Another Response to EdTech Concerns

So I wrote a response to a New York Times about the concerns that Silicon Valley was taking over classrooms and to my surprise, more than a handful of people read it and remarked to me about my response. I was glad to share my experience with educational technology in the classroom, dealing with vendors, and managing ethics concerns. I thought it was pretty thorough, and I thought that would be the end of it. Then the Times decided to post some letters to the editor that, to their credit, were all, at least, written by people related to education. The letters selected though all seem to follow a similar narrative. Maybe that’s because they reflect the thoughts of most respondents or maybe it’s because they reflect the thoughts of the editor. I cannot say with any certainty.

One thing I can say, however, is that the letters are all quick to point out Ms. Delzer’s dedication and unquestionable motives but then backhandedly question her ability to discern the motives and interests of the companies she works with. They make some valid points, but they seem to, like the article, leave out important pieces of information in an effort to continue the narrative which seems to be the demonization of tech companies. Don’t get me wrong, big tech is an easy and worthwhile target. I saw The Circle, despite reviews, and thought about deleting my online profiles and going to live in the woods. But maybe we should dig a little deeper.

About Ms. Delzer

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I am not here to defend Google or Amazon or even Ms. Delzer. I’m sure she’s more than capable of that herself. Let’s begin with this. I don’t know the teacher, Kayla Delzer, personally. I’ve seen her TED Talk, and she makes some great points about revitalizing classrooms using the very tools the Times article and the letter writers seem to rail against. And the intro to her class certainly shows how much her students enjoy being there. Yes, I know enjoyment doesn’t illustrate her students learning high-level skills, but what 2-minute YouTube video does show that? Sure, there were definitely moments in reading the original article where I thought, “Hmm, that does seem questionable.” It’s hard for me to get behind the ‘Starbucks classroom’, but that may be more because I am the rare non-coffee-drinking teacher than because of her actual efforts. If it serves to improve the educational and future prospects of her students, then threes cheers for coffee classrooms. Since I already know the article didn’t paint a complete picture in certain regards (read my previous post), it isn’t unreasonable to think that my concerns (perhaps like those of the letter writers) were fed more by the article’s narrative than by Ms. Delzer’s actions.

About the Letters

messy cablesThere are some wonderful points in the letters about the inequitable funding of schools and poor decisions of politicians that have hurt education although the brief letters are short on specifics (unlike the above-linked articles). When they say “religious faith in the role of technology in education,” I don’t know what schools they’re talking about. Maybe there are people who wrongly view educational technology as a panacea, but a lot of districts I’ve seen are way behind the curve still trying to get basic computers and wi-fi. I meet teachers still figuring out how to login to add an attachment, so obviously, any tech would need to also come with training. Do some districts go crazy buying tech without a proper plan to manage it or train teachers? Yes, of course, they have. That’s poor decision-making and planning though and perhaps an even bigger reason teachers need to make partnerships with companies that will train them properly.

Then the letters say “What is clear is that Ms. Delzer is helping to reinforce a status quo that places corporate interests instead of students at the center of education reform.” Is it clear? Ms. Delzer can be described in many ways, but a tool of an educational status-quo is definitely not one of them. Yes, education since the early 1900s has being a tool to create quality factory workers, but Ms. Delzer’s efforts and technology, in general, often drive independence and a break from the status quo To see that in action simply think of the Arab Spring or 3rd world countries being empowered by internet access.

Once again, like the article, the letters mention a “shocking lack of data” on educational technology. That is blatantly misrepresentative. I responded to the accusation in my original post so I won’t spend much time on it here, but YES THERE IS RESEARCH THAT SHOWS IT WORKS. As for what constitutes the it…well, some tools and services are more well-researched than others. Yes, sometimes the research is funded by the company. That may be necessary for an era where funding for science and research comes increasingly under attack and harder to come by. And just because you are unaware of the research that shows the positive impact of quality educational technology doesn’t mean it isn’t available. I’ve had this blog for about a month and I’ve already posted about a great deal of research.

There is a good point in the letters that teachers shouldn’t be celebrated for using “technology in general”.

A terrible teacher with an iPad will still be terrible. A great teacher without one can still be great. But if a teacher can use the tool to move from decent to moderately better, then we should applaud them both their effort and insight to do so.

Finally, we see a letter from a teacher so skilled at grant writing that they wrote a book about it saying ‘grants are the answer to the issue’. Turning to grants for funding IS a great idea. Yes, states and organizations do offer wonderful opportunities, but there are often restrictions. Some of the grants are funded by these very same tech giants and others limit what the spending to a small list of pre-approved items. In New York City we have Reso A funding that you can get through the city council. It can be a lot of money, and I have been great at getting it and a variety of other funding for my school and students. So you can get some whiteboards for your room or some obsolete software, but iPads and Chromebooks don’t make the cut. That means my non-verbal students with autism that use iPads as the best and easiest way to communicate wouldn’t get those if I relied only on these grants and special funding. So head to DonorsChoose to help you out, but it can’t meet all needs. Also, not all schools have a skilled and dedicated grant-writing author or even qualify for some of the funding.

On Behalf of Vendors

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I did say I wasn’t here to defend the behemoths of tech, and I’m not. I will, however, defend some educational technology employees though. It is a little unfair that the very educators and newspapers who are quick to criticize these faceless corporate entities for not understanding or advocating for genuine student needs are also the same people who call the teacher who leaves education to work for a company they believe in a sellout.

