Posts Tagged ‘technology’

Call for More Computer Education Misses the Point: Education Without Access is Meaningless

January 30, 2016 Leave a comment

Here we go again! The NYTimes reports that in an effort to develop a competitive workforce the President is asking Congress for $4,000,000,000 in new funds to improve computer education in the country. And how will this money be used?

…the money will pay for teacher training and instructional materials to increase the amount of instruction in computer science, especially for girls and minorities, the officials said.

The $4,000,000,000 only scratches the surface of the funds needed if we want to improve computer instruction especially for children in poverty or in rural schools. I am currently working as a consultant in a rural VT school district that serves roughly 1000 students housed in seven different schools. As part of the project we needed to determine the costs for infrastructure in the schools in the near future. The administrator responsible for computers estimates that it will cost roughly $300,000 to $500,000 to make it possible for students and teachers to have access to wi-fi in the school. But having wi-fi and access to computers in the school is insufficient if the goal is to provide instruction in computer science. Students need to have computers available to them at home and need to have access to wi-fi in their homes as well.

So… what good is it to train teachers on the use of computers and about computer science if they are housed in schools without access to the web or classrooms without computers. Read my previous post about Flint MI schools and ask yourself what is needed in those schools in order to improve computer instruction…

I doubt that Congress will improve $4,000,000,000 to improve computer instruction even if the amount was sufficient… but if that money were earmarked to fund for-profit charter schools? It might be a different story!

Emotionally Intelligent Robots Teaching PreSchoolers in Europe and Turkey

January 26, 2016 Leave a comment

The heading for this post is not based on an article from The Onion but rather based on a recent post from Atlantic by Jacek Krywko titled “When Class is Run by a Robot“. In the article Krywko describes ongoing research in Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands where scientists are “currently working on language-teaching machines” that ” help students learn basic vocabulary and simple stories, using microphones to listen, cameras to watch, and artificial neural networks that will analyze all the information that’s collected.

The article is simultaneously fascinating and chilling as it describes how technology can read the faces of individuals to determine if they are bored, confused, engaged, or flummoxed and adjust the way content is presented accordingly. It is perversely heartening to read that the researchers biggest challenge is dealing with day dreamers and disrupters… but the dystopian side of my personality leads me to fear that the ultimate solution for “those kinds of kids”will come from the pharmaceutical industry.

The net impact of the article is to pose the ultimate question about scientific progress: is it always beneficial to seek efficiency through the use of technology? If not, where should the lie be drawn and who gets to decide where to draw that line?

NYC’s Experience with Metal Detectors: A Cautionary Tale

January 14, 2016 Leave a comment

Cecilia Reyes Atlantic article earlier this week poses this question in its title: “Do Metal Detectors in Schools Do More Harm Than Good?”. The answer to the question comes at the very end of the article from William Jusino, principal of Progress High School:

“Weapons will get into the building without metal detectors. Weapons will get into a building with metal detectors,” Jusino said. “The idea is ‘What do you do. What programs do you do. What’s the trust and values you have in your school.’”

Jusino is right: metal detectors are not failsafe any more than surveillance cameras, sophisticated door locks, and “good guys with guns” are failsafe. Ultimately “…the programs you do” and “…the trust and values you have in your school” are what matters.

Reyes does a good job of offering a history of the installation of metal detectors that 100,000 students per day go through, noting that three incidents in one week in1992 led to the decision to install $20,000,000 worth of hardware in “dangerous schools”. Those dangerous schools, unsurprisingly given NYC’s history of profiling, are in predominantly poor neighborhoods where minorities lives.

But NYC is finding that the removal of safety equipment installed over two decades ago is a challenge for two reasons. One is political: if there is any gunplay or stabbings after the equipment is removed in any school where a removal took place the safety in the schools would be challenged…. and no one in authority wants to be held accountable if an incident should occur. And there’s another battle that would loom if the district decided to remove metal detectors:

The recommendations have faced stiff opposition from the union which represents the New York City school district’s over 5,000 safety agents, who are technically part of the NYPD.

“‘Security with dignity,’” said Greg Floyd, the head of Teamsters Local 237. “I don’t know how you have the two in the same sentence.”

Floyd said the metal detectors are working as an effective deterrent and warned that the task force should be wary about cheering their removal. “In this case, they better very well hope they work, because if they don’t, then they all have problems,” he said.

Reyes mentioned the $20,000,000 price tag for the original installation of the metal detectors but failed to mention the cost of 5000 safety agents. Assuming the 5,000 agents work 7 hour days at $12/hour and get no benefits, that’s $75,600,000 per year!

