Friday, October 12, 2012

the forbidden ipad

Recently, I inquired of our school board office staff about the status of support for iPads, Android devices, Nexus tablets and so on. I was curious to know if the school board office had reached a purchasing decision on peripheral and mobile technology other than netbooks and Windows tablet-style computers. This question has been asked in a variety of ways by teachers and administrators, but the decision appears to have been in limbo for two years. The perception is that purchase of iPad-like devices by schools and PACs have been forbidden by the school board office, although no one can actually confirm this, just a long list of denied project proposals without explanation. The question has been put to school administration and tech committees, district senior administration, tech support, purchasing department, and trustees. Each person has referred the question on to the next, like a big circle, with no definitive response. Yes, no, only if, etc. are all acceptable responses (with differing consequences), but educators looking for support in their use of mobile technology need to know one way or another.

Currently, my principal, other teachers and I are looking at what role mobile technology might generally play in our Library or Learning Commons, and a proposed blended learning project in particular. We'd like to know what our options are before making too many plans. In our district, the school's learning resources and technology requests are often subject to district purchasing restrictions. For example, the school board office has a purchase agreement for Dell computers and laptops, and a requirement to install these with a Windows OS. They have no such restriction on mobile devices, have never sought a policy or discussion on these, and thus a variety of tech projects and pilots have been stalled. It is truly remarkable that we are having a "Learning Commons" conversation at our school between the principal, teacher-librarian, teachers, and students. The climate for this kind of conversation has been toxic for a few years, so I am very encouraged that is is happening at all. It was triggered by a discussion about how technology can serve the vision, and this collaboration will fizzle if the board office won't commit to their end of the conversation.

Why is this even a question? Around 2010-11 at least eight schools looked into getting small groups of tablets for pilot learning projects (4 highs schools, 4 elementary schools; 5 of the requests came from teachers, 2 from a principal, and 1 from a VP). For example, at my school we requested five iPads for use by Social Studies and SLR (special education) students. All of these requests were made with the intention of working compatably within the single-platform Windows PC environment, and some were cost-savings proposals as alternatives to lab replacements. Each of them represented the true commodity in educational technology, not the tool or device, but the educator with passion and a plan for exploring new ways to engage learners. At the time, there was some doubt as to whether the school district would support one kind of tablet or another, ban all tablet purchases, or "wait and see." We were all left guessing it was the latter, as all of the proposals were turned down with little or no explanation, not even anyone willing to say where the decision came from. I wonder if the storm of the "district sustainability" cutbacks in 2010 left some gaps in policy and technology leadership that are only now becoming clear. Perhaps now that the dust has settled we are ready to continue some unfinished conversations.

Like many teachers, I have projects and practices in mind that include the use of tablets, even sources of funding available (school or external, like PAC), but am not eager to make deep plans if tablet purchase is unexpectedly blocked. For example, a current course proposal that involves a new use of our Learning Commons would see our school purchase a small group of tablets for student use. If these tablets are simple e-readers, the planned activities need to be scaled down if not eliminated. If the tablets are full-function Android devices, iPads, etc., then the activities will look different, more creative and integrated for example, and will begin rather than end with reading. If the school district wants to support this kind of learning empowered by technology, it needs to demonstrate the "can-do" attitude by removing barriers to innovation. If the school district does not want to approve school purchases related to pilots with mobile technology, please just say so -- it frees us up to develop independent plans that do not require support, or we can go "old school" and skip the tech. Yes or no -- both have logical arguments in their favour, but we do need some kind of response in order to plan with certainty.

The uses of pads and tablets in education are overwhelming, and well documented & promoted in other BC schools and districts. When (former) education minister Abbott spoke of "learning empowered by technology," he turned to examples of iPad pilots in districts that have a deliberate strategy for the use of mobile technology. While many debate whether pads or tablets should be used 1-1, in small groups, dedicated to classes, or available for sign-out, etc., I have never encountered a jurisdiction (outside our own) with an actual purchase ban. This strikes me as a significant irony given the local and provincial push for 21st century learning. Here are a few examples of the educational uses of iPads and similar tablets:
With our district's reticence to engage in this dialogue, our organization has fallen behind on many innovative technology practices (as individual classes and schools the picture is somewhat different). Our district has certainly not discouraged students and teachers from using mobile technology, but it has not provided any support for us to do so other than offering limited public wireless at most sites. We need a blended tech approach where the school district provides core learning resources and technology (as it has always done) which can then be complimented by what students and free technology are able to provide. Our schools have, in fact, been encouraging more use of "BYOD" (bring your own device) but this has a few unresolved problems:
  • many students can't afford a tablet such as an ipad or nexus
  • the student public wireless networks have many restrictions (e.g. no printing, blocked apps), slow speeds, and no full-functioning network is available to teachers
  • planned activities are limited by what devices (and apps) students come with on a given day -- restricts ability to plan for the devices to be used in a lesson
  • the district has lost (e.g. TLITE) or closed off avenues for technology capacity-building (e.g. district tech coordinator teacher or administrator)
  • teachers need access to a few devices for "sandbox" experimentation, teaching & students activities, and modeling appropriate use for students
  • mobile devices are seen as cheaper alternative to full computer lab purchase but this goal cannot be realized without some level of device purchase by schools
If teachers and students do not have regular, dependable access to a pod of tablets, this lauded technology will simply not materialize beyond random and spontaneous use. It's like describing how to play chess but not being able to play because the students only bring half the pieces, and the teacher isn't allowed to purchase a chessboard. The result is that teachers spend less time thinking about how to include mobile technology in their plans for student learning. As Chris Kennedy (superintendent SD45) puts it: "simply encouraging students to bring their own devices is not enough, or an effective strategy. The strategy must be purposeful, supported and unified for both teachers and students. Failure to do this will leave us with pockets of innovation, and without a sustainable model." retrieved from Culture of Yes Oct 11/2012.

