side has done.

White supremacy must be stamped out

White supremacy should be stamped out, make no mistake about that. I welcome counter-protests against hateful rhetoric. People should be shamed when they publicly advocate for white supremacy. If they feel that way, let’s make the social consequences so severe that they’re unwilling to speak out publicly. Let white supremacy be killed in the court of public discourse. Let employers decide whether to continue employing people that advocate for such a position, I think most of them would find it abhorrent and that, once coworkers find out another employee’s position on the matter, the employer would have a pretty simple case against the employee for creating a hostile work environment.

Church groups, PTA’s, and other social groups – ostracize and exclude those that advocate for white supremacy. Make such misguided beliefs painful. Churches and congregations have a special responsibility to teach and preach against hatred of any kind. If you don’t, you are tacitly endorsing those attitudes. We often hear demands from the public for Muslims to denounce terrorists and turn them in whenever they learn of them. Should we not expect the same churches outside of the Muslim faith? If I’m a pastor (I’m not) that finds out one of my congregants has participated in white supremacy marches, you better believe we’re having a sermon about rejecting white supremacy on Sunday. I would absolutely be proclaiming to the community and the congregation that there is no place for that in a church that values human life and follows the teachings of Christ.

Call it what it is…

As I’ve seen on other blogs over the last few days, let’s stop tiptoeing around what the white supremacy movement is. It’s not “alt-right” or nationalist, it’s racist. Those involved, outside of the very extreme, probably take offense to that. Good. If they didn’t take offense to it, they’d stop calling themselves alt-right, nationalists, pro-European heritage, or other similar terms and just acknowledge what they are. We can’t let them hide behind kinder, gentler words any longer. They are racists, pure and simple.

Fight back

We can no longer abide hatred of other people simply because they don’t look like us, talk like us, come from the same place we do, or love people we think they’re not supposed to. Be vocal. Be loud. Don’t be violent. If they want to be violent, as we saw in Charlottesville, they lose the fight. Nobody is going to join them if they’re violently opposing peaceful protesters.

Don’t give people a reason to say both sides are guilty of terrible things. Take that argument away entirely. If you’re beating someone with a stick because of something they said or something they believe, you’ve lost any moral high ground you might have had.

Free speech is still free speech

Regardless of how vile or disturbing the things that someone says, they still have a right to say it. Yes, I understand quite well the limitations of the first amendment. No need to comment that you can’t yell fire in a theater, etc. Hate speech is still protected under the first amendment, it has been affirmed and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court on multiple occasions. We don’t have to like it, we don’t have to approve of it, we can actively shout it down. There’s nothing in the constitution that says free speech does not have consequences. That goes back to employers and social groups exacting consequences for it.

However, that doesn’t mean that it is illegal or that people should be arrested for the things they say out loud. If you become so offended that you need to use violence against someone for the words that they have used, find a counselor to deal with your anger issues. The very thing that protects their right to speak hate is the same thing that prevents the government from deciding that what you say should be regulated. Their right to be hateful protects your right to speak out against it. The protection of their speech guarantees that the government cannot decide that speaking out against government policy is detrimental to the public good.

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Project-based learning – Preparing our students

Most educators, when they hear project-based learning think of a lot of things that fall under the umbrella. This could be a presentation, something physical, or any number of other things. Many are worthwhile, and all will teach kids something – even if it’s the value of making mistakes and failed projects.

Today, I’m thinking about an entirely different form of project-based learning. Right now, I’m faced with a very large project and the ramifications of it. Our board recently approved funding to purchase devices in a 1:1 ratio. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year looking at what works, what doesn’t, and what considerations go into a 1:1 initiative. I’m planning as quickly and as thoroughly as I can with the support of our senior leadership. This is the biggest project I’ve run, personally, and it’s not the only one on my plate. I’m certainly still very much involved in project-based learning, although on a much bigger scale than I had assumed. I thought I’d be an expert at it before undertaking something this large – I couldn’t have been more wrong about that.