So the $20,000,000 for the equipment is the tip of a huge iceberg… and therein is the cautionary tale for the countless schools acquiring technology to ensure safety. One publication I receive, K-12 Tech Decisions, has an entire section of their home web page devoted to “safety and security” selling products to ensure access control, visitor management, panic buttons, and mass notifications. Each piece of technology requires some level of personnel to go along with it if the purpose is to prevent violent incidents… and the personnel costs will invariably exceed the installation costs.

So… before a district decides to spend thousands on hardware or on security personnel they might re-read William Jusino’s thoughts on metal detectors and bear in mid the most important way to prevent violence in school is based on ‘…What do you do. What programs do you do. What’s the trust and values you have in your school”


The Case for Broadband for ALL – Part 3 The Federal Role

January 11, 2016 Leave a comment

Over the past two days I’ve outlined the case for providing broadband for ALL children in the country, particularly those born into poverty. In both of the articles the writers made the case that internet access was vital to the learning opportunities for students and the job opportunities for parents and the community at large. And both of the articles described how government funding was essential to providing the infrastructure to deliver that service.

Last week Education Week writers Benjamin Herold and Leo Doran wrote an article providing an overview of the Fifth National Technology Education Plan, which Joseph South, the deputy director of the department’s office of educational technology, described as “…a vision for the country of what ed tech could be in our classrooms if it’s implemented in the way we think is best“.

The elements of the plan are far reaching but, as Herold and Doran note, will require “tough choices”. In a sidebar to the article, Herold summarizes the five prongs to the plan:


Technology can support “engaging and empowering learning experiences in both formal and informal settings,” the NETP says. Especially important are “personalized” learning opportunities optimized to meet the needs and preferences of each child; choice for students over what, when, and how they learn; and a focus on “non-cognitive competencies,” such as persistence. Games, simulations, and 3-D imaging software are emerging technologies to watch, the plan contends, and schools should focus on using technology to provide “active” learning experiences such as computer programming and media creation.


“Effective use of technology is not an optional add-on or a skill that we simply can expect teachers to pick up once they get into the classroom,” so teacher preparation and professional development around effective technology use must improve, the NETP argues. Federal officials hope to support teachers in collaborating via online communities and in taking leadership roles in their own schools around the effective use of ed tech. One key recommendation: developing a “teaching force skilled in online and blended instruction.”


Responsibility for articulating and implementing a strong vision for using technology in schools cannot be delegated, the NETP says. Through its Future Ready initiative, the U.S. Education Department is supporting superintendents in collaborating with each other and key local stakeholders, providing the resources and guidance needed to implement personalized learning models, and ensuring school access to adequate technology infrastructure.


The NETP calls for the use of technology to “imagine and redefine assessment in a variety of ways,” including more unobtrusive measurement of students as they learn; greater focus on assessing complex skill sets, such as problem-solving ability; more real-time feedback for educators and students alike; and better dashboards to visualize assessment results and other data in more user-friendly ways.


“Reliable connectivity, like water and electricity, is foundational to creating an effective learning environment,” the NETP says. Reform of the federal E-rate program should help in school; now department officials hope to see similar efforts to improve access at home. One area that some ed-tech experts would have liked to see addressed in greater depth: interoperability issues, so that information from the various software programs used by districts can be merged more easily.

These do not appear to be “tough choices” to make: they read like the essential needs for school districts across the country. But because the Federal government’s mechanism for funding these initiatives is ESSA, school districts will be forced to choose between technology and other desperately needed programs. Some legislative history:

As recently as this past summer, ed-tech advocates hoped that a new federal education law would include an amendment known as I-TECH, which would have meant dedicated funding for schools to address the issue of teacher education around technology use.

Although the U.S. Senate approved the amendment, it did not make it into the Every Student Succeeds Act ultimately signed by President Barack Obama. Instead of dedicated technology funding, states and districts will receive block grants that may be spent on a broad array of needs, ranging from arts programs to Advanced Placement classes to suicide-prevention efforts.

Federal legislators love block grants because they can claim they have provided sufficient money for technology, arts, AP courses, suicide prevention, and so forth knowing full well that the money they have provided can only be spent once and, thus, can only serve one purpose well in the end.

