Sunday, November 30, 2008

Agreements - Barriers and Benefits

This week our Technology Leadership Team (IBB Tech Team) will meet to discuss the agreements that guide our selection and support of technology. I have spent quite a bit of time documenting these agreements and adding some on a pbwiki page. In this process I listed some key questions and a rationale for the particular agreement. My preparation was intended to help our team frame the issues surrounding the various aspects of selecting and supporting technology. I made this page available for editing/commenting so we could get a head start on the discussion.

As I have commented in earlier blog posts, the process of managing technology is fraught with many opportunities (more than we can grasp really) and many pitfalls. The pitfalls are generally unintended but can be anticipated with a bit of consideration. The good news is that we have some experience now. Ten years ago we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into and there were few people (besides salesmen) who were available to give us advice. Now we have made quite a few mistakes, we own quite a bit of equipment, and we have experienced the life-cycle of some equipment. This gives us a good basis upon which to make decisions.

Despite our experience with technology, the members of our technology leadership team represent many different specialties and perspectives. This has been beneficial but it does increases the time required to formulate a plan. One of the main points of conflict occurs when the convenience of one group does not appear to impact another group. It is a lack of understanding of the interdependence of all the pieces.

One example; Passwords. Over the years the passwords to administer teacher and student computers have become common knowledge. It began when building technology staff felt pressured to get software installed and preferences changed on computers. As an educational organization we didn't adopt the practice of business, that employees should use what is provided on a computer and not be capable of messing with the underbelly. Given the relative small number of support staff to computers, it seemed to make sense to share passwords and allow anyone to have the power to fix (or damage) their computer. Clearly, the practice of sharing passwords seems like a winner from the users perspective. It makes sense to make computer management convenient. On the other hand it defies best practice (in the IT world) to allow this access just because it is convenient. There is a wide range of knowledge and ability among users. Some staff understand and help themselves when they have computer trouble. The question becomes; Why have an administrative account at all if all users are admin users?

As this example shows, we are often balancing user convenience with overall security and/or support costs. My 6 staff are responsible for all the computers in the district. Building technology staff are responsible for support in their building only. The district tech's efficiency is hinged upon a common configuration and setup of computers. When we are asked to fix a computer that has been rearranged, it increases our resolution by hours. While, on the face of it, it makes sense to make life convenient for the largest number of people, it is the largest number that will be inconvenienced when one of my staff is indisposed with a single "customized" computer.

How do we overcome these differences in perspective? Fortunately there has been enough common understanding within the Technology Leadership to balance the needs of the many (teachers and staff) with the needs of the few (support staff). Most of the members of the team have some experience and therefore some appreciation of the real challenges of computer support. They know that what appears to be an easy solution isn't always so. They have spent hours and days fixing a single computer. On the other side, we (district support staff), have a desire to make technology convenient and understandable for our users. We want them to use these tools in their instruction. We want them to have easy and quick resolution to their problems. It is in this spirit that we debate the issues and forge creative solutions to our shared problems.

Given that we have more support available to teachers (we added 3 staff last year), it seems like we are better equipped to respond quickly to support calls. I am hoping that this fact helps sway people into greater restriction on admin passwords. I am not opposed to allowing a greater number of users admin rights but the people who have these rights should have an understanding of the options and implications for their use. They should also have an appreciation for the standardization of computer configurations. In the end, this standardization will speed the resolution of issues. It will also allow us to provide training and support in a format that is understandable to people using standard tools.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Working the Unconscious

Last night my family and I returned from a 5 day visit to Missouri where my Mom, Brothers and their families live. I can't remember the last time that I was there for Thanksgiving. It was a wonderful visit as I had a chance to spend time with each of my brothers and hang out with my mom quite a bit. It was rushed as you might imagine. It took us almost all of Monday to get there and all of yesterday - Friday - to get back (around 11 or 12 hours). 6 of that is time driving to and from Kansas City-Columbia and Denver-Glenwood Springs.

While I was in Missouri I kept my work instincts under wraps for the most part. I took some time to answer some email messages but didn't get into my project list. I took time to hang out with people, sleep until 8:00, shop, and eat. That's about it.