My point is this: what are we doing to prepare our kids for projects of this size and scope? I don’t expect any of our students to be managing multi-million dollar projects still in high school, by any means. But are the projects that we are asking them to do preparing them for larger projects that they may be managing in the future? Do we require kids to develop a project plan and discuss it with other stakeholders? How do they get buy-in for their projects? How do they measure progress, or communicate it to those stakeholders?

My son is taking one college class right now, and the assignments are all essays. Each one of those essays has been written on its due-date and turned in just before the deadline. He does good work, but are we missing opportunities to teach those skills if the only deliverable is the final product?

For many (certainly not all) recent graduates, the definition of financial success often means reaching a six-figure salary. This can come from many different fields of study, or through skilled trades and vocational training. Whatever avenue our students use to pursue their career goals, there are many common skills that will help them achieve that success that we should be encouraging.

Here’s my list:

  1. Communicate with other human beings: It doesn’t matter what career field you choose, if someone wants to be successful in the workplace, they have to be able to communicate with one another. This is far more than just knowing what to say and when to say it. Are our students learning how to tell people no and do so tactfully? Do they know how to tell the boss there might be a better way to do something without losing their jobs?
  2. Collaborate with team members: Are our students really ready to collaborate with others? Do they understand what that means or, like so many college group projects, are they just along for the ride?
  3. Time management: This is one skill I worry about our kids not having. I certainly see my own children struggle with it.
  4. Accountability: Do our kids really understand what it means to be accountable for something? In school, many of them recognize that they are responsible for their grade – or at least they used to. How many times do we hear “the teacher doesn’t like me” or “that teacher was really boring” when trying to come up with a reason for a low grade?

Looking at that list, I don’t see anything that isn’t absolutely required to run a large project successfully. As I said earlier, this project is teaching me many of those same skills, helping me to refine them, this far into my professional career.

It really doesn’t matter if you want to be an IT director, an architect, a plumber, an electrician, or own your own business doing any number of things. Without the skills learned working collaboratively (and alone, at times) on projects, our students are at a significant disadvantage.

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Why is educating young people so difficult?

Why is it so hard to educate the next generation of citizens? Why do so many of our kids flounder and struggle? I’m a little wary of the can of worms this is certain to open – the topic is talked about nearly endlessly. As a society, we seem to have many to cast blame upon: the government for enacting things like No Child Left Behind and Common Core, administrators for making it harder to teach in any number of ways, teachers for failing to teach. students for failing to learn, parents for failing to care. There are many more arguments, not all of which I have the time or inclination to discuss. Any number of articles can be found to support any or all of those particular viewpoints.

I’d like to think about the problem in a different way – how do we make it better? Less government intrusion? More parent inclusion? Either of those may help to address the problem, but are not realistically going to change any time soon. What can change, what I believe has to change, is how we as school administrators and educators think about education. Too many kids are forced into conforming to what we believe education should look like. Why do we believe it? Probably because that’s what we grew up with. Everyone can probably relate to what today’s classroom (still!) looks like. 28-36 kids sitting at desks, watching (or ignoring) an adult they really don’t relate to at the front of the classroom with only a vague understanding of why a particular lesson is important to them.

I don’t say this easily – I work for a school district. It’s a little intimidating to admit something that we have been doing for years may not be working. It recently occurred to me however, that we really don’t know what education will look like 5, 10, or 20 years from now. Hopefully, it looks a lot more like the education my children are receiving every day. My kids, age 15 and 10, are both homeschooled. To many, this seems counter-intuitive as I work in and for the public education system. It’s a pretty common story on how our family got to this point actually, as we’re seeing more of our friends and neighbors make the same decision.

My son was in seventh grade when we decided to homeschool him. We did this for a few reasons. First, he was being bullied. He handled it pretty well, but it was hard for us to watch. I’m not one to coddle my kids, but I also won’t just stand by as they are prevented from learning in a safe place. The bigger reason was the actual learning space. This is not my current district, but I was working in the same district where he was attending school. Having been in some of the classrooms during the school day, I was shocked at how loud the rooms were. Kids just talk over the teach, not paying any attention. I couldn’t concentrate in the room, let alone expect a 12 year old boy to do so.