Herold and Doran note that ESSA’s funding mechanism— funneling money through States— will not close the digital divide:

One concern is that the gap between technologically savvy states and districts and the rest of the country could grow even more pronounced. Those (States) who have articulated a strong vision for how digital tools and content should be used have developed the capacity to turn those plans into reality, and should be able to find ways to further incorporate the tenets of the new National Education Technology Plan. Others, however, might struggle.

Until the Federal government addresses the infrastructure issue the states won’t be the one’s struggling the hardest: it will be those in poverty who will struggle even more to break the vicious cycle of poverty.

The Case for Broadband for ALL – Part 2 Urban Schools

January 10, 2016 Leave a comment

Friday’s Nation on line featured an article by Maya Wiley describing how New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has taken steps in the past two years to bridge the digital divide. The problem in NYC is not access to the broadband lines themselves but poverty. Wiley eloquently describe the importance of broadband for urban children and the obstacles the mayor faced to bring it to all residents:

Few would debate that the information superhighway is both an on-ramp and HOV lane for the global economy. Whether a resident needs to get online to access homework or supplemental educational tools, to search for a job or start a business, broadband is a necessity. Most may not realize how many can’t afford it. Jillian Maldonado, a South Bronx single mom who was earning $300 a week as an Avon representative is an all-too-familiar victim of the digital divide. After a long day, she would come home, make her young son dinner, and then take him past the check-cashing store, a small grocery, and the occasional drug dealer to get to the library to get him online to do his homework.

A family that doesn’t know how it will make its monthly rent payment may not have $75 a month for in-home broadband, let alone a computer. More than a third of low-income New Yorkers still do not have broadband at home. It’s why this year, for the first time in the history of the city, we added a broadband category to the capital budget and pledged $70 million over the next 10 years towards free or low-cost wireless service for low-income communities. These investments are part of the mayor’s aggressive approach to expanding broadband access.

There is no off-roading to solve income inequality for people of color. They must have broadband. And the solutions for neighborhoods where most residents struggle to make ends meet require accountability and fair play by large telecommunications firms. Mayor de Blasio has been unflinching in his demand that firms like Verizon and those trying to enter the New York market, like Charter and Altice (which has entered into a deal to buy Cablevision that will require City approval), play by the rules, be transparent, and demonstrate that they will contribute to the public interest, not solely their own. Verizon, in particular, which is under contractual obligation with the City to bring high-speed fiber-optic service to all New York households that want it, is key to ensuring more competition.

But the large incumbent firms tend to lack business models that make services available to those who can’t pay for their broadband packages. Bringing costs down substantially requires many more market entrants than we currently have in New York. We can work on that.

There are two common threads to the problem of providing internet access to rural and urban areas. First, as Wiley charitably noted, “…large incumbent firms tend to lack business models that make services available to those who can’t pay for their broadband packages”… which is to say there is no profit involved in providing internet services to poor people unless it is through the collection of interest on unpaid bills, a practice that effectively penalizes poor people for their poverty. Secondly, some level of government funding is necessary. Later in her article Wiley describes how community organizations can band together to provide the “last mile” of the broadband highway, but as she notes the local government will be budgeting $700,000,000 of capital costs to provide broadband for all.

Ms. Wiley doesn’t say so explicitly, but her article does make it clear that the provision of broadband is not just an economic issue… it is a social justice issue. We cannot expect children born into neighborhoods and communities without internet access to compete with children who use technology from the time their parents believe it is acceptable.

The Case for Broadband for ALL – Part I: Rural Schools

January 9, 2016 Leave a comment

I’ve written several earlier posts on the requirement that broadband be available to ALL if we ever ope to use technology effectively in education, and three articles in the past week underscore the urgency to do this and directly or indirectly underscore the fact that only the government can make this happen.

Earlier this week “Salvaging Education in Rural Tennessee” Rachel Martin’s article in the Atlantic described how broadband brought wider horizons and more success to students in Fentress County, a remote rural Tennessee school district. Focussed on the efforts of Phil Brannon, the Principal at York Institute, the one high school in that region, Martin describes how rural poverty impacts students:

As the Southern Education Foundation announced last January, a majority of the schoolchildren attending the nation’s public schools now come from low-income families. The implications, for rural, urban, and suburban children alike, are serious. Students who come to school hungry often find it difficult to focus on learning. Students without computers or Internet access may have trouble with their homework. Students who are homeless or need clothing or lack medical care can develop behavioral problems.

