Of related interest: Burning questions about the Technology Task Force
Since early this year, Idaho educators have been told we’re afraid of technology and resistant to change. “It took 20 years to get the overhead projector out of the bowling alley and into the classroom,” State Superintendent Tom Luna said last January in the rollout for his education overhaul, as if the overhead projector just showed up. “Education has always been a generation or two behind.” In August, Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde said that educators’ opposition to online class mandates is “just consistent with their insistence that education reform is a bad thing.”
The truth is, Idaho’s classrooms are brimming with technology and have been for years. Luna drew some chuckles with his gee-whiz clicker demonstration at the January rollout for his plan, since clickers are strictly old school for many Idaho teachers. Educators don’t fear technology, but we distrust top-down mandates from officials who don’t ask teachers what works. Most of us also oppose using technology as a back-door way to cut teacher payrolls and divert Idaho education jobs and Idaho taxpayer money to corporations – especially when research shows that indiscriminately investing in technology may not be bringing the results that states and school districts want.
A New York Times story September 4 reported that test scores have stagnated in one tech-heavy Arizona district while scores elsewhere in the state have risen. “My gut is telling me we’ve had growth, but we have to have some way to measure that is valid, and we don’t havthat,” the district’s superintendent told the newspaper, adding, “We’ve jumped on bandwagons for different eras without knowing fully what we’re doing. This might just be the new bandwagon. I hope not.”
Meanwhile, corporations know there’s lots of money to be made, especially while states and districts are desperate to slash budgets. “Let’s hope the fiscal crisis doesn’t get better too soon,” former Michigan schools superintendent Tom Watkins told the Times. “It’ll slow down reform.” Idaho journalists provided detail last winter on how people close to Luna’s reform efforts have made millions from investments in the Virginia-based online education company K-12 Corp. A lobbyist from Intel claimed a seat on Idaho’s school technology task force, and state officials in September abruptly canceled a trip to Microsoft headquarters in Washington state over fears they’d run afoul of Idaho purchasing regulations.
There are ample reasons to question the motivations behind Tom Luna’s technology mandates, yet Idaho educators know that the future of learning is already here. Our students are digital natives who intuitively know how to learn online, and many innovative educators and local school leaders didn’t need mandates to tell them to start using more technology in the classroom.
For example, Star Elementary in the Meridian School District is home this school year to a technology pilot project that’s among the first of its kind in Idaho. Shared iPads are being used in the upper elementary classes, and iPod Touch devices are coming soon to the kindergarten through third grade rooms.
One recent afternoon in Marita Diffenbaugh’s fourth-grade classroom at Star Elementary, students sat at their tables and took turns using shared iPads to figure out math problems. Meanwhile, others at their table used manipulative blocks and cards to do the same thing. Students usually share the iPads, but the six fourth- and fifth-grade teachers can pool their devices to make a class set for one-on-one use as needed.
A school website documents the project, providing answers to the many questions districts and schools have when implementing mobile computing devices: Which apps are best? How do you sync the devices? Who keeps them charged?
“The biggest thing we wanted our community to learn is that this is a tool that will enhance the teacher. It’s not a replacement,” says Principal Carla Karnes. “First of all, you make your plans, then you find the tool that best fits your plans.” In some instances, an iPad may be the best tool. In others, physical movement or hands-on activities away from the computers may be superior. Of course, it takes a trained teacher to tell what will help each student learn best.
Star’s programs have nothing to do with the recent state mandates and everything to do with local vision. Karnes, in her 14th year as principal, says the school has spent close to a decade getting ready to implement educational technology innovations as they’ve emerged. Every classroom has an LCD projector and a document camera – two tools that help teachers use tablet computers to their fullest potential. “Eight years ago, we decided to put our money into durable technology hardware,” not consumables,” says Karnes.
Meridian got a grant last spring to buy 41 iPads to be shared among the fourth- and fifth-grade classes, and the Star Booster Club bought another 17 iPads for the school’s teachers. Meridian Superintendent Dr. Linda Clark, Karnes, Diffenbaugh, and several members of Meridian’s technology team traveled to Canby, Oregon, last spring to learn about a iPad project that’s been in place there for several years.
Canby’s program was spotlighted at the August meeting of Tom Luna’s Technology Task Force. In some ways, it was a curious choice since Canby developed its program on the local district level with extensive teacher buy-in – a situation quite unlike the state-mandated mobile computing device program that Idaho will roll out for high-schoolers starting next year.
