Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty

Today, October 15, 2008, is Blog Action Day to end Poverty. Instructional technology has often been described as a leveler. Here in Maine, we give laptops to every 7th and 8th grader in part to ensure that those in poverty have equitable access. I have seen first hand the changes in kids' lives and aspirations that this project is bringing about. On a wider scale, the leveling effect of Internet access is real and measurable. Check out Kiva. No more excuses there!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Required Course for School Leaders

I was giving a workshop for administrators about technology costs in 2002, and had just outlined a ballpark figure for core technology (hardware, networks and personnel.) I still remember John, a rural superintendent, who replied with visible disbelief when I said it would take 3.5 % of his operating budget, plus hardware. "Are you saying that I would need to spend $350,000 per year out of my $10,000,000 budget for technology?" For John, this was an impossible figure, yet it was the national average in at least one study, (and it did not include one-one laptops.) "It's just an operating budget," I said. "It doesn't include construction, facilities, capitol projects, etc.)"
"We don't have any of that now," he said, "the teachers do it." John was experiencing something the TCO people call " indirect costs."
For years, we have discussed the idea of having a university course in technology required for Maine certification (like school law, school finance, and exceptionality) which would facilitate conversations like the one above.
The enGauge Framework on funding:
• Reprioritize budgets to ensure ongoing, sustainable funding for wide-scale initiatives.
• Analyze the total cost of ownership and programmatic implementation to predict costs into the future.
• Provide funding for targeted R&D as well as for basic technology infrastructure, administrative and management-software solutions, e-mail and file transfer communications, and proven learning solutions for entire student populations.
The National Standards for administrators
Section IV C: "allocate financial and human resources to ensure complete and sustained implementation of the technology plan."
These bullets say a lot, but they don't say how much. Superintendents want to know how much. I remember saying to Michael, a super from midcoast Maine, that core technology would have to grow to 2% in the budget if he wanted to deploy the Internet to every desktop. "You wanna bet?" he answered with a smile. It's his budget, you see. He later became famous for sayng that technology was a "black hole" in the budget.
The Gartner TCO tool offers a few case histories of different sized districts, so there is a chance to get a picture of actual costs. And it's one good analytical piece; a way of trying to get at your own costs, especially identifying hidden costs.

The cost issues are only one small component. Staffing levels, roles and responsibilities, etc. are another. The course would carry its weight if it addressed these two pieces, and it could accomplish much more. Courses already exist that cover this material, in the UMaine system and at Lesley. They are available in the degree programs, at least as electives. I believe we need to require one for Maine certification as a K-12 administrator. JM

Platitudes and Orthodoxy in Web 2.0

I was re-reading the December 2006 Time Magazine article "How to Bring Our School Out of the 20th Century," by Cladia Wallis and Sonja Steptoe. It's a very good overview of the "new literacies," but it has one quote that worries me:
“Learn the names of all the rivers in South America. That was the assignment given To Deborah Stipek’s daughter, Meredith, in school, and her mom, who’s dean of the Stanford University School of Education, was not impressed. “That’s silly,” Stipek told her daughter. “Tell your teacher that if you need to know anything besides the Amazon, you can look it up on Google.”
     The authors present this incident in defense of the mother. Their point, of course, is that our propensity for memorizing lists of facts has less value than deeper learning, and that there are too many facts today to memorize, so we need the skills to find them. While these are both true, I am not at peace with the example given, especially not with the trivialization of the assignment by a parent. How much trouble would it have been to memorize a group of South American Rivers.? Does Dean Stipek really believe that the Parana is not important enough to remember? The Rio Negro? Even the Orinoco? If my daughter, Grace, had come home with such an assignment and requested assistance, I would probably have put on some Bolivian Fair Trade hot chocolate, and made every effort to share with her (before it is too late) the wonders of the South American land mass. Does she know that the watersheds contain four hundred pound snakes that still occasionally eat people? That these rivers never have winter or summer, just high and low water? That scientists go to the fish markets to discover unnamed fish and still do? That the water is as clean, biologically, as Moosehead lake, and is still fresh a hundred miles out to sea? Is Iguasu Falls not important? The Pantanal or the Hyacynth Macaw? Has she never read the story of Jimmie Angel, and his landing atop Auyan-tepui at Angel Falls? Of course, I would also (as a dad) have taken pride in how many of the rivers she could name when we had finished. We would have used GoogleEarth, Wikipedia, personal travelogues, and other tools. It would have been a very technologically savvy evening, but it would have honored the teacher, and the assignment, (and been a good introduction to the "21st Century themes" of indigenous peoples, deforestation, etc.)  The names of those rivers are in my head, and also in my heart, and that is very, very different from them being handy in Google.  I say this because as proponents of the shift toward 21st Century skills, we need to think before we repeat these platitudes. "Knowledge doubles every millisecond! We can look everything up... so we no longer need to know anything!" I know we don't say that exactly, but that's the way it can sound to regular people. 
    Our kids fail to learn for many reasons, but the assumption that facts are to blame (that memorization of facts in schools exists at the cost of in-depth learning) is an oversimplification. What we all need most in the “information storm” are concentration skills… strategies for keeping an idea in our heads long enough to make meaning out of what we are finding, and finishing what we started to do. Memorization goes along with that, and is thus a skill for any century, including the 21st. (Next time, the teacher should send home a nice paper-and-pencil crossword puzzle (generated by a web applet, of course) to help children memorize the rivers so as not to anger the professor mom. :)
Misconception alert! Please don't accuse me of saying that all people should memorize some huge list like Hirsch's, or that rote memorization is the best way to learn anything, or that we don't need to transform the learning environment. We shouldn't, it isn't, and we do.   In the scenario above, it would be a better lesson to have a study of the malaria problem in the Western Amazon, one that involved role setting, real projects, and live interactions with people living in the river basin.  We all know this.
My point:
If the curriculum in a certain year demands the recall of some geographic features from memory, it's not an opportunity for high-hatting the teacher. When proposing technology-based reforms, it isn't always necessary to define "bad" practice, and it is always risky to repeat slogans.  "No sage on the stage, just a guide on the side" "Feed the rabbits, starve the snails" "They don't have to know information, just know how to find it"  All of these are oversimplifications, and can appear suspicious to traditional people (many of whom provide our funding.)
By the way, here are the rivers in Wikipedia. Click a few of those and tell me they are unworthy as items of recall.
Also, as this is a Maine-based forum, I should include a reference to the Maine Counties memorization tool:
Sixteen County Song (To the tune of Yankee Doodle)

Sixteen counties in our state are [Yankee Doodle came to town a']

Cumberland and Franklin,      [Riding on a pony]

Piscataquis and Kennebec,     [Stuck a feather in his cap and]

Oxford, Androscoggin,        [Called it macaroni!]

Sagadahoc, and Somerset, [Yankee Doodle keep it up]

Lincoln, Knox, and Hancock,     [Yankee Doodle dandy]

Waldo, Washington, and York, [Mind the music and the step]
Aroostook, and Penobscot!     [And with the girls be handy]