Sunday, May 14, 2017

Anxious about Ed Tech

With classes beginning this week, I thought I'd discuss another area of anxiety for me: technology.

It's weird to think that a young, educated, affluent male in the United States would have anxiety about technology (no, this is not the discussion about how our technology is designed to produce equal parts anxiety and reward in order to addict us to it) but I am really quite concerned about my relationship with education technology. I'm concerned because I think it's complete bullshit.

I'm anxious because I don't see good technology use in schools. For the past few months I've worked at a large corporate tutoring company and I've really enjoyed it. While I could have earned more and been more of a teacher working as an independent tutor, I've been able to meet a number of teachers and students from Long Island and learned quite a bit about schools here which I'd otherwise not have learned. I also like the large corporate model because it brings down the costs of tutoring. I feel like my independent rates would have been high. From what I can tell, it could have been upwards of $40 an hour if I'd been able to market myself effectively. But who can afford a $40 an hour tutor? Exactly.

With my large corporate tutoring center I was able to meet more minority and poor students than if I'd been indy. Plus, I got to learn all about how dozens of different schools use education technology. The picture isn't pretty. Private schools, publics, charters, all pretty much followed identical models. These kids didn't have worksheets. They had cloud worksheets. They'd log into whatever content delivery system that school used and they'd have, basically, a worksheet. Sometimes it included a link to a video (YouTube, obviously) that the teacher thought was helpful. Sometimes there would be a quiz following a lesson using a free service like quizlet. None of this is revolutionary. None of this is a kind of learning which hasn't already existed for decades. Most of these students are not in "flipped" classrooms. They say they still do the same kind of work in class. It's hardly revolutionary and I have to wonder how much these districts spend on the content delivery systems and hardware for each kid which could be going to better use.

Let me also mention that the experience of using this technology is equally uninspiring. The computers are typically Chromebooks or Windows laptops and they're cheap. Obviously I just said that these districts are wasting money and taking a position now that they should spend more on better computers is contradictory. I'm not taking that position. I'm merely pointing out that these schools are getting what they pay for. These computers and Chromebooks don't maintain battery charge after constant daily use. Students frequently bring computers directly from school where they've been using them all day to the tutoring center. They're drained and they can't sit at the table and reach an outlet. We give them our center's ageing laptops. They have failing hardware (especially the windows ones which appear to be equipped with spinning magnetic hard drives, a recipe for disaster in a young child's hands) and bad software choices. Besides often being physically damaged (because they're used by goddamned children!), the internals are often cheap and not of a grade that is meant for consistent daily use. The wifi on these computers typically doesn't work or cuts on and off. This doesn't happen on my phone or the center's computers so I have to assume it's their computers. They crash from time to time and often take ages to load simple things like the web browser. The software might need updating on the laptops or on the school's end. Some of the content delivery systems rely on outdated products like Flash which doesn't even work on Chromebooks. Yes. This happens. I have one to two hours with these students and it is not uncommon for them to spend half an hour simply trying to get the computer to work well enough to access the worksheet for me to help them with. Education technology in practice is not exciting.

I'm anxious because I don't have much background in how to effectively use education technology. Way back in 2010 when I completed my MAT in English Education at Georgia State, I was supposed to have, ahem, mastery of education technology. There was a whole course devoted to the use of technology in the classroom and its potential for changing education for the better. Reflecting back on that experience, I think it was hopelessly inadequate. I also think that it could not have been any better. I remember being in my Ed Tech class on the first day. It was in a nice computer lab with large friendly Dell desktops and large friendly Dell monitors with a satisfying hum just barely below the level of conversational speech. Our professor said hello and after a quick introduction we all created Second Life accounts. The remainder of that first class was devoted to exploring Georgia State's virtual campus and classroom. The professor was working very hard to actually hold classes virtually in Second Life and was partnering with other schools of education around the world to collaborate and ... you get the picture. For the remainder of the semester we never used Second Life again. I do not remember a single other thing from that class. And yet, online education grew immensely since that time. While we may not be meeting with virtual avatars, we are pushing forward with a variety of online courses. At the primary and secondary level I don't see any evidence of these models but my sample size is limited.