Normally, decisions about peripheral devices for which the district does not have a purchase agreement would be left up to schools (e.g. principals or tech committees) to decide. Other than costs, which school principals can weigh against other priorities or mitigate by choosing tablets over desktop computers, the decision can be made with impunity. What we stand to gain is support for passionate pedagogy, dynamic use of technology for learning, affirmation of decentralized decision-making, and the potential for diverse innovation and exemplars at many sites. If the school board office favours a district-wide decision, we need a list of supported devices from purchasing, including at least one or two high functioning tablets such as the iPad, and preferably accompanied with an effective strategy. It is important to talk with a few teachers first, the ones that will actually be designing the learning empowered by technology.

Why would this question be difficult to answer? The April 27th 2010 board decision on moving to support only single-platform Windows PC computers clouded the topic somewhat, as tablets (like the iPad) were made by non-Windows vendors and tend to be lumped together with computers. It was not the stated intention of the board or board office at the time to ban all peripherals by non-Windows vendors; the decision was directly related to cost savings for computer support -- e.g. Macs were purported to be more expensive to purchase and maintain. Touch-tablets, pads, and e-readers are not much different than document cameras, smartboards, digital projectors, or the current generation of photocopiers. They have chips, internet connections, software, work with a Windows PC, etc. but these "computers" are locked down as far as potential to infect networks or get hacked by students. They do not require the same kind of tech support or security protocols as computers. They do not require purchased OS or software suite upgrades, do not require a repair dep't to keep a parts inventory, and do not require technologist-designed "image" updates. In other words, figuring out what to do about ipads or android devices might be a money decision, but it is a separate decision from the one that involved platform support. Our board office has been playing sophisticated shell games around this issue and it only adds to the layers of frustration faced by principals and teachers. The most familiar version of the game is to use the 2010 single-platform decision to apply to new areas that weren't even up for debate at the time.

Further clouding the issue is that the school district has no tech plan, hasn't since 2005, even though one was committed to by the committee chair, superintendent, and tech support coordinator at the April 2010 board Management & Finance meeting ("we don't make important decisions without a plan, a plan will be forthcoming"), and again at the April 28th 2010 board meeting, both of which I attended.  The final wording called for a plan that "provides a means to continue to enhance the ability of district schools to adapt technology for improving student learning" It was supposed to be "adopt" not "adapt," which has a slightly different connotation, but that got lost in the motion revisions. I know this because I suggested the motion wording to begin with, and did so in anticipation of time (like now?) when the school board office would back away from educational technology leadership while still controlling financial decisions related to technology. I guess that particular chess move was a pyrrhic victory, amusing no one but myself. Two and a half years later there is still no plan, and it is unsure even by principals as to who decides on whether tablets can be purchased, just as it is not clear who to talk to about technology issues. This situation appears to by unique in our province. Every other contact I talked or tweeted to (perhaps a quarter of the 60 districts in BC) had no such restrictions on mobile devices or lacked a basic tech plan. Most have active plans for innovation led by either a principal or head teacher. Similarly, I have not heard of administrators (though perhaps teachers) in any other district trying to support learning with a costed, justified technology pilot get turned down because they picked the wrong vendor. When this happens often enough, eventually the technology leaders stop asking, or stop leading.

