I suppose that school IT departments are a necessary evil, but that does not change the fact that 999 out of 1,000 of them are just evil.

Too many school leaders are so terrified of anything that plugs in that they surrender unprecedented budgetary authority and power to folks unworthy of such responsibility. Rather than provide support for the professional educators and children one would think they are there to serve, far too many school IT personnel add unnecessary complication and obstacles to the mission of a school. In way too many schools, teachers report to IT staff who put in place cumbersome policies that conflict with educational priorities and make computers too unreliable to have a significant impact on teaching or learning.

In 1990, I led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools. Over the next several years, I helped countless schools “go 1:1.” Until around 1995-96, most schools with 1,000 laptops employed one nice lady you went to when your computer broke. She patted you on the head, wiped your tears and called the vendor to repair the machine. In the mid-90s, everything changed. The World Wide Web decentralized computing by tying computers back together via networks, schools spent a king’s ransom worrying about nonsense like backing up kids’ data, securing the 7th grade computer lab against the Soviets, and installing draconian filtering systems that with each passing year made the Web less reliable or useful to students. Administrative ignorance of computers now had a new friend, paralyzing fear of what kids might find online. Now schools suddenly required an army of IT gatekeepers who if incompetent enough could convince their schools to hire all of their friends.

In the K-6 school where I work regularly, we managed approximately 60 laptops last year with no security, networked storage or IT personnel. I wrote the number of each laptop on its underside with a Sharpie and kids knew that if they wanted to continue working on yesterday’s file, they should go back to the same laptop they were using. Everything worked just swell. There were no maintenance issues and computers behaved as one would expect, not the figment of a computer kids have come to expect after the IT Department is done “fixing them.” Schools routinely buy a $1,000 computer and quickly turn it into a $200 “device.”  I know we constantly have to defend computers for students, but does anyone EVER question the ROI for school IT personnel?

The scenario I just described often leads me to wonder if schools really possess the maturity to have computers. We’re not preparing kids for the future if the computers they’re forced to use don’t function normally or if we confiscate a kid’s machine after they make it operational (see LAUSD iPad clown show). It’s no wonder we can’t have nice things.

Today, I saw the promised land.

I’m in Mumbai working at the American School of Bombay for a week. This is my third trip here since 2004 when I was hired by the school board to perform an audit of their computer use. This morning, I taught 60 tenth graders for three hours. We began by having all of the students spend an hour or so programming in Turtle Art and then set up three areas where kids could choose to work on MaKey MaKey projects, Arduino engineering, or wearable computing/soft-circuits.

Great stuff happened, not just because I’m a badass who can teach 60 kids I’ve never met before to program, build robots and make wearable computers, but because the school’s IT Department was there to help! Let me say that again real slowly… “The ———— IT ———- Department ——— Was —— There —— To —— Help!” Mull that over a few times.

When I arrived, the materials I requested were waiting for me. When kids hadn’t bothered to download and install the software last night, the team helped me get software onto individual laptops. When we needed Arduino manuals, the team downloaded and printed ten copies. When we were missing an item, it arrived minutes later without an interruption in the instructional program. When kids needed help, the team pitched-in and they did so with a smile on their face and pride in a job well done. They love what the kids are able to do with the materials they support. (I should also mention the terrific science and math teachers who demonstrated genuine interest and delight in the work of their students.)

The leader of the IT Team received a second-hand note from me saying that I needed some sort of bucket-shaped item for use in one of the MaKey MaKey projects I hoped to interest kids in. He went to KFC last evening and scored a half-dozen chicken buckets for our use – EXACTLY what I needed, but didn’t know where to source in India.

I see kids go to the Help Desk and (wait for it) receive help. Yup. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Every kid who has approached the Help Desk has left happy. Every time I go to the Apple Store “Genius” Bar, I want to take hostages.

The school IT Team here at ASB is fantastic, but there is obviously a culture in place that expects and supports such greatness. There must be great clarity in their customer service mission. I am honored to work with them.

PS: The network works perfectly and as a guest I have complete access to Facebook and Twitter – booyah!