We’ve also always encouraged our kids to love learning, it was hard to watch that love have to take a backseat to the bureaucratic process. My son has always enjoyed learning new things. When he was in fourth grade, I bought a used pre-algebra book from the local community college for him to work in at whatever pace he wanted. His test scores in math and English were always in the 90th percentile or higher. So I was a little shocked to hear that all seventh graders at his school would be taking pre-algebra. I looked at the curriculum, he did some practice tests with my wife and did quite well. We asked about putting him into a higher-level math class. They wouldn’t even consider our request. So we brought him home just after Christmas break. My 10 year old daughter finished her school year and then came home prior to the following year.

I tell this story to make the point a little more clearly. My wife does not have a teaching background. She’s one class shy of completing an associates degree. She doesn’t hold a teaching credential or certificate. What she does offer is far more important: a genuine concern for her students (her kids!) and a love of learning. She was an art major and switched to engineering because she found she enjoys math. Some would look at our situation, despite those two key components, and say that she’s not equipped to essentially teach my kids the necessary subjects. We’ve found that this is irrelevant.

Our kids don’t need someone to hold their hand through a school day. They need a little direction, someone to monitor their progress, and someone to answer questions as they come up. This is where technology really becomes beneficial. With the resources available, they find answers to their own questions. When they ask us things we don’t know the answer to, we encourage them to write those questions down and research the answers. Last year, my (then) 9 year old daughter did a multiple page report on a local historical site. My son did a similar report that was appropriately longer and more detailed. It takes them both a couple of hours to finish their math, English, science, art, or any other core curriculum subjects on a given day. Then they spend hours reading, looking up answers to their own questions, and both kids have taken up computer programming. We’ve largely stopped telling them what to learn, and started showing them how to learn.

I don’t write any of this to say that our way is better or to gloat. I write this because I think it’s a different way of looking at education. We spend so much time talking about how to tweak the current education model and make it work, but very little time trying to determine if it’s worth saving. What if our teachers’ talents are better spent coaching and mentoring their students rather than lecturing? Why aren’t our high school age students finding answers to the questions that interest them? We spend a great deal of money on technology resources but, so far, they’re not really reaching their full usefulness.

I find, overwhelmingly, that our teachers, parents, students, administrators, even the controlling government agencies truly do want to see our students succeed. We have to find a better way to educate our kids and convince many of them that it’s worth their time, effort, and even frustration.

Teach them how to learn. Teach them why to learn.

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EdTech – Focusing on teacher learning

The problem:

When we think about EdTech (educational technology) we tend to focus on student learning. That’s good, and normal, and important. One of the best ways to impact student learning, particularly by using technology, is by spending time on teacher learning as well. All the reasons for this can be generally stated by recognizing that time is a precious resource for teachers. There’s never enough time – teachers are already pulled in many different directions. I know a lot of teachers, personally and professionally, and they often spend their off-hours grading papers, planning lessons, and balancing additional duties (sometimes with a stipend, often without).

When we add technology resources to the classroom, I think the natural inclination of most people is to assume that teachers will just use it. I consider myself lucky enough to work in a district that provides resources for teachers to learn how to use the technology in their classrooms – not all districts work effectively this way. Too often we get caught up in the device, the app, or the solution that is the next big thing. Chromebooks vs. iPads vs. Android vs. whatever else is out there becomes the argument. The problem with the argument is that it totally and completely neglects to define the intended outcome.

Technology does not equal learning outcomes. Too many of us that are decision makers on the technology side get caught up in the battle for device supremacy. Too many on the curriculum side get caught up in the size of an app store. The focus needs to be on teachers, what works for delivering their lessons, and will work within the environment.

How do we get teachers to buy in?

One recommendation recently made to me was to redefine return on investment (ROI), as “return on individual” (thanks Eric Patnoudes, @NoApp4Pedagogy). This is something that many teachers will understand better than a return on the investment. In other words, for the investment of their time, how does it benefit their individual students? Another key component is that teachers are being taught by other teachers and not by vendors, “tech evangelists”, or IT staff.

