How to Read “Tech in Schools” Stories

For those not yet totally overwhelmed by the information stacks and flows of the modern world, here’s a not so secret trick to pushing yourself over the edge.

  1. Login to your Google account.
  2. Go to Google Alerts
  3. Create an alert for “computers in education”
  4. Copy the RSS feed for that alert
  5. Paste into your favorite RSS reader (i.e. Feedly)
  6. Pour stiff drink

Every day, I get between 12-20 articles from around the world about new “innovative” or “transformative” installations of technology into classrooms. Most of them are local stories, written by local reporters, working on lean budgets and short deadlines, knowing relatively little about technology in a truly learning context. And most of them, in reference to #6 above, can be read with a Buzzword Bingo drinking card in hand. (Caution: If you’re doing that, only read these types of stories after 8 pm.)

For the record, since I’m about to push back on much of this “news,” I’m not demeaning the best intentions of the teachers and leaders who are the subjects of these stories. In many cases, these are first steps. But I am asking us all to up our game, both in the ways we think about technology use in schools, and the ways we tell those stories to the public.

So, let me give you a sense of how I read these articles and the questions that I ask. I’m picking one at random and anonymizing it as much as possible. And I’m just picking out the most revealing quotes from the story.

Ready?

The lead: “Soon, every [Insert Your Name Here] School District student will have their own Chromebook or iPad.”

Me: That’s two bingo card buzzwords off the board in the very first sentence. But let’s see what they’re thinking of doing with those puppies.

Quote: “Along with being cheaper, Chromebooks are easier for IT staff to manage. A lot of education software utilizes Flash, which is not supported on iPads.”

Me: Ok…cheaper and easier. Always good starting points, right? I know that reflects reality, but hopefully those are not the compelling reasons for spending any money, right?

Quote: “‘Rolling it out, you never know what to expect,’ [Insert School Leader’s Name Here] said. ‘What I’ve seen is more technology use.’

Me: Um, ok, what does “more technology use” mean? More looking stuff up? More YouTube? Wondering what parents envision when they read that…

Quote: “One of the biggest reasons the district is moving to a one-to-one device to student ratio is state testing.’There’s a lot of high stakes online testing,’ [Insert School Leader’s Name Here] said.”

Me: And, there you go. And it only took us 1/4 of the way in to get to the driving force. Now, like I said, I know this is reality. But if this is the “biggest” reason, then it’s also a problem. What if we astounded the reporter with all sorts of “interesting things” that the kids will do with the technology, and buried that state testing thing as an asterisk?

Quote: “[Insert School Name Here] Elementary third-grade teacher [Insert Teacher Name Here] said that since her class has received the Chromebooks, she’s able to better manage her classroom.”

Me: We’re pumping efficiency over effectiveness here people. We’ve got to do better.

Quote: “[Insert Teacher Name Here] is a third-grade teacher at [Insert School Name Here] Elementary, and she reoriented her classroom so that she can see all of her students’ Chromebook screens at once. She added that it’s simple to monitor everyone at once, including through her own Chromebook.”

Me: Really? I mean REALLY? Think about the narrative that this is sending. “We use technology so that we can monitor our students.” I mean if that’s the goal…

Quote: “[Insert Teacher Name Here], a third-grade teacher at [Insert School Name Here], had students create Slides presentations about any topic they wanted, practicing presentation skills, as well as learning to research. The project brings together learning and the students’ personal interests.  Principal [Insert Name Here] watched some of the passion projects on Thursday.  ‘They’re not afraid of messing things up,’ she said. ‘It’s a whole new world out there for all of us.'”

Me: Here is the requisite checking of the “student agency” box where kids can pursue their passions by creating presentations. And it’s also the requisite “Golly, this technology thing is amazing” moment where the adults do a wink and nod to kids knowing more than we do. (That quote is in the story too, btw.) 

Quote: “And for parents wary of the technology, [Insert Name Here] said that he hopes students will be sharing what they’re learning with their parents.  ‘This is not technology for entertainment,’ he emphasized, adding that the school will work with parents if the device causes any behavioral problems.

Me: Wondering what they’re doing to make parents less wary. Wondering how they define “learning.” Wondering how they’ll “work with parents.” Wondering how the device “causes” behavioral problems. Wondering…

End Quote: “‘This is a tool for them to learn with, [Insert Name Here] said, ‘It’s not intended to replace instruction, but enhance it.'”

Me: This speaks volumes to me. It’s a teaching tool, not a learning tool. 

Final Thoughts: I make this too simple, I get it. There are layers here: the interpretation of the reporter, the community this school serves, the culture of the district, the pressures of state and parent expectations. This is not a great exercise in speaking to the realities of those in the story.

But, whether we like it or not, this IS reality at some level. This is what parents read. This is what knuckleheads like me read. These are the stories we tell. Some of this particular story is painfully clear. Other parts are much more nuanced.

Nevertheless, we need to do better, not only when it comes to the reporting, but with how teachers and leaders understand the truly transformative opportunities of technology, the ones that go far beyond state testing and monitoring and presentation building, the ones that need to form the basis of this new story that we tell about learning in schools. We need to create and convey a much more compelling narrative when we talk to a reporter about anything in schools.

And if we’re not going to raise that bar, then go back to #6 above. There’s a long road ahead.

Image credit: Kevin Jarrett

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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