On day two of the National School Boards Association’s Technology + Learning (T+L) Conference in Seattle, panelists in a session titled "Leveraging Banned Technologies to Create Ubiquitous Learning Environments" offered their advice to educators on why technology shouldn’t be banned from classrooms–and why saying "yes" is worth the time and effort.
The session started by asking school superintendents and technology chiefs about the use of technology in their schools. Using a Promethean ActivExpression system, educators weighed in on their tech policies and practices.
Here’s what they had to say: 50 percent of participants said they had schoolwide wireless access; most said they don’t allow students to bring their own technology devices to school; and many don’t have a policy in place about students bringing their own devices to school.
But perhaps the most revealing data came from the next question: Do you allow cell phones in school?
Most participants said students can carry cell phones as long as they keep them turned off during class; yet, most also agreed that cell phones could be useful for instruction.
Participants also said that if students bring personal devices to school, 40 to 60 percent of those students bring a device with broadband access.
"This makes sense to me; I’ve seen this type of data before," said Karen Greenwood Henke, founder of Nimble Press and one of NSBA’s "20 to Watch," a list of 20 movers and shakers in educational technology (http://www.eschoolnews.com/conference-info/nsba-tl/nsba-t-l-news/index.cfm?i=55786). "Educators want their students to be able to use these technologies, but they don’t know how they can be applied in the classroom."
According to Henke, there are three types of reactions from educators to students’ use of personal technology devices:
1. Banning outright. This will quell the innovation that’s already happening in educational technology, Henke said–and while educators might think the personal devices aren’t being used, they usually just go underground.
2. The Walled Garden–the "yes, but…" approach. This means firewalls, filters, and a host of other restrictive policies and technologies aimed at keeping students "safe" and on task. This is the most common of school practices, Henke said, but maintenance and management consumes time and money and often provides only a false sense of security.
3. The Jungle–meaning the school wholly embraces most new technologies and innovations that come along. It’s not always safe or "pretty," but it is rich in variation, Henke said–and many new opportunities can be created.
"The jungle is a great option," said Henke, "but it’s not all wild. The school has to have common goals that are prioritized. The school must also build consensus among all departments, not just teachers over here and the IT department over there. It must be everyone together."
Henke said another challenge for schools adopting the "jungle" approach is bandwidth capacity.
"Schools first need to develop a plan of action for when new technologies are introduced and then determine their bandwidth needs. Then they’ll be getting somewhere," she said.
For Kathy Rains, director of technology for Madison City Schools in Alabama, her district’s success in using new technologies started with defining what "ubiquitous" access really should mean for students.
Rains and her team decided it was more complex than a single sentence could encapsulate–and this led officials to develop a plan of action with key points, such as developing a school system network, offering parent information training, and defining rules and safety for students, among other points.
"We decided that ubiquitous [access] for our students meant 24-7, anytime, anywhere access to learning, through the internet, and we went from there," she explained.
In Madison City Schools, students can bring in their own laptops and can log on to the district’s network with a guest sign-on. Rains said the district would have given students their own laptops, but it cannot afford to.
The district is working with the city’s Wi-Fi provider to make this access possible, she said.
The district also opens its libraries after-hours, provides laptop carts for classroom use, allows students to sign out laptops overnight and for long-term use, and has developed a common technology language.
"This means that we want everyone to be on the same page, so we use all open-source technology. We also go by PDFs and we have one file transportation system, not eMail. We also have a district web portal through Stoneware and a content management system through Moodle," said Rains.
The district’s web portal is functional for parents as well. Besides being able to view lunch menus and school schedules online, parents can submit payments online.
Students can search the internet through this web portal, then save and store any information or documents they might need directly to their own space on the portal.
But it’s not just students who get all the fun, according to Steve Hargadon, director of the K12 Open Technologies Initiative at the Consortium for School Networking, and founder of www.classroom20.com.
Hargadon developed his social networking site for educators as a way to get educators used to the idea of social networking not always as a scary, educationally empty phenomenon.
"We have to look at the tools and the devices behind popular technologies. Just because bad things sometimes happen on Facebook doesn’t mean the technology itself can’t be useful. It just depends how it’s used," he said.
Hargadon says that for educators, profile pages can be portfolios and background information for others to see. The "friends" you are making are really "colleagues," he said–and uploading content and adding commentary provides authentic feedback to your ideas.
"Common interest groups can be turned into group projects, and the discussion forums allow for asking questions and getting engaged in meaningful conversation. The wisdom of the group will always help when trying to solve problems," he said.
For these panelists, the shift in education from a teacher-centric, factory-style model to a more dynamic model filled with ubiquitous access to information, newly created content, and personal devices is not a struggle if you start with a plan–because only by being open to new ideas will today’s students be tomorrow’s innovators.