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Caveat emptor

This week I have been asked multiple times what “solution” I have in mind for different instructional technology situations in our district. Here is my answer:
I don’t have a solution.
In fact, more and more I am coming to the conclusion that we as IT Coaches cannot in full honesty offer “solutions”. It is frustrating to be sure, but I think it is true.
I’ll state up front that I hope you all know that I want to help teachers – more than anything else I do. I just wonder if it is possible, or if it is even advisable for us to bop around from group to group with “solutions” on silver platters tied up with velvet bows. It feels to me like each week we are with another portion of the district who wants to partner with us to infuse technology into their respective curricular areas. This is great, and I am glad we are building these relationships. They will serve us all well as we progress. What concerns me is that we are being tasked (expressed or implied) with establishing systems (lessons/work flows/routines/tools/whatever you want to call them) that can be dropped into any district classroom and “just work”. Surely we ALL want this, but I fear it is not technically possible.
You know as well as I do that as we look across and school district the size of LPS, some of the 50+ buildings we serve have new computers, some old. Some have access to many gadgets, some have none. Some have leadership that puts a great deal of human investment in using the technology to further learning, while most buildings are focused elsewhere. Some have support systems that make teachers comfortable and ready to use more technology, others have no boots on the ground at all. Many buildings have someone who cannot (or will not) “fix” broken things for various reasons, others feed technology to teachers in teeny tiny bits like they are baby birds, but sit on them while they do it, never allowing them to fly. Other buildings are veritable techno-rock stars! What this creates is a situation where across a district or ESU, there are no two schools that have the same technology profile. How can any solution/lessons/work flows/routines/tools/whatever we create possibly work in every classroom across this district?
I think we as IT Coaches need to be cautious about the bill of goods we are selling these other groups. We are not “solution” people. We are idea people, we are support people, we are thought leaders, we are inspiration, we are consolation, we are agents of change. We are very powerful and influential situationally, but we cannot change the fact that the technology profiles at play  prevent us from any one-size-fits-all approaches. This needs to be abundantly clear to the writing instructors, the math coaches, foreign language teachers, the Principals, or any other group we work with. Technically speaking, textbooks and handouts work 100% of the time. But not technology. Technology fails from time to time, even when you think you’ve thought of everything.
Attempting to create models and scenarios in which technology failure is not an option, or where a teacher of any skill level can be immediately successful, or where it is the same for everyone across the district only does one thing for certain. It lowers the bar. When technology is designed to be so easy as to be transparent, it is not appreciated or acknowledged for what it is until something goes wrong. As soon as that happens the technology is villainized. It reminds me of the deep snapper on a football team. If he is doing his job well, no one will ever know his name. 99/100 times he performs his job flawlessly, but the moment he messes up, everyone calls him a bum.
Moreover, I think we do a disservice to teachers by attempting to create solutions that require no active learning on their part. Yes – they are busy. Yes they have a lot on their plates. Yes I know that some of their technology skills are a decade behind. Yes we are asking them to do “one more thing”. And no, I am not implying that they should need a M.S. in Computer Science to teach a lesson or use a gadget. I am just saying that as professionals, shouldn’t we be able to expect SOME involvement from the classroom teacher in using modern tools? Wouldn’t modeling a bit of “lifelong learning” to a class of kids be as valuable to them as any skill we could be imparting? It feels to me like we are striving to create lessons that a sack of potatoes could lead a class through, and systems that are failsafe enough to be used in outer space.
So what do we do about it?
My first thought is that when planning/brainstorming with these other groups, we should be open and transparent about the lack of a level playing field, and the frailties of technology. We don’t want to create situations in which they feel this is a “done deal”. This is not about agreeing upon a method, printing some materials and washing our hands. Technology is an ever changing ecosystem. What is planned today will likely need to be modified in 3 months. Servers, errors, running out of ink, networks being down, 404s and heartbreak – THAT is the reality. Not a stack of blackline masters.
Therefore, I think it is essential that we offer possible scenarios instead of “solutions.” Explain the objectives, offer some scenarios, and let the teacher pick which technologies will work best in their classrooms. This is where we need to be sure that the objective of the lesson is not dependent upon the technology. Maybe paper/pencil is the right fit for THIS lesson. That’s OK if we flood the landscape with opportunities to use technology instead of 2 or 3 specific things each year that everyone has to do exactly the same way.
Teachers should also be made aware that they need to have a “plan B.”
Also, we need to stop aiming for the lowest common denominator when it comes to our expectations of teachers. Aim for the middle of the pack. We don’t want to push people off of a cliff, but it should be OK for them to have to learn a little bit about the technology they are using. We should not expect them to change their oil in the car or replace the brakes, but they should have to know how to put gas in the tank or air in their tires, right? I keep hearing people make excuses for our teachers and their inability to do some of the basic tasks in using a computer. Facts are facts. We’ve never held the kind of systemic training on technology use in the same manner that we regularly do with textbooks or the curricular expectations that change yearly. What I keep thinking is that we are now in 2010. What year will it be when we stop making excuses for our teachers and move forward with what we’ve got?
I don’t know – perhaps I am caught up in the semantics of “solutions”, perhaps I am off-base completely, perhaps I am just getting grizzled and bristly because I am living so close to it every day.  But then again, maybe I’m not alone in my thinking. Just checking. I expect push-back and disagreement from fellow Instructional Technology  Coaches/Professionals on this. That’s great, actually. I am happy that we all have distinct opinions, and I would love nothing more than to be completely wrong about this. I also love that we are at the place where this conversation is happening.
I’m thinking outloud and wondering what others think.

This week I have been asked multiple times what “solution” I have in mind for different instructional technology situations in our district. Here is my answer:

I don’t have a solution.