Canby teacher Julie Johnson says she began working with a single iPod device in her third-grade classroom a few years ago and got one-to-one iPods that she wound up using all day since students loved them so much. “The big difference I found was the access to instant knowledge it gave the students. They coveted the devices as a way to access information quickly rather than wait for an encyclopedia book for their research or a class dictionary,” she said in an e-mail interview for this story. She wrote how she can now design and download entire lesson plans “from the comfort of my couch,” cutting down on the long hours she used to spend at school.
Johnson was excited to see students gain “independence and confidence” in their learning. She and Canby officials were sold when they saw how test scores rose, even in a small district where the majority of students have Spanish as their first language. The devices proved to be good discipline tools, too. If a student wasn’t staying on task, Johnson had her place the iPod on her nametag for five minutes. “Having them see other students being able to use them when they couldn’t, well, I hardly had repeat offenders,” she said.
Teacher mentoring is a hallmark of Canby’s program. “I suggest finding teacher leaders to be point people at each of the schools to help guide those teachers that are not feeling very comfortable about technology,” Johnson said. “Training is important but having another teacher to go to when they run into trouble is even better. Collaboration is also important. Spending time talking about what is working, finding good apps that go with standards, sharing ideas on how to reach students with technology is imperative. We have ‘Happy Hours’ at 7:30 in the morning before school on certain days. We bring treats and spend time talking about tech. It’s totally optional but we have great attendance.”
Throughout this summer’s technology task force meetings, out-of-state visitors repeatedly noted that technology is not an excuse to cut teachers. After a July presentation from Steven Garton, who described how Maine has implemented one-to-one laptops in schools statewide, task force member Christine Donnell asked, “We have encountered some resistance to this legislation. … Can you help us learn from your experiences, how we can overcome these bumps in the road?”
Garton responded, “This has never been a replacement for teachers … it takes the teacher to make this work, it takes the teacher to use it.” He added that for interactive leaning to work, “the student-teacher ratio actually has to be less, because they have to be communicating more with each student.” At the August meeting, Joe Morelock, technology coordinator in the Canby, Oregon, schools told the task force that teachers are more important than ever as guides to help students sort out the vast array of resources online. “Kids are swimming in a sea of information,” he said. “We can help them get a raft or let them sink.”
The pace of technological change has advanced rapidly over the past decade, and no one can predict the tools students will use to learn five or 10 years from now. But we can say that even as teachers’ roles evolve from “sage on the stage” to “guide by the side,” professional educators will remain an indispensible part of high-quality student learning. Or, as a quote in the IEA News of July 1963 put it:
A wonderful tribute was paid to two Sandpoint teachers by the Sandpoint News-Bulletin. Their statement follows: ‘No machine will ever take the place of such a teacher and counselor as Charles Stidwell or Mary Parker, or the many other men and women who have sincerely dedicated their lives to training youngsters. Teaching machines may teach facts and formulae. It will always require great human beings to mold character.’
Below are a few examples of the many tech-savvy Idaho educators who are molding character while they use the 21st-century tools that students love.
For Sal Lorenzen, a technology teacher at Post Falls High School and iSucceed Virtual High School and one of four (originally only two) current classroom teachers serving on Idaho’s 39-member Technology Task Force, the question isn’t how he’s already using technology in the classroom. “How am I not using technology?” he replies. Eight years ago, he began using a hybrid learning management system in his classroom for students to take tests in and out of class. He put together a one-on-one computer lab in his classroom, and almost all student projects in his classes and the robotics team he leads originate via CAD (computer-aided design). Increasingly, students use computers not just for design but for production of the physical object they envision. But in some new, broader classes, Lorenzen still has his students start with pencil and paper. “They ask, ‘How is this technology,’ and I say you have to be able to take it from your head and put it on paper before I can have you take it from your head and put it in a 3-D modeling environment.” Lorezen is pictured here assisting student Zach Esqueda in making repairs to a competition robot before an open house event at Post Falls High School.
Douglas StanWiens teaches Advanced Placement U.S. History at Boise High School. A few years ago, while teaching the class across town at Timberline High, he was looking for a productive way to fill the weeks after the AP test. StanWiens created the Boise Architecture Project, in which students document notable local buildings in words and pictures. StanWiens’ students have also blogged on the National Trust for Historic Preservation website and created a YouTube video for the 100th anniversary of Julia Davis Park, and they're currently developing a platform for historical scavenger hunts for downtown Boise using mobile smart phones. StanWiens’ philosophy is that for learning to be successful, students need to get out into the world and create content, not just consume it.