There was a time when I would be busy thinking or performing work related tasks no matter how far I was from Colorado. If I wasn't answering email, I would be working on a project in my head or on paper. Sometimes I find that working on a project from far away allows me some freedom to be relaxed and think out of the box. The relaxed part is the most important. Sometimes I feel that the distance helps me to be more creative, to look at things from a different angle. With the decreased pressure of a time line, I can loosen my grip on plowing through, step back and see the whole picture.

This vacation was different in that I chose to do nothing. But the question is, is doing "nothing" really doing nothing or are there unconscious forces at work no matter where a person is. And, do these unconscious forces continue to work even when we don't "work". I have been listening to the "Brain Science Podcast" by Ginger Campbell lately. In one of her interviews she talks with Robert Burton this phenomena. They discuss the writer's process wherein a person has an aha! experience and "discovers" the perfect ending to a story after working on a story for some time. The writer might attribute the aha! moment to some mystical experience wherein the "solution" is delivered to them. Burton and Campbell point out that there are all sorts of processes being performed on an unconscious level - some of them physiological (like regulating our heart beat) and some mental (paying attention to movement in our visual space). While we don't attribute these events to divine intervention, we have a hard time believing that there is background activity in our brain that can bring ideas together over time.

What significance does this have for me on my vacation? It means that while I am doing "nothing", yet exposing myself to new people and places, there may be unconscious connections being made. I may be working in the background without having to put a pen to paper. Obviously this doesn't mean that learning and creation can be automatic, but it does mean that there is a important role for letting go and not holding tightly onto the goal of our latest endeavor. It gives us permission to back away from our drive to produce and find new ways to stimulate our creativity.

Of course there must be a balance between work and play. What I am wondering is, what is the consequence of too much push and not enough letting go. Is there value in meditation or play for solving problems? Do these activities allow the associative aspects of our brains to make connections and find a better solution to problems.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Affordable - Sustainable Technology

In my school district we have a modest budget for technology expenditures. Among school districts in our region, we don't have the largest budget and we don't have the smallest budget. Perhaps it's just right :-) I don't know. But the fact is that we have a pretty tight budget and one that we have to live within. Another important detail is that technology expenditures are not controlled by the district office. At the time we established regular technology expenditures, we decided to distribute a substantial amount to the schools to spend according to their priorities. At the same time we asked them to complete a technology plan that described their goals and a plan showing that their expenditures are sustainable. It makes sense to me that, given the short life of technology, we should consider obsolescence and the replacement of resources over time. I have read about schools who have failed to do this long term planning and who end up with an assortment of computers and software that are outdated and in disrepair, without the money to continue programming.

In our district we are finding that the 5 year replacement of computers that we planned is inadequate to provide the number of computers needed for our students and teachers. Schools are hanging on to 6, 7, and 8 year old computers in their classrooms. On one hand I think this is great. I don't want to rush good computers to their grave. If it serves a purpose for someone I think we should keep it in service. At the same time, we have found that the maintenance and support of older computers can eat up a substantial amount of staff time. These aged computers can also cause a high degree of frustration when they are depended upon and placed in a mission critical task. And when a critical computer crashes, the expectation is that the technology staff will run to the rescue, save the data and restore programs. This is simply unrealistic.

So, like other resource we rely on - water, fuel, food, air - we live in an age where we are reminded of our limits. We cannot spend and consume like there is no tomorrow. We need to assess what we really need, ask if we can afford it - can we afford to acquire it, can we afford to maintain it, can we afford to replace it when it expires. Since the 1950s we (Americans on the whole) haven't been very worried about the impact of our consumption on our community or the planet. To the contrary, we created a culture that depended upon increased consumption. When the Twin Towers fell in 2001 and our economy shuddered, we were told to go out and spend, show those terrorists that they can't thwart our way of life. Well, here we are in 2008 and our economy has been attacked once again but the enemy is us. Our desire for more and our habit for spending (other people's money) has put our economy in crisis. We have gone back to the capitalist drawing board for a new play book. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Sorry for the economic rant, but I think it has significance to our microcosm called technology. It is time for us to be strategic about how we spend our precious few resources. We cannot afford to throw technology into the milieu and pray that it comes out right - that teachers will understand and use it wisely, that students will make constructive sense of it, that achievement will be advanced. It is time to get serious about spending. It is time to focus on the results we are aiming for. It is time to realize that we can't accomplish everything through technology, but we can accomplish something - if we narrow our expectations to the most important target.