In fact, more and more I am coming to the conclusion that we as IT Coaches cannot in full honesty offer “solutions”. It is frustrating to be sure, but I think it is true.

I’ll state up front that I hope you all know that I want to help teachers – more than anything else I do. I just wonder if it is possible, or if it is even advisable for us to bop around from group to group with “solutions” on silver platters tied up with velvet bows. It feels to me like each week we are with another portion of the district who wants to partner with us to infuse technology into their respective curricular areas. This is great, and I am glad we are building these relationships. They will serve us all well as we progress. What concerns me is that we are being tasked (expressed or implied) with establishing systems (lessons/work flows/routines/tools/whatever you want to call them) that can be dropped into any district classroom and “just work”. Surely we ALL want this, but I fear it is not technically possible.

You know as well as I do that as we look across a school district or ESU with 50+ buildings to serve, you’ll have some with new computers, some with old. More likely you’ll have classrooms with old/new in the same building. Some have access to many gadgets, some have none. Some have leadership that puts a great deal of human investment in using the technology to further learning, while most buildings are focused elsewhere. Some have support systems that make teachers comfortable and ready to use more technology, others have no boots on the ground at all. Many buildings have someone who cannot (or will not) “fix” broken things for various reasons, others feed technology to teachers in teeny tiny bits like they are baby birds, but sit on them while they do it, never allowing them to fly. Other buildings are veritable techno-rock stars! What this creates is a situation where across a district or ESU, there are no two schools that have the same technology profile. How can any solution/lessons/work flows/routines/tools/whatever we create possibly work in every classroom across this district?

I think we as IT Coaches need to be cautious about the bill of goods we are selling these other groups. We are not “solution” people or “system” people. We are idea people, we are support people, we are thought leaders, we are inspiration, we are consolation, we are agents of change. We are very powerful and influential in some situations, but we cannot change the fact that the spectrum of technology profiles at play  prevent us from any one-size-fits-all approaches. This needs to be abundantly clear to the writing instructors, the math coaches, foreign language instructors, social studies teachers, Principals, or any other group we work with. Technically speaking, textbooks and handouts “work” 100% of the time. But not technology. Technology fails from time to time, even when you think you’ve thought of everything.

You had better have a plan B.

Photo by Flickr user Don Fulano

Attempting to create models and scenarios in which technology failure is not an option, or where a teacher of any skill level can be immediately successful, or where it is the same for everyone across the district only does one thing for certain. It lowers the bar. When technology is designed to be so easy as to be transparent, it is not appreciated or acknowledged for what it is. It is neither good nor bad until something goes wrong. As soon as that happens the technology is villainized. It reminds me of the deep snapper on a football team. If he is doing his job well, no one will ever know his name. 99/100 times he performs his job flawlessly, but the moment he messes up, everyone calls him a bum.

Moreover, I think we do a disservice to teachers by attempting to create solutions that require no active learning on their part. Yes – they are busy. Yes they have a lot on their plates. Yes I know that some of their technology skills are a decade behind. Yes we are asking them to do “one more thing”. And no, I am not implying that they should need a M.S. in Computer Science to teach a lesson or use a gadget. I am just saying that as professionals, shouldn’t we be able to expect SOME involvement from the classroom teacher in using modern tools? Wouldn’t modeling a bit of “lifelong learning” to a class of kids be as valuable to them as any skill we could be imparting? It feels to me like we are striving to create lessons that a sack of potatoes could lead a class through, and systems that are failsafe enough to be used in outer space.

So what do we do about it?

My first thought is that when planning/brainstorming with these other groups, we should be open and transparent about the lack of a level playing field, and the frailties of technology. We don’t want to create situations in which they feel this is a “done deal”. This is not about agreeing upon a method, printing some materials and washing our hands. Technology is an ever changing ecosystem. What is planned today will likely need to be modified in 3 months. Servers, errors, running out of ink, networks being down, 404s and heartbreak – THAT is the reality. Not a stack of blackline masters.

Therefore, I think it is essential that we offer possible scenarios instead of “solutions.” Explain the objectives, offer some scenarios, and let the teacher pick which technologies will work best in their classrooms. This is where we need to be sure that the objective of the lesson is not dependent upon the technology. Maybe paper/pencil is the right fit for THIS lesson. That’s OK if we flood the landscape with opportunities to use technology instead of 2 or 3 specific things each year that everyone has to do exactly the same way.

It should be made perfectly clear to teachers that they need to have a “plan B.”

Also, we need to stop aiming for the lowest common denominator when it comes to our expectations of teachers. Aim for the middle of the pack! We don’t want to push people to frustration, but it should be OK for them to have to learn a little bit about the technology they are using. We should not expect them to change the oil in their car or replace the brakes, but they should have to know how to put gas in the tank or air in their tires, right? I keep hearing people make excuses for our teachers and their inability to do some of the basic tasks in using a computer. Facts are facts. We’ve never held the kind of systemic training on technology use in the same manner that we regularly do with textbooks or the curricular expectations that change yearly. What I keep thinking is that we are now in 2010. What year will it be when we stop making excuses for our teachers and move forward with the skillset we’ve got?

I don’t know – perhaps I am caught up in the semantics of “solutions”, perhaps I am off-base completely, perhaps this only applies to me, perhaps I am just getting grizzled and bristly because I am living so close to it every day. But then again, maybe I’m not alone in my thinking. I expect push-back and disagreement from fellow Instructional Technology  Coaches/Professionals on this. That’s great, actually. I am happy that we all have distinct opinions, and I would love nothing more than to be completely wrong about this.

I also love that we are at the place where this conversation is happening.

PHOTO SOURCE

Posted in My Thoughts.


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