Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Who's Responsibility Is It?

As I contemplate and discuss the Agreements that guide our schools in the selection, implementation, maintenance and support of technology, the question arises, "Who's responsibility is it to make everything work?". In our district we have a distributed system of decision making but we don't always have a distributed sense of responsibility to purchase and support sustainable technology. Staff members are given the money to choose the technology they want to implement in their building. In the past, they provided a significant share of the support in the building as well. But as the demands have grown, we have hired district staff to increase tech support. Some schools continue to provide a fair amount of support by building staff. This gives them some internal support when something goes wrong and gives them a set of eyes within their staff for looking ahead. More and more schools are abandoning this, devoting their FTEs (staff hours basically) to other instructional purposes; direct instruction of technology for the most part.

There has been a see-saw debate in our district as to who should choose the hardware and software, who should pay for tech support and who should provide the support. Alongside this debate is the idea that schools are in the best position to decide and spend money to implement technology. Despite the fact everyone feels very constrained with the small budget they have, some schools have done an excellent job of providing access to their students and teachers.

My concern with this mix of responsibility is that we aren't clear about who insures that everything is implemented and working effectively. More important, we aren't clear that everything that is implemented is sustainable, not only from a building to building perspective but from a district perspective. If I purchase something that is unusual or unique, should I be responsible to make it work? or If I purchase it, can I assume that someone will rush in and figure out how it works, show me how to use it, and keep it running? If my school chooses to adopt some software that no one else is using, should our staff have the expectation of support? Is this sustainable in the big picture? Some schools have this expectation - some schools do not. Most important:

  • teachers want technology for their students,
  • they want it to work in their instruction,
  • they want support when it breaks.

To reach this goal we all need to take some responsibility for the technology we are using. While it would be ideal if someone was on hand to provide instruction and solve problems when the need arises, we don't have the resources to meet this desire. I understand and agree that teachers should not be expected to do this on their own. They deserve training and support. There is a limit to the amount of support that can be given when there is an infinite number of software and devices to learn and fix. The following would move us in the right direction.

  • Support a limited the number of applications and hardware.
  • Empower building, community and district support staff to say no to support on unsupported hardware and software.
  • Prioritize training on applications that we want to support.
  • Provide training on supported applications and hardware.
  • Encourage teachers to help one another with day to day fixes.
  • Prioritize the response for support to instructional applications - as we have done for business applications.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Wish Fulfilling Jewel

Reason for hope, in an age of dis-pair-ity

There are many signs of greed in this year. The fruits of this greed are being felt by us all as we watch our savings, our home values, our job security, our confidence being shaken. There are also signs of hope and benevolence. Within the fabric of our society, locally and worldwide, there are people working for justice and the benefit of all. These people are working selflessly and persistently toward the greater good. We catch glimpses of them in our local newspaper, on the street and on the rare national stories we read or hear. Sometimes we have to listen carefully for these positive signs. Our preoccupation with personal matters and the disparity of bad news over good can drown out these messages. It isn't easy to balance the demands of our busy lives and the most available news is not generally the most in depth or uplifting. Sometimes it appears easier and/or more prudent to be cynical, to build a mantel around our family and our self.

We are in the 12 days of Christmas when gifts are given to us in a grand parade. I would like to suggest that we all gives ourselves a gift this Holiday Season, whether we are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or Jain. Give yourself peace, contentment, thanks, love and acceptance. Just as the leaders of these religions would suggest, go to a silent place inside yourself - settle your mind and meditate upon this - very - moment. Breathe in, breathe out. Smile at the wonder of your precious human birth. From this place remember the love that you have received from childhood until this day; the love that raised you, that sustains you each and every day. From that recognition, picture the face of humanity; your family, friends acquaintances, strangers and the rest of humanity. Send them your love and a wish for their peace. Return to your breath, your smile. Effortlessly, simply recognize the peace you can cultivate in a moment.

The wish fulfilling jewel is a wish for the benefit and happiness of all sentient beings. Through this wish we practice peace for our own benefit as we practice peace for the benefit of all. Idealistic - yes, practical - certainly. Does it work? Try it and see.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

It is getting quite cold here in Colorado right now. Snow is here and more is on the way.