* ASB is a BYOD school, but the device is a laptop of a minimum standard. This adds complexity to keeping every user up and running, but again, no problem at all.

Rufus T. Firefly
President: Huxley College

I often explain to graduate students that I don’t play devil’s advocate or any other clever games. Just because I may say something unsaid by others, does not mean that I don’t come to that perspective after careful thought and introspection.

Being an educator is a sacred obligation. Those of us who know better, need to do better and stand between the defenseless children we serve and the madness around us. If a destructive idea needs to be challenged or a right defended, I’ll speak up.

My career allows me to spend time in lots of classrooms around the world and to work with thousands of educators each year. This gives me perspective. I am able to identify patterns, good and bad, often before colleagues become aware of the phenomena. I have been blessed with a some communication skills and avenues for expression. I’ve published hundreds of articles and spoken at even more conferences.

People seem interested in what I have to say and for that I am extremely grateful.

The problem is that I am increasingly called upon to argue against a popular trend. That tends to make me unpopular. In the field of education, where teachers are “nice,” criticism is barely tolerated. Dissent is seen as defect and despite all of my positive contributions to the field, I run the risk of being dismissed as “that negative guy.”

Recently, I have written or been quoted on the following topics:

I’ve also written against homework, NCLB, RTTT, Michelle Rhee, Eli Broad, Joel Klein, standardized testing, Education Nation, Common Core Curriculum Standards, Accelerated Reader, merit pay, Arne Duncan, union-busting, Cory Booker, Teach for America, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, mayoral control, the ISTE NETs, Hooked-on-Phonics, President Obama’s education policies, etc… You get the idea.

The “Jetbow” sandwich at NY’s Carnegie Deli

These are perilous times for educators. When once bad education policy was an amuse-bouche you could easily ignore, it has become a Carnegie Deli-sized shit sandwich. Educators are literally left to pick their own poison, when choice is permitted at all. If I take a stand against a fad or misguided education policy, my intent is to inform and inspire others to think differently or take action.

So why, pray tell am I boring my dear readers with my personal angst? An old friend and colleague just invited me to write a magazine article about the “Flipped Classroom.” Sure, I think the flipped classroom is a preposterous unsustainable trend, masquerading as education reform, in which kids are forced to work a second unpaid shift because adults refuse to edit a morbidly obese curriculum. But….

The question is, “Do I wish to gore yet another sacred cow?” Is speaking truth to power worth the collateral damage done to my career?

In the 1960s, the great Neil Postman urged educators to hone highly-tuned BS and crap detectors. Those detectors need to be set on overdrive today. I’m concerned that I’m the only one being burned.

What to do? What to do?

I don’t know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
No matter what it is
Or who commenced it
I’m against it!

Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
And even when you’ve changed it
Or condensed it
I’m against it!

Whatever It Is, I'm Against It
by Harry Ruby & Bert Kalmar 
From the Marx Bros. film "Horse Feathers" (1932)

 

I participated in one of the ISTE “Learning & Leading Debates” where you don’t know your opponent or their argument, about “Bring Your Own Device.” I reiterated my opposition to BYOD as policy.

Here is the text:

Gary S. Stager: No

In 1990, I began helping schools across the globe realize the transformational learning
potential of a laptop for every child. From the start, there was a recognition of the inevitability that every student would own a personal mobile computer in the near future, whether school provided it or not.

However, BYOD is bad policy that constrains student creativity, limits learning opportunities, and
leads to less support for public education in the future. It’s a reckless idea for the following reasons:BYOD enshrines inequity. The only way to guarantee equitable educational experiences is for each student to have access to the same materials and learning opportunities. BYOD leaves this to chance, allowing more affluent students to continue having an unfair advantage over their classmates. This is particularly problematic in a society with growing economic disparity.

BYOD creates false equivalencies between any objects that happen to use electricity. Repeat after me! Cell phones are not computers! They may both contain microprocessors and batteries, but as of today, their functionality is quite different.

We should not make important educational decisions based on price. A mentor told me that basing important educational decisions on price is immoral, ineffective, and imprudent. Doing the right thing is a matter of priorities and leadership, not price point.