She describes the persistent poverty in Fentress County, which sounds much like the economic conditions communities face in the North Country of NH and the Northeast Kingdom of VT, and asks Mr. Brannon to explain what helped him turn around the school he leads. Here’s his response:

It’s been a bit more of a challenge to integrate technology into York’s classrooms. By next semester, the school should have 300 Chromebooks, a set of servers to replace the 10-year-old ones the school currently uses, and a new wi-fi system that won’t crash from overuse; ultimately, the goal is to equip each student with a computer. Brannon worries that without that daily computer use, his students will fall behind their urban and suburban peers. Plus, technology is economical. According to Brannon’s calculations, the school spends almost $80,000 a year on textbooks, but e-books are a third that cost.

The school is lucky because the local service provider in Fentress County used the Recovery Act to wire the community, so Brannon just needs the hardware. This is one place York has an advantage over some other rural districts. According to a recent study by Education Week’s Benjamin Herold, rural districts pay up to 2.5 times as much as urban schools for internet service, and then it is too slow for teachers to use in their classrooms. This means 21 million students lack access to adequate Internet service.

And while technology isn’t, as Herold told me, “an automatic panacea for rural schools,” experts say access to the Internet can offset rural students’ disadvantages through dual-enrollment classes, adaptive-learning software, distance learning, and access to communities of educators.

So… how did a remote Tennessee district get internet access? The same way that same county likely received electricity: the federal government underwrote the initiative using stimulus funds. Would the children in this remote TN outpost have gotten high speed internet without ARRA funding? Given the high rates charged by the private sector to string fiber to areas where few paying customers live it is unlikely. And the result of not having internet: an entire group of students and teachers would not have access to “…dual-enrollment classes, adaptive-learning software, distance learning, and access to communities of educators”.

Education Technology in ESSA? Dream On!

December 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Last week the Google Public Schools feed led to “Education Technology in the Every Student Succeeds Act” an article written by Doug Mesecar for the American Action Forum, a self-described Center-Right Think tank. In the article Mesecar describes the kind of personalized education that could be delivered given the technology available to teachers today:

Yet we’ve known for decades that personalized learning is a vastly better approach.  A 1984 study led by education psychologist Benjamin Bloom found that students given one-on-one instruction consistently performed two standard deviations better than their peers in a regular classroom. That’s enough to vault an average student to the top of the class.

Until recently, technology advancements that may have seemed far-fetched a decade earlier have made this personalized approach possible….

Powerful, adaptive edtech means that all students can have — as part of their instructional team — a digital instructor to help them learn what they need to know, when they need to know it, at their own pace and place.

There is no excuse for doing things the old way, and federal legislation is trying to ensure the old way goes away.  ESSA strongly encourages personalizing education, including through blended learning, as well as attempting to ensure more equitable access to technology and digital learning experiences. It also highlights blended learning as a practice that can help struggling students.

Mesecar then proceeds to make a case that ESSA somehow provides the means for States to use Federal funding to launch a program that will personalize education in the way he describes in these paragraphs, an argument that overlooks two major mitigating factors: the funding provided is paltry and the testing regimen that is continued in ESSA contradicts personalization.

In the opening paragraphs Mesecar throws around funding figures that sound robust. He writes that “Up to 60 percent of the grant funds — almost $900 million — can be used for innovative edtech strategies (importantly, though, no more than 15 percent can go toward technology infrastructure).  This is approximately 4 percent of the overall authorized funding in the bill.” It is the phrase in parenthesis that is crucial: if only 15% can be used for infrastructure that means that only $135,000,000 will be available to connect 23% of the schools that lack any internet services and the countless schools that lack wi-fi within the schools. How will students have “…a digital instructor to help them learn what they need to know, when they need to know it, at their own pace and place” if their school lacks an internet connection or wi-fi? And how will ESSA “…ensure more equitable access to technology and digital learning experiences” if it provides less than $3 per pupil per year for technology infrastructure?

Mesecar’s biggest oversight, however, is the impact ESSA’s testing will have on the notion of providing each student with “…a digital instructor to help them learn what they need to know, when they need to know it, at their own pace and place.” Standardized testing measures students progress against a predetermined “pace and place” and penalizes any student who fails to be at the right place at the right time.

I share Mesecar’s desire to use technology to increase personalization… but do not share his belief that ESSA will move us any closer to that vision. Until some legislator or Governor champions the vision Mesecar describes and provides the funding and accountability model needed to implement that vision I do not foresee any way to get out of the test-and-punish rut that NCLB created over a decade ago. Until someone takes the leadership on this the change will have to happen from the bottom up… through parents who decide that schools are incapable of providing the kind of learning opportunities their children need and go it alone.