This photo reminds me of warmer times in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. It was early morning and the thunderstorms loomed out in the ocean.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Watching training - Meaning or Mechanics?

I'm sitting here watching people struggle to understand the meaning of the Instructional Practices of Marzano. The presenter is trying to incorporate the use of technology in his instruction. We are logged into a wiki and into a McRel blog - at least some of us are. There is a fair amount of frustration in the room. Part of this is due to the adults general frustration with technology. We often think that we are supposed to understand things the first time. If the technology doesn't work the first time we try it, we are annoyed and look for someone or something to blame. The thing with tech is that it is very experimental by it's very nature. There are few times, if any, that it works out of the box especially with a large group of people. In our case we have 50 people in the room, on a wireless connection, logging into accounts that were just created, using tools that are novel to most. This is a formula for stress and frustration.

It is difficult to control for some of these factors. It would be great if we could do a pretest of people's knowledge and ability with the tools beforehand. It would be a good idea to host the workshop in a setting that is well equipped for bandwidth and power. It would be a good to avoid first time login issues. Advice to self: If you are going to create accounts for people in a new app, you should probably send them their credentials ahead of time and invite them to let you know if it doesn't work.

We are just about to break for lunch and we have just begun to get into the content of the workshop - the Practices. The presenter has assigned a table of people to take notes (trying to keep people from breaking the lock).

Afternoon - Everyone has a username and password and can sign on to the blog and the wiki. That's not a bad turnaround on the account solution problem. While the presenter has described the difference between a blog and a wiki, I'm not sure that people understand the distinction or more importantly understand how it would fit into their instructional work flow. And this is the challenge. On the one hand we have technology. On the other we have instructional practice. If I were a teacher I think I would need a time to practice with each and each together. Despite the frustration, I think we are on the right track in this workshop. The question is whether people understand the instructional practices that are being illustrated with the technology. Also, will the get enough exposure in this session or in the ones to follow to benefit from the use of technology? There needs to be some amount of exposure to the tools with a easy reference to them for later use. Along with this, teachers need to have a deep understanding of the Instructional Practices.

I have assumed that the second ingredient, the Instructional Practices, were second nature to teachers. After speaking with some of the participants I realize that they are familiar with them but not enough to be able to train other teachers - and that is the point of this training. We are trying to encourage teachers in new practice - sometimes even breaking old bad habits. This group of teachers and administrators are supposed to be our ministers for best Instructional Practice. They are frustrated that this - the backbone of the workshop - is being sacrificed for the technology. I'm not saying that I have made this judgement, but it seems to be the prevailing theme.

At the end of this workshop I had stuff to clean up - I'm the AV guy :-) This gave me an opportunity to reflect on this question of balance with the presenter and the participants. Quite a bit of frustration was expressed by the participants. They felt there wasn't enough exposure to the practices. The presenter seemed a little puzzled at the frustration. He thought it was important for people to learn about the different free and low cost tools available to deliver the different aspects of instruction. He thought that technology was a useful tool for examining and illustrating the practices.

Participants thought there were some great tools and resources shared but felt that the technology overshadowed and delayed the presentation of the Instructional Practices. The time taken to get the wiki and blog working was a fairly large portion of the morning. The tech examples that were presented with each practice took quite a bit of time as well. Some of this time was spent in understanding the mechanics of the tool rather than the meaning of it for the practices

In order to frame the frustration of this workshop, it is important to understand the backdrop of people's frustration. Our district is under high pressure to decrease the achievement gap between our high achievers and low. Our teachers and administrators take this task very seriously. They want to help kids be successful. They want to fix the problem now. While most if not all of the teachers think we should be doing more with technology, they don't think that technology is the issue in this gap. There is a concern that, if we dwell on technology, we will fail to fully understand the Instructional Practices that are key to instruction.

As with all issues, everyone has their own perspective based on the role they play and their background. While I am hungry for integrating technology into the classroom, I realize that timing and meaning are essential to it's adoption. If people are overwhelmed with it OR with the other demands on them, their adoption will suffer. On the other hand I have to wonder when will the time be right to help people understand the meaning and the mechanics of integrating it. There is wisdom in exposure - immersion even. As people struggled to get logged into the wiki and blog I was concerned about the meaning being lost on them, but if not now - when will people begin to use the technology we have been talking about.

