My initial impression: underwhelmed.
The day started out like most other tech visits I’ve done; the administration greeted us and then we went on a tour of the building. This time, we had 3 junior students as our guides. When we walked around the school and stopped in several classrooms, on the whole, it did not seem like the iPad was integral to what was happening in the classroom. I asked the student tour-guides about it and they said most teachers don’t use the iPad very much. Surprisingly, to me anyway, they said the math teachers used it the most (for pdf versions of textbooks and video lessons—more on that later). As a math teacher, I’ve had to do quite a bit of thinking of how to incorporate individual technology into my classroom in a non-trite way. It’s doable, but takes much more effort than let’s say a physics, chemistry, geography or history classroom—all of which I can come up with substantive applications of the iPad without much effort. My guess is that this not such an iPad issue as it is a teacher/leadership issue.
Let’s talk about the teachers first. To be fair, I only walked in a couple of classrooms for 5 minutes or so at a time. Such a snapshot is not a good representative sample of what actually goes on in a classroom. With that said, many of the teachers were sitting behind their desks--that’s a no-no in a one-to-one environment. In my perusal of the classroom I saw several students off-task--some desperately trying to close out an application before I came close (panic in a sophomore is easy to spot). Of the 7 classrooms I visited, 2 had teachers engaging the class. One of them was doing a brilliant job of incorporating the Pad as a part of the ongoing classroom discussion. In another classroom some of the students were working on iPad projects but they had no defined workflow. When I asked the student how the teacher was going to collect the project (a simple research report with pictures), she didn’t know. When I prodded her and asked about turning in the work via Evernote, Edmodo, or Dropbox, the student thought the teacher was going to come around and check the iPad screen—I was so shocked I didn’t know how to comment.
After doing a bit of reflection on the poor showing in the classroom, I think the teachers are only partially to blame; the root is a lack of leadership at the administrative level. In my several hour discussion with the principal, assistant principal, tech coordinator, and several teachers, the administration wanted the iPad to be a tool in the classroom that teachers could use if they felt comfortable. It’s my experience that very little will change this way. Unless the expectation is that teachers will use this as a primary tool in the classroom, business as usual will continue to happen. If I’m already comfortable with how I teach and my students are reasonably successful, why would I substantially change my classroom?
When asked about standardized test scores, they gladly said there was no change. They had expected a dip due to a new process but were pleasantly surprised. Granted, it may be too early to tell but I think the lack of change in test scores may result from not substantially changing anything. The students have iPads but the school has not changed how learning happens in the classroom. The iPads I saw were simply really expensive notebooks/textbooks.
We also asked a question in every class we visited and with most students we talked to—we asked about whether they, the students, would prefer iPads or laptops. Every student, save for one, said they would rather have a laptop. Contrary to our notions that students won’t miss the keyboards, they do in fact miss them terribly. Apparently, after the new shiny toy syndrome wore off, the students wanted to be able to do more with the iPad than they currently could. They missed multi-tasking; they missed flash video; they missed a word processor and presentation tool that had depth to them. I didn’t expect this at all. I thought the kids would love the iPads; I was wrong.
I do wonder about whether this will change as the school continues to dig in. Granted, they are only in their second year, but if the next two years go like the first two I wouldn’t pass another bond for technology if I were in that community.
I’m going to skip over some of the obvious neglect from the tech department (wireless MDM, printing, etc) and point out some legal problems with what I saw. According to the students and administration, many of the teachers scan in their textbooks and create pdf versions for their students. The thinking goes something like this: we own textbooks for every student so it’s no big deal if we create an electronic copy for our students. My understanding of the situation is that it is a very big deal. I talked to a friend of mine who was a lawyer and is now in the education publishing field. She relates:
“Unless the school purchased a digit license along with the hard books this is a blatant copyright violation. My family's business is education publishing and we encounter this type of issue a lot. It really hurts everyone in the whole scope of the education process. We have pursued legal action in some cases. You may want to let the offender know.”
To make matters worse, the teachers are posting the pirated pdf books on the web—no password required for access. Some may rationalize this behavior by talking about how the textbook publishing industry needs to change. I agree, charging $15 per year for a high school textbook is outrageous (I pay about $60 for my math texts and use them for at least 10 years). Whether or not we like the current state of the education publishing industry, what the school is doing is illegal. If they get sued, I’m guessing it will be for several million in damages.
After some reflection, I think my disappointment stems from seeing tech integration done well. Holland Christian is a perfect example of this. When we visited Holland Christian’s campus, we were in awe. It was obvious they had a vision for who they wanted their students to be and what they wanted them to do. Once the vision was cast, technology was adopted which fit the vision—not the other way around. After touring this still-unnamed-district, I saw the harm lack of vision can do. This district thought technology was important (rightly so) and gave it to their teachers and students saying, “use it however you feel comfortable.” In my opinion, they’ve wasted lots and lots of taxpayer money.
I’m determined to learn this lesson well. It is time to take a step back and clarify our vision for education at Northern Michigan Christian School. What do we want? What do we not want? Technology is only useful when it serves the educational vision of the school.