For example; What if we decided that our technology would be focused on writing. Let's consider all the ways that technology could be employed behind to goal of writing. The most obvious tool is word processing. All of our computers come with a word processor. If we wanted to provide a word processor for every student, there are affordable tools available to this task. Beyond the word processor, we could develop an audience for student writing through blogs, wikis and email. The content that kids create on their computers could be saved on the computer or it could be saved on the web. Spend a little more money and you could purchase writing software that will give students feedback on their work. These wouldn't replace a teachers touch but they could provide immediate and constructive feedback to students that would be helpful to the writing process. Extend this further and we could adopt writing tools in spanish, translation tools. We could use the built in tools on a Macintosh to read the writing aloud to students. We could train student to create audio visual presentations with the focus on writing scripts. While it would be difficult to hold them back from the camera and the computer, we could build an expectation that good presentations must have a detailed script. Perhaps this will help them find a strong writing voice.

There is much more we could include in a "writing-technology plan" - literacy and safety in media and technology, research, grammar, spelling, etc. My point is that based upon this plan we could create a list of the resources (people, technology, time) that would be required to make the plan work. Based on the number of students and the other activities in the school, we could build an affordable, sustainable plan.

Most important to our plans is that the majority of people are pulling in the same direction. Everyone doesn't have to have the same level of understanding, but the plan needs to be simple enough and significant enough (have meaning) to most of us that it will be carried out. When we attend a conference, we are successful when we take and implement one or two ideas to fruition. I'd like to apply this kind of simplicity to technology - some constructive limits. Some teachers will continue to experiment with a variety of approaches and techniques - no problem. But their experiments will have to be supplementary to the main idea.

Will this bring our spending and fragmentation into line? It's hard to say. Perhaps the conversations that we will have will help bring some rationality to our process of purchasing and implementing technology. To look at technology as a means to the end, an expensive means that requires conscious tending.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Here is a photo I took last winter - the winter of the never ending snow. I was one of the first to cut tracks here on Longshot on this crisp morning.

For more black and white photos, check this .mac gallery of mine.

Technology Integration or Segregation?

Listening to Moving with the Speed of Creativity - Wesley Fryer's work. I am trying to steep myself in the concept of Media Literacy and k12 technology in general. While I am the technology director, I have been too busy with building and maintaining infrastructure to consider the significance of all this technology for students - the people we are building this for. It's time for me to put this together so that I can do my part to enrich the conversation. I want to be able to think critically about the decisions we are making (or not) with regard to technology and the curriculum. None of us seem to know how they fit together so we need to engage in these conversations. Hopefully this will help us make the connections we need to make to move forward. We need to understand technology in the context of our day to day teaching and learning. We tend to have meetings on technology, meetings on curriculum, meetings on assessment, on standards based education, etc., without bringing the ideas together.

Recently I posted a document called "IBB Agreements" for the consideration of our District Technology Leadership Team. In that document, I try to make the point that technology plans and purchases need to be woven into the other deliberations and activities of the school. I want to see more teachers involved in the conversation. I want building leadership to weave tech decisions into their adoption of curriculum, lesson planning and assessment. Most important I want them to move away from technology planning as a discrete activity - sitting down at the end of the year and writing a plan that meets the basic requirements.

One of the reactions I got to this idea was that we don't have time. Teachers are already too busy, trying to survive training in reading, writing and math instruction, testing and evaluation. I appreciate and agree with that sentiment. Teachers do seem stressed and at the end of their rope with training and other demands. But this is not what I am proposing. I am 'simply' suggesting that we use every opportunity to consider the implications of technology as we are busy doing all this other work.

Example: When we are doing curriculum adoption, why not consider the ways that technology can be woven into the subject at hand. What are the free or subscription services that are available that might fit within the subject. Not only that, what tools are we already invested with, the hardware, software, peripherals, that might be used in the context of a subject. We might even save ourselves some time and money by considering these questions.