I understand and support the idea that these instructional practices are the meaning behind the practice of teaching. We need to help teachers understand and implement them with precision. If technology has to wait, so be it. But if we can find ways to interject technology into these practices we need to take these opportunities. We can take the time to document tech tools that bring the practices to light, to use these tools as examples and be willing to explore them even when they are a bit messy.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Glimmer of Hope for Tech and Instruction

Last Wednesday I found out that the workshop on Instructional Practice, scheduled for today, is focused on Instructional Practice with Technology. Imagine my surprise as that is what I've been thinking, writing and researching since taking this job. I'm still not sure why no one told me about it. It sounds like something you'd want the tech director to know about. At any rate, the workshop is happening, I'm thrilled that it is happening. I will be there with 2 of my staff. Here's the outline:

  • Introduction
  • Using the Workshop Wiki and Blog
  • Lesson Planning and Its Four Questions
  • Overview of the Research
  • Effective Instructional Strategies and Educational Technology
  • Planning for Technology
  • Presentation Zen and Tour of Your Manuals
  • Conclusion and Evaluation

These areas are very important to the overall success of technology. It will be interesting to see how much emphasis is given to each. The workshop will be lead by Matt Kuhn, who was the trainer for the teacher evaluation/walkthrough training. He seems to know his way around the web 2.0 technology. I hope he can help people understand how all the pieces align to support the use of technology in the classroom.

As much as the content of the training, I am curious to see how the content is received; how natural will our teachers and administrators relate to his ideas and approaches? How familiar will they be with the content? How easily will they access some of the resources and ideas? How much will they complain that they don't have the resources to do what he is asking?

I am also interested to see who the administrators bring to the workshop. Each of them will be bringing 2 teachers. I will be taking their names for future reference as they are going to be the ones training the other teachers on this content.

It should be an interesting day.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Working out Agreements - what works for everyone?

Yesterday, the Technology Leadership Team met to discuss the Agreements (rules of the road) for Technology. This was a lively conversation, one that involved many side trips. It is evidence that everything is related - purchasing is related to hardware and software is related to training is related to time is related to focus is related to vision. While the main thing is student achievement, the 'stuff' that brings this to life has to work, be compatible, be understood and within our means to maintain. The fact that there are these relationships means, not that we get off the subject, but that we get diverted by another - related - subject.

As we move from subject to subject, issue to issue, I begin to wonder what the guiding forces are in the mix. This isn't a static project. We are doing the equivalent of repairing and guiding a airplane that is in the air. Sometimes I wonder if we have agreed on the destination :-) And to that point, it would make sense (as we said in our meeting) to get more clear about our goal and vision. And very wisely, we stopped and discussed that vision for a time.

The question is, to what extent do we all have the same goal. We are all in agreement that student achievement and success is the main goal. But, in our day to day operations, what do we focus our time and energy on? Do we keep student achievement and success in mind? What is the Action Plan behind our vision. Is it aimed at integrating technology into the curriculum or providing administrative tools for classroom reporting and management? Have we got the specifics of our vision nailed down or are we simply flailing away at the day to day challenges that arise.

In the meeting I made the observation that this is a somewhat uncomfortable conversation for all of us. I said that this conversation impacts the level of control that we have or don't have. In making agreements, we are choosing to limit ourselves in some way and abide by some rules or procedures. Making these agreements takes control away even as it gives us control (predictability) and is therefore threatening to our individual desires.

I didn't feel like I got much agreement on this point - I didn't see many nods. Even so, I know this is true for me. I need some assurance that people will abide by some rules of the road. If they don't, my staff will suffer under the disorganization. They will get drown in working on poorly organized and disjointed systems. They will be pulled one way and another by teachers with very important but unrelated projects. This is a control issue for me. My guess is that everyone, from every school, has a related concern. They want us to support them on their most important initiatives. They need us to keep the computer and software engines running so they can do their work. They have special projects that require support, software configuration, hardware reliability. They may want us to stay away from meddling in certain areas. They probably have concerns about our over-involvement in certain areas as well, though I may be wrong. So, while we all would welcome the additional control and predictability that the agreements would afford, the agreements limit our freedom as well.

