Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Back to School Technology

We have, for now, kids in Middle and High Schools, and the past week has included Back to School days for both of them. I'll try not to harp too much on the appalling school branding (now up to 13 different eagle "icons" for the one school) or terrible writing skills of the staff and teachers when they send us forms and emails.

And I know that none of this is truly new. I've seen at least some of it, in some form, for quite a while. But I think we've reached a sort of tipping point where the result is noticeable.

There's plenty of old technology about. There are printed books. eBooks aren't even on the horizon. The kids have to take notes on paper (computers are unheard of for the students, not a one, not a question), and there are lots and lots of photocopied handouts. There seem to be a lot of families with no computers, and maybe no smartphones. Some teachers referred to getting even high school kids "used to technology" and of course they offer use of computers at school. So some of this may be

They even have phones. Like, wireline phones! The teachers never use the wireline phone in the room, but these seem telling.

There are projectors in every room. This seems great because it encourages the instructors to make everything digital. Document cameras are one of the new technologies this year in most rooms, and this is a bit sad. Too much stuff from the book publishers is only on paper, and the teachers are absolutely prevented from making copies out of the book. So, this nice technology is sort of a step backwards as it encourages old-school technology.

Most rooms are issued, and many teachers use, this:

It's a Wacom wireless Graphire, just sold through (and integrated with I assume) the SmartBoards. The teachers then walk around the room not just advancing slides, but drawing, typing and scooting items around the screen. I am a lover of the pen tablet so this excites me.

A few rooms had this:

This is that technology where the kids can vote or otherwise provide near-real-time digital responses to things on screen. Yup, all are at least a little broken (see the tape) and the Beyond Question devices are specifically oddly shaped and not designed for the environment. They are less rugged than my home TV remote. It is IR, and so there's lots of pointing oddly to get to the receiver, and the questions have to be set up by the teacher through some custom software.

The computer class was all but Sponsored by Microsoft. Not just all of Office, but also a few weeks on Access is in the curriculum. I wouldn't mind if they spent some time on database principles, but fear it'll not cover that at all. Oh, well.

Many teachers want you to sign up for one or another type of SMS and/or email reminder.

And every teacher is pretty much required (they said so) to tell us all to regularly monitor their Web Back Pack (or, Backpack... they aren't consistent). They post their curriculum, current status, homework, and so on up there. Think of each teacher like a department in your company, and their Back Pack page as their intranet page. Yup, just a flood of text and random images and lots and lots of Word or Powerpoint downloads.

And there are another half dozen cloud services we're supposed to use as well. Which brings me to my complaint that this is all terrible. It's not a thing, but a zillion things. It's controlled by the district, so the teachers can only use certain tools, but there are too many. And they aren't coordinated.

For example, to use the Back Pack, I go to the district website, then pick the school from an alphabetical list. Of all of them, not ordered by type or area, so a very long list. Then I pick the teacher. By first name no less.

Or what about fallback technology? One of the teachers is technically a sub. For the whole year, sure, but the district considers her a sub. So, no access to any of the district digital tools. Therefore, she hands out paper, and makes the students write things in their notebooks in a common format.

This all violates basic principles I talk about all the time. My student gets a single schedule, for example. They don't arrange to attend school with each teacher, but with the district. They know who we are, so should be able to figure out we have two kids in school. I should be able to enter my basic info (eliminating giving my email to each teacher), and then click straight into the classes for each of my children.

And while I am there, even if things like signup for all those SMS reminder systems (even if they have to be separate services) should be linked. And only one per family or student, with checkboxes per class. A separate signup per class is insane.

This is why I gripe about technology all the time. More boxes, wires and software won't solve our problems. Like we tell kids to stop and think before they talk, we need to stop and think before we buy or build more of this. How can we integrate, improve existing products and be intelligent with the data we have already?

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