School Technology Plans – The Virtual Fridge Door

Recently, I attended a committee meeting for our school district as it works on its new three-year technology plan. It was an interesting meeting, but very disillusioning. I’m an old geek who understands the importance of infrastructure and the difficulties involved in implementing and supporting a robust infrastructure, but the discussion about infrastructure seemed a bit much, and the question of how it affected the what and how of our children’s education seemed particularly lacking.

This was exacerbated when I asked my daughter about her use of technology at school. She explained that they only use computer briefly during ‘technology’ on Wednesday mornings. She said she only plays games to learn words and numbers, but don’t really learn anything else. There are other options for using the computers during free periods, but without sufficient Internet access, she’s just not interested.

Granted, my daughter may be an outlier. She has an email account, an IM account, accounts on various web based computer games and on Twitter. She noted that her teacher doesn’t even know what Twitter is.

I also realize that the permissions I give to my daughter is probably much more expansive than what many parents give their children. Yet it seems as if things are particularly lacking in terms of technology at the school.

The policies are excessively restrictive. They have policies for very limited Internet access for children in grades four through six, but as best as I can tell children in kindergarten through third grade do not have access to the Internet.

The filters to protect the students are also excessive, and I’ve heard stories of teachers encouraging their students to do their research at home instead of on the schools computers because the students have much better access at home.

Reading through the policies, I’m not surprised. There are some down right arcane guidelines. They seem not to understand the scope of Fair Use when it comes to copyright, or if they do understand it, it is not reflected in the guidelines. They prohibit access to websites about tattoos. I hope that no student ever tries to do a project on the Maori’s or other aboriginal people in the South Pacific where tattoos are an important part of their culture, or on wedding traditions in India or Arabic countries where the bride is prepared for weddings with henna tattoos. For that matter, my daughter couldn’t do a report on how her mother prepared for my daughter’s birth. We decorated her belly with henna tattoos.

Yet even all of this still doesn’t approach issues of curricula. There were some good discussions at the meeting. I brought up Digital Natives. Others brought up digital storytelling projects and the New York Times article about becoming screen literate.

Let me start off with a discussion of media literacy and move on from there. From a traditional viewpoint of education, perhaps we should be thinking about helping our children learn how to gather, analyze and present information.

Our children are gathering information from a great variety of sources. Some of it comes in the form of advertising on television. Some of it comes from what they read in emails, IMs and web pages they’ve searched. As the Obama campaigns advertising in computer games illustrate, they are also being bombarded with advertising in places where digital immigrants may not even think of looking.

Students need to learn early, how to find useful information online, just as they need to learn how to find books in the library. Yet it doesn’t sound like that is being taught. How do you find a good source? How do you search beyond Google and Wikipedia? How do you know if the website you are visiting is truthful or slanted?

Once the data is gathered, how do students understand the data in the context of other information they are receiving? How do they analyze it? Then, how do they present it in a compelling manner? To what extent are students learning to select fonts and colors that compliment their message? To what extent are they manipulating sounds, pictures and videos to further help get their message across?

During the meeting, people talked a little bit about the amount of time that people can waste trying to get the right font, or the right color, and teachers talked about the first question always being about how large a font can be.

This is where I will diverge even further from what seems to be the prevailing opinions of people on the committee. I think that these sorts of explorations are valuable. I think they are a basis for a more constructivist approach to education, and I believe there is great value to this.

When my elder daughters were young, I told them they could play any computer game that they could write. I didn’t hold them to this, but I did start them on programming at a very early age, and they gained a greater understanding and appreciation about what goes into a computer game. They discovered things about programming, and math, as they experimented.

We need to encourage not only the efficient gathering, analysis and presentation of information, but we need to help students learn how to discover things, how to be creative, how to come up with hypotheses. I believe that a constructivist approach to this is very useful, and I would love to see our students start programming in kindergarten.

As students flourish with their own creativity, we also need to give better outlets to this creativity. The school should have a portal where students’ work can be displayed to the public. As an example, I have put up a project that my daughter did last year in Kindergarten as a Virtual Fridge Door.

Here we run into some additional issues. One is a school policy surrounding children’s privacy. Like so many of the other policies, this one is excessively restrictive. While I recognize that some people may not want any information about their children to ever appear online, I am not one of them, and I would like it if the school posted my daughter’s schoolwork online. I would like it if pictures from school activities could easily be posted online. At the least there should be no difference in policies about pictures, schoolwork or other information being published in local papers, appearing on radio or television and appearing online. Other schools have dealt with this by providing a blanket release, and I would be glad to sign such a blanket release.

Yet even for parents that don’t want to sign a blanket release, there are plenty of other ways that the schoolwork better online. My wife and I get PTO notices via email. We send emails back and forth with our daughter’s teacher. It would be great if assignments and materials needed for the assignments could be sent via email, or even better, made accessible at a secure school web portal.

This would also provide another way that a student’s work could be shared. If it was on the school portal, it could be made available at various levels of access; only to the student and the student’s parents, to the school community as a whole, or to the public.

So, while the school appears to have a fairly solid computer infrastructure and there are a few examples of good use of this being made in the higher grades, it appears as if technology is not being used anywhere near as affectively as it could or should be.

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