Another lesson I remember from GA State's "immersive" technology focus was a requirement that we use Flip video cameras. The idea was that we could give them to students and let them express themselves through video. There was some kind of way to tie that into the actual lessons and content but I don't remember it. Flip went out of business in 2011. Again, the limitations are fairly obvious. The kid has to know how to edit video, has to have access to a computer that can edit video, and has to have access to software that can edit video. Basically, it was the teacher's job to facilitate all that so the students could express themselves in a way which demonstrated understanding of some curricular item. I recorded myself teaching using one of these cameras. It wasn't pretty. That was the only time I used it because something went wrong with the camera and it was broken. Permanently.

We were also admonished for using Powerpoint. I think that was actually one of the central pillars of my education education from GA State. Don't use Powerpoint EVER. The preferred alternative was not changing the way you educate your students. It was not a new model of the classroom instruction. It was Prezi. Prezi is Powerpoint. Like. Literally. What does it do that Powerpoint can't? Not much from what I can tell. At the time, we were told Powerpoint lacked bright colors, fun transitions, and encouraged the overuse of text. I guess that's true? But, to reiterate my main idea, this is not really inspiring. I don't see how using Prezi is some pathway to significantly improved student learning. It's shinier and fancier than Powerpoint was in 2011. Is that enough?

I'm anxious because I don't trust schools to embrace education technology. When I started working after graduating from GA state, I tried to bring my personal laptop to work. Ya know, because I wanted to get shit done. I was unable to connect to the school's network. That's probably a good thing. You don't want random passers by to immediately have access to any organization's network. I dropped by the school's IT lady who basically said she was being nice for not reporting me to the county and that I should never bring a laptop from home again. My county, even as recently as 2012, forbade teachers from bringing their personal computers to school. Thankfully, I received a computer within a few weeks and was able to get shit done after that.

Shortly I discovered other choices made by the county also hurt my chances of ever effectively using technology. YouTube was blocked on the staff network but not on the student network. Then it was reversed one day which was great. For about three week I was able to use YouTube videos of things to help with my lessons. Then it was blocked again. It's not just YouTube but that's a popular service with teachers. I frequently couldn't access educational sites and services, even some like edmodo which were the content delivery system for a course. It was a wreck.

Famously (at least for me and the teachers I keep in touch with) this school district overhauled its IT and bought every teacher a Microsoft Surface. The next school year they bought all of the students iPads. Recently, that's probably become more manageable as Microsoft has embraced putting Office onto all the mobile platforms but, initially, there was almost zero interoperability between the devices given to the teachers and to the students.

That's not to say I didn't use technology. I checked out the school's laptop cart (an unwieldy giant locker for holding small portable computers and which required me to register, by hand, which students used which computer) almost weekly and used it for research and writing. More than anything, I think research is what technology does for the classroom best. Nothing beats a good 30 minutes of searching the web to gather information about a class topic. It almost always went well even with the intermittent blocking and network problems. When you're trying to help kids with basic reading and writing problems, a Google search is actually an interesting opportunity. How can you write your query better? How can you tell if your results are any good without spending a long time reading (or sometimes failing to read) each result? There's a lot of cool interaction there for kids on the bottom rungs of the skills ladder and the kids at the top can mostly manage the tasks themselves which they enjoy more anyway. Am I old fashioned because I think that's how education should be? Kids ask questions and I help them build the skills to answer them. Technology works there.

So those are my anxieties about education technology. I'm going into an environment very much unlike anything I have experience with and I'm not sure how much technology is going to play a role in it. Will I have the necessary skills and knowledge? Is my thinking about tech going to place me on the outside of a younger and more connected cohort? And most of all, am I going to be asked to focus more on technology than on my students? When signs and symbols matter more to professors (Prezi, no red ink, space for self expression) than demonstrable learning (can the kids read better now than before I started teaching them), I have a hard time getting along. Sadly, that's what I feel like tech is to most people in education. A symbol that you're doing it right instead of actual attention to doing it right.
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