Generally speaking, teachers do want to make a positive difference in students’ lives and their academic success. Some believe that they can do that without technology, or at least the tools we are currently implementing in classrooms. They may very well be right – a lot of teachers add to student learning through ways other than moving their lessons online or showing videos. Increasingly however, students are more comfortable using technology and are more engaged and interested when the tools are implemented correctly.

For the teachers that are open to implementing technology-enabled lessons, they often simply need help learning how to do so. I’m finding that our teacher learning sessions are not altogether that different from student learning in classrooms. Through survey results from our technology conference workshops this week, I’m able to better understand how teachers are learning, what their difficulties are, and how we are meeting (or failing to meet!) their needs. Teachers are responding with comments that range from “Great, no improvement needed!” to “need longer sessions” or “need to move at a slower pace for the beginners.” I think in many of our classrooms, schools, and districts across the country, you’d see many of the same results.

I hope to share these results with the teachers. It was enlightening to me to see just how similar that is to some of the struggles and difficulties experienced by students in similar situations. More importantly, I was impressed that some of those attending this week were the teachers most resistant to change in general and technology initiatives in particular.

Early Results

Our district is only two days into a four day conference. From the sessions I saw today, there are a lot of great things happening in these sessions. Teachers are engaged, many are excited, almost all have been able to identify specific ideas or technologies that they want to work into their classroom management or lesson plans. They get the chance to see actual examples of lesson plans that use the technology tools provided by the district. I think this removes a lot of the confusion or resistance around the ideas compared to when they are proposed by IT staff.

I can talk all day long about how to copy a file into Google Drive, but teachers need to see how it helps to eliminate the stacks of papers on their desk when they’re grading. They need to hear about the results when students get to collaborate, rather than simply imagining a group of students around one poor kid doing all of the work.

Perhaps most importantly, they get to see how these tools can facilitate instruction and help to better use their time. When this happens, technology becomes less mysterious or intimidating and can be seen as a tool.

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Women in Technology

The percentage of women working in technology is worrying. In an article published today at thestreet.com, Meg Garner cites some statistics about women in tech companies – specifically within Silicon Valley. It’s a great article and highlights some of the more prominent successes of women in technology – particularly at the executive level. According to Garner, women make up an average of only 30% of the staff at tech companies – and those are the companies making concerted efforts to recruit and retain women as part of their workforce.

My experience, in the education sector, reflects even lower numbers of women in technology fields: in two separate IT departments, I’ve seen a total of 2 women on the technical staff compared to 22 men between the two departments. In the same period of time, I have been part of resume review and interviewing. In three years, I’ve had one female applicant for a technician job. Not just one that was qualified and made it to interview, but one total applicant.

The problem is not that women enter the IT workforce and decide they don’t like it: I believe it’s much more systemic and happens at a much earlier age. When I was attending college a few years ago as a computer science major, I found that there were very few women in my programming and IT classes. I don’t believe that most classes even met the 30% figure that is reported by top technology firms.

I think it’s important to point out now that this is not a question of ability. The percentage of women in high-level math and physics classes that I attended were much higher. Many of these women were preparing for careers in engineering and science fields. For whatever reason, computer science, software engineering, information technology, and other similar degrees were not as sought after by women.

The lack of women seeking degrees in technology fields is certainly one factor in the shortage of women within those fields. I’m doing everything I can to help promote a workplace that anyone would feel comfortable in – men or women. Ensuring that the workplace is safe for all without fear of harassment, exclusion, or contempt is an important factor in helping women to enter the technology workforce. But how do we encourage girls to become interested in technology in the first place?

As a father with two daughters, this is an area of special interest to me. I have no desire to push them in any one direction professionally, but I do want them to feel comfortable, do something that will they enjoy, and that each can use to support themselves financially. My oldest daughter (age 10) spends several hours each day learning to program. My son piqued her interest in it, and they work together on several different projects.

A few weeks ago, I asked her if she had ever considered a career in IT or networking. I quickly realized that, despite her interest in computers, she still didn’t know what a network was. After a brief explanation of networks and the internet, she seemed more interested and told me she didn’t had not even considered that there was a job field for that: that’s a great way to humble an IT dad. She seems excited and continues to ask questions about how and why the internet works. My fear now is not that she will lose interest, but that she will somehow gain the impression that this work is better suited for men.