Kim Bureau Dinsmore (at left), who teaches second grade at Valley View Elementary School in Bonners Ferry, spent three weeks this summer taking part in GameLab, an international quest-based learning platform under development at Boise State University. As a graduate student in BSU’s educational technology program, Dinsmore has been trying to use blended learning in her classroom, but she’s run into infrastructure limitations. (A recent study showed that Idaho has the slowest Internet speeds in the country. The Idaho Education Network now provides broadband to every high school in the state, but not to lower-grade classrooms.) Dinsmore has a Mobi digital slate that enabled her to teach anywhere in the room, but a frozen connection to an old computer kept her tethered to her mouse, then a burned-out projector bulb kept her offline. “That was really frustrating, being prepared to teach with your technology and not having it,” she says. Still, Dinsmore is committed to technology-based learning. She plans to partner with the local library to offer GameLab as an extracurricular activity this school year.
Bruce Twitchell teaches art and photography at Coeur d’Alene High School. In his photo class, students begin each day by going to the class blog to see what will happen that day and also to answer a question that Twitchell has posted. More often than not, the queries lead to robust discussions. In a recent entry, Twitchell had students watch a YouTube video of noted photographer Joe McNally in which he revealed that a good attitude is the most important piece of equipment in any photographer’s bag.
Stefani Cook, the 2011 Idaho Teacher of the Year, has been teaching online for years in addition to her work as a business education teacher at Rigby High School. In one recent class exercise, students used a Smart Board to present their picks for a stock portfolio project in which they were tasked with choosing at least seven companies in which to invest a total of $25,000. (One of Cook's classes ranked second in the nation in the game at smartstocks.com last school year.) Cook, pictured at right with classroom posters that read “Use the Latest High-Tech Learning Gadget: Your Brain” and “The Best Computer is the One Between Your Ears”, chairs the Technology Task Force's Classroom Technology Intergration subcommittee. She says balance is the key to using technology in the classroom: that it can be a boon to students or a disadvantage, depending on how it's used. In her own online teaching, she makes a point of calling each student on the phone the first week of the class to establish a connection and help the student feel more comfortable learning online.
Editor’s note: Kuna-based technology writer, education advocate, and parent Sharon Fisher has been closely monitoring the Idaho Department of Education’s Technology Task Force, which began meeting in June to implement Senate Bill 1184. The IEA asked her how she thinks it’s gone so far. Join Sharon for a discussion of her burning questions – and yours! – from 3 to 4 p.m. Mountain Time Tuesday, October 11, on the Idaho Parents and Teachers Together Facebook page.
In listening to a number of the Technology Task Force meetings over the past few months, I have been reassured on some levels. The task force seems to be using Maine – which has the most concrete, real-world experience – as a model, mostly, and the meetings (including executive ones) are not only aired over the Internet but are archived there.
However, some questions still remain. For example:
Committee members such as Senate Education Chair John Goedde have explicitly said that the committee is not expert on either technology or purchasing, which is why they need vendor input. What other sort of mistakes are they making because they’re not experts? What guarantees are there to ensure that we’re not entering into another situation like Molina Healthcare’s Medicaid payments debacle?
Computer vendors are apparently already threatening lawsuits if they feel the process was not transparent enough. How much is this going to cost Idaho, and how much will it delay the process – after teacher salaries have already been cut to pay for it? More to the point, why did it take until September to have the discussion about proper behavior with vendors and crafting a policy for vendor interaction? And why was more consideration not given to simply piggybacking on Maine’s RFP, which Maine offered to allow Idaho to do?
There seem to be several parallel efforts going on to define what an online class is, who teaches it, and how it’s paid for by schools. The Board of Education and Technology Task Force are both involved, but since these efforts end up being rules, won’t the Education Committees of the Legislature have final say and be able to make whatever changes they wish? In an executive committee meeting, Superintendent Tom Luna reportedly talked about “wordsmithing” some of the task force’s work. Who gets the final signoff on that, and will we know what changes are made after the task force is finished?
Speaking of rules, the proposed rules about online classes appear to make all sorts of definitions about different types of online classes and whether or not a teacher can be in the room when they’re in progress. What is the purpose of setting up and calling out all these separate categories? What does it presage for the future? For example, will schools eventually be required to offer all these different types of non-teacher classes? If these rules were discussed in the Technology Task Force meetings, I haven’t heard them.
And finally, something I haven’t heard anyone talk about is this: How will we know if the project succeeds? In the same way that Senate Bill 1184 was a solution without a clearly defined problem, the law doesn’t have clearly defined goals. If student achievement tests don’t go up, what then? How many years will the project go on? What is this project’s “pay for performance”? If achievement is stagnant or decreases, will it simply mean we haven’t thrown enough money at technology?