BYOD narrows the learning process to information access and chat. Information access, note taking, and communication represent the tiniest fraction of what it means to learn. Looking up the answers to someone else’s questions online to type an essay or make a PowerPoint reinforces the status quo while failing to unlock the opportunities that computational thinking provides.

BYOD increases teacher anxiety. Schools have largely failed to inspire teachers to use computers in even pedestrian ways after three decades of trying. A cornucopia of devices in the classroom will only amplify their anxiety and reduce use.

BYOD diminishes the otherwise enormous potential of educational computing to the weakest device in the room. The computer is an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that makes it possible for children to learn and do things in ways unthinkable just a few years ago. We impair such empowerment when we limit educational practice to the functionality of the least powerful device.

BYOD contributes to the growing narrative that education is not worthy of investment. We reap what we sow. If we placate those who slash budgets by making unreasonable compromises at the expense of children, we will find ever fewer resources down the road. We must not view education as some “every man for himself” enterprise that relies on children to find loose change behind the sofa cushions. Democracy and a high-quality educational system require adequate funding.

Check out the new Macbook Pro, iPhone, iPad, and high-def video camera carried by the tech coordinator who decided that students should be happy with whatever hand-me-down devices he can scrounge up. The message here is: “Let them eat cell phones!”

It takes chutzpah to ask a school to buy something for every student. You better make sure you ask for the right device. Kids need a computer capable of doing anything you imagine they should be able to do, with plenty of room for growth and childlike ingenuity.

—Gary S. Stager, PhD, is the director of the Constructing Modern Knowledge Institute
(http://constructingmodernknowledge.com).

If you wish to read the argument for BYOD, click here.

Please share widely.

While in While in Italy last week, I received email from Eugene Paik, a reporter for The Star Ledger newspaper. He read my blog post, BYOD – Worst Idea of the 21st Century?, and was seeking expertise for an article on a New Jersey school district enacting a Bring-Your-Own-Device/Technology policy. I dropped everything and responded to his questions immediately via email since I was overseas. Besides, you can’t be misquoted when you respond in writing, right?

Paik’s article, Bernards Twp. district encouraging use of mobile devices, ran in the December 4th issue of The Star Ledger. That article completely misrepresents and distorts my answers to his questions. I cannot claim to be misquoted since the attributions to me are not printed as quotes. Sneaky, eh?

The following is how Mr. Paik reports my views on the matter of BYOD in Bernards Township, NJ.

Gary Stager, an international school-reform consultant and advocate for laptops in classrooms, said there are other issues as well. Not only are there challenges in training faculty on different devices and phone applications, but many school districts also mistakenly assume all electronic devices are alike.

A focus on mobile devices could prevent students from becoming familiar with software and hardware that require an actual computer, Stager said.

Here are my major issues with the reporting of my views.

  1. I NEVER EVER use the word training. It is antithetical to learning. Anyone familiar with my work knows this to be the case. You do not train professional educators! Training is what you do when you’re trying to get your chihuahua to piss on The Star Ledger.
  2. While I understand the space constraints required by writing for publication, the author decided not to raise my major objection to BYOD policies – inequity.
  3. I never said anything about students becoming familiar with hardware and software. My advocacy of computers in education is based on depth, breadth and fluency.

I truly wish that educators and reporters would pay greater attention to nuance and stop tossing around terms like “training.”

 


Here are Mr. Paik’s interview questions sent to me and answered on November 27th. My quite precise answers are indented.

Gary,

Just a little bit of background about the policy. The district, in
Bernards Township in New Jersey, is mulling the proposal for its high
school and middle school students. They would use their smart phones,
tablets and laptops for instruction, and those who don’t have those
devices would be asked to share with students who do.

Here are my questions:

1.) The most common concern I hear about is that students would use
their cell phones to goof around (chat, use Facebook) under the guise of
information gathering. Obviously, the issue goes far deeper than that,
but I’m wondering if you agree that this would be an issue. Or are
critics incorrectly calling this the biggest problem when there are many
other issues to be concerned about?