I wonder if other school districts are having these conversations. I don't think we are unique in our search for technology that works for students and teachers. But I wonder if other districts spend so much time discussing the policies and procedures for purchasing and managing systems. Do they allow every school to decide how they will spend money on computers and software or do they dictate these things? I think the latter.

We have been engaged in this process of collective bargaining for about 8 years. I think we have learned a lot from one another through that time. We have very dedicated building technology staff who think very seriously about how to help students and teachers. Our conversations are generally positive and respectful of differences in role and responsibility. But I can't help wondering if we aren't losing time and money by allowing each building to set their own course.

The course we have chosen is a challenging one. In our system, each school has the right to set their own agenda for technology, spend their own money, and expect that we will keep up. While they are expected to stay within the general vision of the district (and the agreements) and have very limited money to spend, they are free to do what they choose. The agreements are our attempt to put some parameters around their activities so that we can keep pace with the various issues and initiatives. And true, the schools have accepted (I don't know how willingly) some of the decisions that the district has made for network infrastructure (servers, email, physical networks, firewall, etc). It is an interesting mix of freedom and control.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Framing the Agreements - The carrot and the stick

It is 2:30 am and I'm thinking about our agreement meeting that we are having tomorrow. Here's my dark night diatribe

People deserve to know why we have rules. Write the agreements from the ground up. Start with the rationale for having agreements at all. People have a hard time with being constrained in their choices. We need to explain the rationale behind the rules. There are specific reasons we have the specific rules. The overall reasons are:

  • A network is a public place, fraught with the same benefits and precautions of any public place. We share the road with many other people. The rules of the road are are the speed limits, stop signs, vehicle inspections, etc. You get the idea.
  • Limited funding for technology. We have to live within a budget. This budget limits the number of computers we can make available and the services we can provide. We have to be proactive in what we choose because we can't afford all the choices. A computer, on a network, that serves many people, has many costs. All of these costs have to be considered.
  • Limited time to provide support. We are trying to provide a set of services that can be maintained by a limited number of staff. The more skilled we become as a whole, the more services we will be able to provide.
  • Limited time for training. The more time we take for training, the more self-sufficient teachers can be, the more time available to provide additional services. Until we make a commitment to train teachers to some basic level of competence, we are going to be busy helping them along and fixing some basic problems.
  • Limited understanding of the network and the common good. It is ironic but until and unless people understand the implications of their behavior on the overall systems (stated above), we need rules to guide them. I was not given the passwords to critical computer systems until I understood the implications of making changes in those systems. Before we can drive the streets on our own, we have to learn the rules of the road and demonstrate competence. It would be irresponsible to give someone the right to drive without the requisite skills.

A Reality. A building administrator made the point that these constraints will be denied and the rules will always be challenged. In his words, "That's the nature of teachers. They want to work independently, autonomously and without the limits that serve the bigger picture. They aren't concerned about the problems their behavior will cause others but how they will deliver tomorrow's lesson."

With this reality in mind... we should be prepared for people to try and go around the expectations. We need to explain and correct them when they stray from the expectations. People deserve to know why we have these rules. I would like them to accept the rules. I would like them to acknowledge the reasons we have the rules. But this may be too much to expect for some - perhaps most. First they don't understand how all the pieces affect one another - how management of one computer at a time is inefficient. Second, just as that administrator said, some simply don't want to look at issues from the big picture. They are focused on how the limits affect them and their classroom only.

The many carrots of technology. Let's remember, there are still many choices available to people. The agreements are created to constraint behavior in some key areas. But within those constraints, there is plenty of room to move. In fact the constraints are in place to afford us the ability to operate and continue to provide a working system to use. We need to help teachers see the ways in which they do have choice. We need to let them know of some of the resources available to them? How can we help them connect to these resources? We certainly can't progress on limits only. We need to provide equal time to pointing them in the direction of opportunities.