Wednesday, March 27, 2013

When it is OK to say "NO" - An Twitter-based #edtech Reflection about IWBs

Today's post comes out of a conversation that happened out of a twitter chat that caused me to do a lot of reflection on whether or not my responses were a) appropriate or b) contradictory to many of the "Rules" that I laid out in my post from a few weeks ago (note: "10 Rules for a Successful #Edtech Department that have Little to do with Technology" is now the 3rd most popular post on this blog all-time -- thx)

Context: How Twitter Got me to this Topic
The premise put forth by @edtechempowers (Educational Researcher in Canada and great conversationalist), originally posted this comment:
Through the course of our conversation, it became apparent, that while he and I agreed about a number of things in the use of technology and the running of an IT department, he had little context for a technology department that is build around student learning, school mission, and teacher support.
This discussion continued the next day, as we outlined the difference between a collaborative tech department vs. one which is adversarial:

Again, the conversation was more about a frame of reference for a different kind of technology program than a fundamental disagreement about technology or programs. Where the discussion got interesting was when we talked about specific tools and the role of IT in determining use.

Then we started talking about SMARTBoards...


A Topic for Discussion -- The Interactive White Board (IWB)
Many of you know that I am not a huge fan of Interactive White Boards

I was given a whiteboard in my second year of teaching and had a blast discovering interesting ways to use it (my favorite was using the interactive pens to show specific cinematography choices while deconstructing Shakespeare movies).

When I became the Head Geek of Brebeuf Jesuit, I was in favor of installing IWBs as part of our build-out. We hedged our bets a little by only putting the boards in 1/3 of the classrooms -- technology moves so fast that we didn't want all our technological eggs in one basket.

We put forth a lot of training efforts -- more traditional than our flexible model now -- but with a lot of teaming opportunities, modeling of creative ways to implement, and idea sharing.

One year later, while generally disappointed in implementation  we approved a SMARTBoard-in-every-math-room proposal to respond to competition and because of the use-case presented by the teachers. After two years of training, implementation, and reflection we found that:
  • The most common use for a SMARTBOARD was as a screen.
  • The most common "interactive" use for a SMARTBOARD was as a mouse.
  • The most common response after "do not use" regarding the digital "markers" was "I occasionally circle or underline something" (A common reason written in for why it was not used more was "I just forget")
  • There was little use of screen-shading, use of SMARTNotebook or other templates, or any features that would make it a more student-centered activity.
We finally determined that there were two teachers effectively using the SMARTBoard: one teacher had converted most lectures to a SMART format that would allow the teacher (and in some cases, students) to fill in sample problems using the inking feature and another teacher had a variety of student-based activities including puzzles, word searches, "races" etc.

After another attempt to "spread the word" on these techniques and offer more individualized PD, we as an IT department made the preliminary decision to quit buying Interactive Whiteboards. This was discussed with Academic Department chairs and we closed the book.
  • Follow-up 1: Teachers still wanted to be able to provide classroom interactive notes electronically.
    The most common use of our IWB - with Donuts
    and BatMonkey via @40ishoracle
    We found using a pen-based tablet PC, classroom computer, and UltraVNC (free software) adequately did the job -- for less money than a SMARTBoard.
  • Follow-up 2: 2 years later, a teacher commented on a constituent survey regarding the IT department -- "When am I getting MY SMARTBoard?" -- it was anonymous. Communication Fail.
  • Follow-up 3: 4 years later, we purchased an ENO board for our Teacher Resource Room. It is an excellent magnetic whiteboard. Each time we think "ooh. we could use the pen!", the computer has been re-imaged and does not have the software. Now we just take pictures of the board -- like the students.

The Challenge: Is It Ever OK for a Tech Department to Just Say "NO"?
Ouch. Talk about hitting me where it hurts. We are a 1:1 BYOT school. To argue that denying access to an IWB is a violation of our general premise of Access, Evaluate, and Use really caused me to pause. As we begin to gear up for the next capital project, a major renovation of classrooms, were we turning a blind-eye toward technology that could be used because of our bias?

JD's 3 Rules for When It is OK to Say "No"
(with an Two Important Corollaries): 

1. The primary method of evaluating classroom technology should be impact on Student Learning (Secondary, impact on teacher productivity).

When we developed our informal walk-through evaluation system for teachers, we placed a strong focus on "what are the students doing?". The activity of the students: collaborating, note-taking, reflecting, board races, presentations, etc. are one major focus of our environment. We should encourage techniques, tools, and behaviors that enhance student learning and discourage the same when it takes away from learning.

2. The metric for student learning should be informed by the teaching methods, student context, and objectives of the school's mission
School's have personalities that are based in part on the mission and culture of the institution. In a Jesuit school, there is a heavy focus on student-teacher relationship (an understanding of student context, a trusting and caring atmosphere) and the time and space to reflect on new experiences. If a tool or technique does not provide substantive new experiences or new ways for each individual student to reflect, then the tool runs counter to the mission and should not be adopted (it is for this reason that many of our school consultations begin, not with a "state of technology" report but with an analysis of a school's context and mission).

One of our Biology teacher's put it succinctly, "Even if you have a great interactive student-centered lesson for the SMARTBoard, it's still only one student at a time. I need more efficiency in class."

3. Because there are limited resources to buy technology, time to spend with students, and opportunities for learning experiences and reflection, some technology should be discouraged or avoided - even if it "could be good".

Ultimately, decisions have to be made on a global level. Will every classroom have a projector? a document camera? an IWB? a textbook? a computer along the back wall? a tablet in each student's hand?

Once decisions are made about the impact of a particular technology on student-learning within the context of the school's pedagogy and mission, then choices must be made about universal classroom technology. These choices can be upsetting to some teachers, but if the decisions are made out of student-impact and mission, the conversation, while painful can be authentic and even a good thing.

Corollary 1: The Admin Variation -- It is important to understand that the determinations described above are seldom in the realm-of-care of most tech.staff in an IT department. This is the realm of the Principal, the Academic/Curriculum leaders, and the Educational Technology integrators -- that includes teachers! A decision to eliminate a technology tool or to stop pursuing a path should be one of academics in all but the rarest of occasions (I am picturing a bizarre conversation regarding "we need to stop filtering for viruses because of the following academic benefits...")

Corollary 2: The Open-to-Growth Exception -- Decisions made across the board should be open to variations based on effective teaching and student impact. Just as the initial evaluation of a tool is based on the use-case and real data, the unique implementation in a classroom may be an exception to the rule. I have told the two teacher's described above that they will have the last two functional SMARTBoard in the building. They have found an effective use-case that goes beyond the typical implementation of IWB-as-oversized-mouse-for-the-teacher. Their unique use-case justifies technology that may not be used anywhere else in the building.

In the same way that pilot programs can be used to build a case for new technology in a school, an effective IT/Administrative Team will be open to finding the exceptions in policy that allow for an individual teacher to leverage technology effectively in a way that other educators were unable to do.

So there you have it. Even the most open-to-ideas, student/teacher centered program can still reject an idea or tool or technology.