I have worked in schools where every student has a personal laptop computer since 1990. Most recently, I launched 1:1 in a new Korean international school where every student down to first grade has a personal MacBook computer. Theft, breakage, loss have not been a problem anywhere in the world from Harlem to Sydney.

As for goofing around, there is a good deal of anecdotal and scientific evidence that children with computers are not only more social, but their social interactions tend to be work related.

If kids are goofing around or aimlessly surfing the Web, this is a function of an unimaginative curriculum or lackluster teaching.

I view the computer as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that amplifies human potential. When the goal is not to use the computer to teach what we have always hoped kids would learn, perhaps with greater efficacy or efficiency, but to learn and do things that were impossible without the presence of computing, the work takes on a sense of life and urgency much deeper than Facebook.

It seems odd to me that an affluent district with a long tradition of educational computing, like Bernards Township, would adopt such a policy. Bernards’ students are much more likely to own real portable computers than kids in other districts where the BYOD policy seems to be “Let them eat cellphones!” Even if every kid can afford the quality of personal computer I advocate for learning, BYOD is still terrible public policy.

2.) One of the issues arising out of this is the divide between the
“haves” and the “have-nots.” It would appear that this would set an
uneven playing field for certain students. Could you explain a little
more about the significance of this? Would sharing devices be enough to
solve this problem?

First of all, if schools did not create moronic knee-jerk policies banning things kids own, they wouldn’t need to enact new policies to allow them back on campus. While there might be educational potential in cell-phone use, the real reason not to ban them is that we should not be arbitrarily mean to children. Schools need to do everything possible to lower the level of antagonism between adults and kids. Any idea, passion, question, expertise or gadget a kid brings to school should be viewed as a potential gift. It is incumbent upon teachers and administrators to build upon such gifts. That does not mean that BYOD is sound policy.

One problem with BYOD is that it enshrines inequity while pretending to be democratic. Some students will have much more power and capability when educational policy is left to the accident of family wealth. Not every object requiring electricity is equivalent. Since the computer is today’s primary instrument for intellectual and creative work, every child needs as much power as possible. The cost of providing every American youngster a multimedia laptop computer has never been more than a few percentage points of the annual per pupil spending and that price would fall dramatically if we committed to every child having a portable personal computer as Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon proposed in 1971.

3.) You mentioned the issue of teacher anxiety, and I’ve heard stories
in New Jersey about some teachers who aren’t familiar with smart phones
at all. In your opinion, do those kinds of teachers represent most
educators? Even if they form a minority, how big of a problem would that
be?

Teachers, for a variety of reasons, are among the least comfortable users of computational technology in society. Asking them to teach in an environment when kids have random “devices” only exacerbates the problem and raises their anxiety. This is a bad idea for two reasons. 1) Not all devices are created equally. So, educational activities need to be predicated upon the weakest device in the room. 2) There is a tendency to think of technology in education as “looking stuff up online.” This is the low-hanging fruit and represents the most trivial potential of the computer.

4.) Considering the shrinking budgets many school districts are seeing,
why shouldn’t this policy be considered a good compromise between
educational quality and cost? I’ve heard some say that school-issued
laptops for students typically are not well maintained or cared for.
Wouldn’t students take better care of the equipment knowing it was their
own?

Kids do take better care of their computer, even if it is on loan from the school. However, it is terrible policy to leave 21st Century learning up to the financial liquidity of children. Educators will suffer more dire financial conditions when they endorse the idea that the public need not finance high-quality public educational opportunities for all of its young citizens.

5.) I thought your argument about BYOT policies narrowing the learning
process was intriguing. What are the skills that students would not
develop under this policy?

Science, technology, engineering, mathematics, computer modeling, programming, computer science, music composition, film-making, personal fabrication are but a few of the learning opportunities rendered impossible or very difficult on a cell phone or tablet device – at least for the next couple of years.

Thanks so much for the quick turnaround. I appreciate it.

Eugene


Feel free to contact Mr. Paik and express your concern about this reporting.

Read my original post, igniting this controversy.

In a perfect world, members of the edtech community would know better and stop equating cellphones with computing.