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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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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