This confusion indicates that the technology vision has been obscured in our district at the exact time at which we should be continuing the momentum and leveraging the capacity built up from the late 1990s until the mid 2000s. The district tech team, tech for learning leadership group, tech coaches program, district tech coordinator position, QLG consortium, tech standards working group, key tech contacts positions and assemblies, tech fairs, and the ongoing workshop offerings by and for dozens of teachers have all disappeared, not to mention an actual tech plan. For a variety of reasons these fell off the rails (blogged about this before), and now the most innovative thing we can look at the district level is promotion of smartboards, clickers, Moodle, and cumbersome videoconferencing -- 8-12 year old technology that most jurisdictions have already left behind or include as just a small part of a strategy to support innovative teaching & learning.

I think we reached a crossroads 5-7 years ago, perhaps more recently, when leaders in the district realized we faced exponential growth in the demand for new technologies and improved infrastructure, growing lists of hardware and software wish-lists, rapidly developing skill-sets, new paradigms for the role of technology, and yet many teachers, principals, and students who had yet to cross the digital divide. I imagine the conversation came down to one of sustainability, and the path taken was to hit the kill switch on the most expensive aspects of technology support in the district -- the various teams (lots of release time, district equipment), dual platform (tech support time, allows bulk purchase of low-end units), and leadership (salaried position, secondments, release time, etc.). Unfortunately, while no doubt saving some money, taking this fork in the road has also sent a chill through innovative practice, allowed some serious stagnation in regards to uptake of basic skill-sets by staff and students, and reduced planning, coordination, and communication at the school and district level. Additionally, whatever decisions took place at this cross-roads were not well communicated to teachers and to some extent principals and trustees.

The "simplicity" notion behind single-platform support (reduce system complexity, ability to deploy new uses of ed tech and training across a homogenous group of units and users) might have some currency if the means of "deployment" wasn't gutted at the same time (e.g. no one left to champion the ed tech at the district level). Needless to say many teachers are confused or have had their passions deflated in the last few years and have given up looking for district support to pursue profound goals related to educational technology. In some ways this is a natural evolution in a rapidly changing milieu for technology. The joys of teaching and learning continue with or without a centralized vision (and with or without technology), the outllook is more global and teachers have become more self-sufficient, seeking interdependence with fewer strings attached -- a functioning anarchy of sorts. But is important to note what we lost in this process, such as the capacity for educators to learn together in a way that impact school district culture (something we had from the late 1990s until about about 7 years ago).  We also appear to have lost the ability to consult on decisions as basic as how to respond to a principal or teacher's request for support on a technology project.

Mobile devices are an important "wedge innovation" or "disruptive technology," as they spin off into so many other interesting practices -- anywhere/anytime learning, online course design and access, video podcasting, new research techniques, paperless class communication, smartboard/internet in one's hand, instant rich media consumption and construction, diverse ways of sharing and connecting... the list is long. If teachers are to embrace "21st Century Learning" we need to enable use of wedge devices accompanied with some coordinated teacher education. Today the question is about pads, but next year it may be about a new technology gadget. The tool is not the issue, it is the culture of support that exists around technology. My present inquiry is as much a litmus test of this culture as it is about the tool -- I can use something else to achieve similar results, our Learning Commons will survive without mobile technology, and students will be just fine without access to gadgets. The important lesson is that a formal dialogue and process for both engaging teacher passion and deciding on what technologies will be supported is necessary to progress from the status quo, our current state of withdrawal by technology leaders in the school district. We can learn how to do this from other school districts in BC -- they reached the same crossroads we were at 5-7 years ago and decided to press through the challenges by supporting constant dialogue, innovation (in both practice and purchase priorities), and celebration of quality teaching and student learning empowered by technology.

A positive note is that students and teachers continue to use a vast array of technology for learning, including "wedge devices," but it is largely self-taught, self-directed, self-promoted, and often self-funded. In short, we've had to go underground. This trend, at odds with the concept of fully-funded public education, nonetheless shows self-sufficiency and ingenuity. Another positive note is that free yet effective technology has filled many of the gaps -- social media, screencasting, cloud services, streaming video, browser-based apps, skype, etc. By extension, sustainability with technology does not have to be as much about money as it does about learning attitude, professional development, and student achievement goals. And of course, we've found that high-tech doesn't always do a better job for teaching and learning. The "digital natives" are not impressed simply because it is digital; there are many other factors that drive successful pedagogy and many time-tested techniques that teachers rediscover every year. Finally it is a positive sliver lining that, despite what has happened in the last few years, the paradigms change quickly enough that it is almost always possible to simply make a new start and evaluate the next course of action based on current and/or expected needs. The opportunity to embrace a progressive and learning-focused stance on mobile devices stands before us. That's the small opportunity; the bigger goal should be to model a functional, inclusive, communicative, and informed district-wide relationship on educational technology.

I have local case studies and a decade of notes to illustrate most of the points made above if anyone would like to debate or discuss what I've written -- please tweet, email, or leave a comment.

1 comment:

TechRotation said...

Great Post. I'm new blogger, thank you so much for this post..................