Do vendors want to sell their product? Yes. Do they want more people to learn about their product so they can sell more of it? Of course, they do. That doesn’t mean their product doesn’t do good and they don’t believe in that good. What if the dynamic though is that my whole district has had a subscription to the product for several years. Why do they still want to talk to me? Why do they still want to interact? Do they suspect that after 8 years we may stop subscribing? It’s possible but unlikely. If their product stops serving me or my students, I have no qualms about dropping them.

Maybe that’s why they want to exchange information, so they can keep serving my students to the best of OUR ability.

A Good Example

I will speak about one specific partner. My district has had a Flocabulary subscription for several years. I have written about them before. They provide a service where educational content is paired to music. The power of music to positively impact learning has long been documented (more of that non-existent research), especially for students with autism (my district’s main population).

There are skilled musically-inclined teachers who can create this kind of content on their own, he said, winking as he looked in a mirror. Not all teachers can do that though nor do the ones who are capable have the time to make it as frequently as they would like. As a vendor, Flocabulary, offers the service of providing that help and saving time. Since most teachers have so much free time and never take extra work home, it might be an unnecessary service. I now realize the limits of the written language to convey my sarcastic tone in that last statement.

We thought it was valuable, so we bought a subscription to Flocabulary. So now the vendors can choose to stay at a distance or to connect to try to improve the learning (the teacher’s goal) and improve the product (good vendors have both as goals). So my district stayed connected with Flocabulary because we had initial observational data on how it improved engagement and information retention. We told them what we liked about the platform and, more importantly, what we didn’t. Guess what? They listened to us.

They added features and capabilities specifically in response to my district. New York City is big, so we have some influence, but it is to their credit that they took that information and ran with it. They added the ability to slow videos to improve understanding and recently added the ability to highlight words as the site’s built-in text-to-speech did its job to improve literacy. That was because they listened to improve, not because they wanted us to us to buy more. I know that because we were already buying it. In fact, at times the bureaucratic machinery of the larger DOE delayed the funds, but Flocabulary was kind to keep classes and student learning happening while we worked it out. That isn’t meant to be a negative about the NYCDOE as it is a huge machine that will, of course, be hard to move quickly.

I’m sure Flocabulary’s founders, who I haven’t met, are doing well. Good for them. My concern is that my students do as well as possible. Last week I got to visit the Apple office to learn more about using accessibility tools to make previously inaccessible learning possible for my special needs students. It was amazing and will be of great benefit to District 75 students. It wasn’t a sleazy sales pitch as they demonstrated tools that they didn’t own. It was just helpful. And as long as Flocabulary and other technology companies continue to support that learning, they have a partner in us. This is what a good partnership between schools and technology companies can reap.

A Story

So based on educational research (that shocking-lack kind), storytelling, especially when interactive through videos and games, is the most powerful way to break through opposition and cognitive dissonance. Since it is the first full week of school and I’m too tired and busy to make you a movie, here is simply a written story.

Imagine a really fun and creative teacher. Hopefully, you’ve had one you can draw on for inspiration. The teacher who we’ll call Ms. Bots is having the students read The Jungle Book. She’s feeling especially inspired. So, drawing on her art and theatre experience she guides the students to design an incredibly realistic jungle out of cardboard and paint. She then sews together scraps into amazing animal costumes that would make Julie Taymor blush. The students are drawn into the world of Rudyard Kipling and are able to more thoroughly understand the characters and the story. In addition, the students are improving their creativity, ability to collaborate, and communication skills. Even if many teachers have the heart of Ms. Bots, not many have her capabilities.

The_jungle_book_(1894)_(14784612612).jpgNow imagine a teacher who has a similar idea to Ms. Bots, but Ms. Jeans never learned to sew. She did, however, find a company that was willing to donate inflatable trees and costumes to her class. The caveat is that they have a company logo on the back of them. It’s not perfect, but it is the best Ms. Jeans can find to give them the experience she wants them to have.

Now imagine a third teacher, Mr. Bones, who never studied the arts, but he was a programmer in his previous career. His students are also reading the Kipling classic, but the city kids can’t even comprehend what a wolf den would even look like. How can they picture Mowgli’s childhood? Last summer Mr. Bones trained how to use and design virtual reality experiences for his class. The company he learned from even gave him enough viewers for his whole class. Now Mr. Bones is able to have his students interact in the virtual jungle becoming all the animals and learning about the local environment and culture with realistic imagery.

In these three scenarios, you may prefer Ms. Bots. I do. But not every teacher can be Ms. Bots even if they wanted to. With the help of outside organizations, many dedicated teachers can be like Ms. Jeans or Mr. Bones though. Both got help from companies. Does that fact that one was a tech company make it worse? Or does it perhaps make it better since students are now also using the modern tools with which they will need to be familiar?

In Conclusion

Today, I was asked to present with Apple on project-based learning at a conference a couple months away. Of course, I now have to begin the process of getting it approved by my ethics department which may take several weeks. All this is so that I may show teachers how to create makerspaces and engage in project-based learning in the classroom. Apple would possibly offer me pay if I lived in a different state or country, but, of course, they can’t offer it nor can I legally accept it. I doubt I could even legally monetize this site (not that I would want to) since it links to information related to my work. It’s okay. I didn’t become a teacher to get bonus checks. I don’t write here to get paid. I don’t train teachers or teach students with that in mind. My goal as teacher and blogger are similar. I strive to share my knowledge and skills with students and other teachers, and I will work with companies in technology or otherwise that can make me better at that.


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