Example: When a building leadership team sits down to look at their schedule for the upcoming year, they might consider the computer resources they have in the building and find ways to integrate these resources within the regular classroom process rather than scheduling them for pullout classes. This might lead to a restructuring of the 'specials' schedule. It might change the role of the 'technology teacher' or 'media specialist'.

These example are only examples. I'm trying to point out an organizing principal - not a prescription. If we want students to integrate technology into their learning process we need to integrate technology into our planning process.

Media and

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Teacher Training

Our school district has made a substantial investment in hardware, software and other peripherals.

These are used by teachers to:

  1. Instruct students (smart boards, projectors, software to illustrate concepts),
  2. Perform administrative duties (attendance, grades, enter test scores).
  3. Communicate with other teachers and staff.

The tools are used by students to:

  1. Do research.
  2. Create reports and presentations.
  3. Practice skills

I will add to these lists though I think this captures the largest percentage of their use.

Since we began the purchase of technology we (early adopters) have been concerned about the lack of use of technology and the lack of training to promote and support the use of technology. We have moved forward in our own separate ways to experiment and implement the latest new tools. We have offered training in our own limited and isolated ways. We've supported teachers with whatever tool they adopt. We've made progress and yet all along the way, we have been unable to establish a coordinated and comprehensive method for training our teachers. We also haven't committed ourselves to an established training curriculum for teachers or provided teachers with a recommended set of tools. The outcome has been;

  1. Islands of excellence - some teachers in some schools have found ways to make technology work for them and their teachers. They have adopted methods on their own, experimented with them and developed their own instructional model.
  2. Islands of frustration - some teachers struggle to use the technology we have adopted. They are not technology natives but they do their best to use the tools given to them. They use the support staff (building and district staff) in their building to get help. Some times this help is required to actually fix something that is broken. Sometimes the support staff clears up the confusion related to the tool.
  3. Islands of non adoption - some teachers don't use technology. They may have found that, for them, it gets in the way of good instruction. It is too risky to use instructional tools that may fail. They don't want to be embarrassed in front of their students and colleagues. Teachers may choose to use technology in a very limited fashion. For instance, they use a single computer to get their administrative and communication duties done but don't use it, or let students use it, for any other activity.

It is difficult to say which of these 3 categories is most prominent in our district. I would estimate that over 70% of our teachers are in the last 2 categories. Over the years I've begun to sympathize with this 70%. Until last year they had only the volunteer support of their building technology staff and periodic visits by district technology staff. They seldom get training. They are not given direction or instruction in a set of tools they can use and seem overwhelmed with the many, many options of software and hardware. They aren't familiar with instructional methods for using technology or with engaging students with technology. So in the final analysis I think we get what would be expected.

There are very legitimate reasons why we don't provide training for our teachers. The main reason is that they are being trained on other instructional methods - in reading, writing, math, results teams, etc. They have little time (and energy) left over for technology training.

So... what to do? what to do?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Photos Anyone


Just one of my many photos of Mount Sopris. What a backyard I have!

Higher Education

Today I experienced my first teleconference. I met with the Technology Advisory Council for Colorado Mountain College. The technology was an interesting feature of the meeting. It was interesting to see how the distance changes the conversation. I don't know if all of the people were as inexperienced as I - something that would change their approach. My first reaction is that this arrangement makes it easier to speak up. I felt a certain anonymity. The participants were located in 4 or 5 different locations. In addition to the feeling of anonymity, I felt a certain kinship with the people in the room with me. I felt that we were kind of on the same team - more connected that "them" out there. Again, this was my first experience. It might be a unique. I may never have this feeling of kinship or anonymity. We'll see.

The other part of this experience was the conversation that we had. CMC is trying to find out what schools and businesses need in regard to training - for their staff or prospective staff. This question made me think about how my staff work, how they solve problems and how they move along on their career path. What I came up with is that we don't spend much on formal training. When we do pay for formal, linear, sit down training, it is project based. It is aimed at a particular technology or capability we are developing. Generally we purchase this training as part of a software or hardware purchase. Aside from this training my staff and I get, we learn along the way. We basically teach ourselves by finding resources on the web and learning from each other. I must say that I have the privilege of working with some very talented people - people who have some incredible intelligence and background. As such, they are very capable and doing research and have a lot to offer one another. I don't know how unique this is compared to others' experience.