One of the best ways to keep her (and most other kids) interest is, I think, best summed up by Silvia Spiva @silviakspiva (read the entire interview at techacute.com):

The way to get girls into tech is not to use the word tech.  Same goes for boys. I’ve never met a girl or a boy who said: “I want to be an engineer when I grow up. I want to code all day long.”Girls and Boys want to be superheroes and rock stars.  They want to make impossible things happen.  They want to be rich and famous.  They want to change the world. In the business world we call this type of focus “Business Outcomes”.  We can have a conversation about outcomes with children, too.  Focus on the goal, and the skills necessary to reach that goal. A little girl who wants to change the world by bringing education to every remote village on Earth can do so by being CIO/CTO/CMO/CEO of a technology company.  Look for dreamers, because dreamers make things happen.  Don’t label girls or boys.

If we want this next generation to take an interest in technology, we have to start now. We have to show them why technology is important and how they, the individual, can impact the industry.

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Impressions from my first Cisco Live event

I recently attended my first Cisco Live event. It was an overwhelming week full of information, ideas, and a near limitless supply of t-shirts. I’m mostly writing to organize my thoughts and review what I want to take from the experience for next year.

1) As many other bloggers have noted, wear comfortable shoes. I took running shoes and my ever-comfortable military boots, but ended up buying new shoes halfway through the week. Something with memory foam, and room for your feet to swell is really ideal. You will do a lot of walking – more than you think. Someone tweeted their Fitbit statistics for the day midway through the week, and they were just shy of 40,000 steps. The convention center was enormous, and I walked from one end to the other on more than one occasion.

2) Schedule your sessions as soon as possible. Some of the sessions I wanted to attend were full pretty early, and I wasn’t sure how the waitlisting process would work. That said, don’t be afraid to waitlist a session. The lines for those on the waitlist weren’t terribly long for most of the sessions I walked by, and it seemed like most people got it.

3) Allow down-time for yourself. I tried to sign up for as many sessions as I could, without breaks between them. For instance, I would get out of a sessions at 10:00 and found I was supposed to be across the convention center to start the next session at the same time. It really is too big to try and make it all the way across before the next session gets underway. I don’t know if they would still let someone in after a session has started, but it seemed rude to interrupt the session.

4) If you’re responsible for purchasing or decision making, visit the World of Solutions. Spend some quality time there. Having all of the vendors in one place to talk to was very beneficial. There’s more to see in the World of Solutions than I was able to get to in just an hour or two.

5) Expect to snack all day long. From breakfast onward, it seemed there was always something around to snack on throughout the day. These ranged from healthy snacks like fruit and granola bars, to the more traditional IT staple: Snickers and Coke. Between snacking all day and the evening receptions, I think I only paid for food Sunday night and Thursday night.

6) Although there were a lot of great breakout sessions, I would like to see more sessions focusing on public sector in general and education in particular. I attended a couple of these, but would love to see more. Likewise, more associate level breakout sessions would be great. Many of the breakouts were at a higher level than those preparing for or have just received their CCNA. Maybe this isn’t the target audience, but I’m sure there were a lot of us there.

7) Take a certification exam while you’re there. Seriously, whether you think you’re ready or not, take the test. Everybody that buys a full conference pass gets an exam voucher. Yes, it was frustrating spending all of my free time studying for an exam, but it was completely worth it. The test center crew handled a lot of people very efficiently. I showed up thirty minutes early for my exam and got right in. At the very least, you’ll get some experience with the exam you’re working toward and know what to expect when you’re footing the bill – assuming you even need a re-take. Shameless plug here – I passed!

8) Finally, enjoy the venue. I’m seeing more pictures from around San Diego taken by other attendees. I wish now that I had made more time to see the sites and take in the local scenery.

Take from these what you will, your opinions may vary. If I’ve missed anything, let me know in the comments or on twitter @srpeters18.

Hope to see you in Las Vegas next year at CLUS 2016!

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