Monday, November 26, 2007

Another Technology Black-eye

Another article today makes me feel like I'm a broken record:

Detroit Free Press: TECHNOLOGY CLICKS WITH KIDS (11/26/07)

It highlights innovative technology usage at a few area schools. Rochester is noticably absent.

One of the first pieces of board business I witnessed after being elected in 2004 was the sale of nearly $65 million in bonds. The community had generously approved the bond issue, which included $6 - $8 million for technology. Sadly, three years later, much of that technology money continues to languish in a bank account somewhere -- unused -- while other schools investigate, experiment, and implement.

Rochester does have smartboards -- like those being installed in Bloomfield. But instead of having one in every classroom, Rochester is limited to one or two in each building. And that is only because the Rochester Foundation raised money through it's annual golf outing and bought one for each building.

Some will argue there is a good reason for being a laggard; it allows others to go through the pain associated with being first to try something. And perhaps the equipment costs will be lower when Rochester finally decides to play copycat / catchup. But keep in mind there is no free (or reduced) lunch here; students are losing opportunity RIGHT NOW because of a lack of technology leadership.

Consider how Rochester had an idea to look at video-distance learning -- essentially linking classrooms using video-conferencing technology. Great idea... that took something like 6 years to implement.

Media center specialists and teachers around the district have done some great things with technology, but there is no organized method for allowing them to share ideas. Even the smartboards -- as innovative as they are -- require teachers to invest of time upfront to plan lessons. Rochester has no formal method that I've seen for teachers to share these lesson plans, so they all basically reinvent things. It seems teachers must rely entirely on social structures, such as a teacher in Building A knowing a teacher in Building B. Wouldn't a little help here be appropriate?

And smartboards might not even be the best idea. Shouldn't teacher input be solicited to identify promising technology? I'm sure they have some great ideas. How about clipping technology ideas and sharing them in a newsletter with teachers, asking if anything catches their eye? Perhaps try smartboards at a few buildings, and something else at a few others. Measure the results and solicit feedback from the teachers.

This lack of technology vision is not only shortchanging students, but it's also unfair to teachers. The tools described in the Free Press article clearly help teachers by making them more productive, potentially easing their workload, and by making their jobs more rewarding, interesting, and fun. In some cases, as described in the article, it helps them to build a stronger bond with the students, and helps to engage children who are otherwise distant.

Given the importance of technology, and the lack of progress, perhaps Rochester should delegate new technology investigation and implementation responsibility to the media center specialists in each building. The projects described below, such as classroom blogs, podcasts, games-based learning, and computer-to-computer video conferencing, are all things that could be conceived and implemented at the building level. They've already done some pretty cool things all around the district. If you cannot lead, then get out of the way so others can!

Finally, as an aside, notice the examples below that are being used to showcase the technology: Spanish and Chinese language instruction in elementary. Rochester has no world language instruction at the elementary level. Certainly a worthwhile topic for another day!

P.S. Here is an interesting look at technology used in Birmingham, put together by Rob Lawrence.

I've posted the entire Free Press article below in case the link doesn't work.



Computers transform classrooms
Gadgets get students excited to learn
November 26, 2007


The kids grab small voting devices on their desks, then punch in their answer to a question posed on the screen above them: "¿Cual es verde? "

In an instant, teacher Nancy Conn pushes a button and up pops a chart showing the correct answer -- the green square -- among six squares of varying colors.

All of this is happening on a large interactive white board -- a cross between a blackboard, computer screen and projector -- that Conn uses in her Spanish classroom at Hickory Grove Elementary School in Bloomfield Township.
The boards -- which will be in every classroom in the Bloomfield Hills Schools district by the beginning of next year -- are among the ways schools in metro Detroit are using technology to teach and capture the minds of a generation growing up in a digital age.

At Lottie Schmidt Elementary School in New Baltimore, students in Jim Alvaro's fifth-grade class create podcasts of their lessons, broadcast for anyone on the Web to hear. Rob McClelland, a teacher at the Oakland Technical Center campus in Wixom, has created computer games that help solidify students' understanding of key lessons.

And at Fisher Elementary School in the South Redford School District, students are learning Chinese and interacting with pen pals in China via a webcam, computer, projector and software.

"You always learn something new by using technology," said Natalie Joniec, 10, a Fisher fifth-grader.

Technology boosts performance

While some schools are pushing forward with plans to fully integrate technology, others struggle to do so in ways that engage kids and help them learn, said Ledong Li, an assistant professor of education at Oakland University.

And that's a problem, he said.

"If we deliver information like we used to do in the traditional way, kids are bored in the classroom," said Li, who organized a workshop in June on using video games in the classroom. "They don't feel they are engaged."

Li said technology can be intimidating to teachers who aren't familiar with how to use it, or how it can benefit their lessons. And so much is focused today on improving test scores that it's easy to see technology as an extra. Yet, Li said research shows technology can improve student performance.

Still, some teachers "look at the requirements for raising test scores as the kind of signal that they have to do things in a traditional way," Li said.

State Superintendent Mike Flanagan has announced proposed changes to teacher preparation programs, and he's making the integration of technology into teaching practices a priority. Last year, Michigan became the first, and still the only, state in the nation that will require students to take an online class or have online experience to graduate high school.

Ric Wiltse, executive director of the Lansing-based Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning, said budget crunches have impacted how schools integrate technology.

But, Wiltse said, "teachers are getting more and more creative about how they use the technology tools students have these days."

That includes Alvaro, whose classroom has a blog called the Skinny as well as the podcasts. The students worked on a project that had them research and write about when their ancestors arrived in the United States.

Games that teach

Today's kids are steps ahead of their teachers, in many cases. They instant message, text message, play video games, blog and use social Web sites like MySpace and YouTube.

"Everything we do is about technology," said Kala Kottman of Commerce Township, a senior at Walled Lake Western High School and the Oakland Technical Center campus in Wixom. "It's a big deal."

Kala, 17, is enrolled in the culinary arts program at the technical center. She was among a group of students in a computer lab playing a game created by McClelland, who provides support to fellow teachers.

There are about 100 culinary tools students must memorize, and while they still use rote memorization tricks, McClelland's game gives them a fun way to test their knowledge. McClelland has produced a similar game for two other technical center programs.

In the game, which is timed, students must quickly match a picture of a tool with its correct name.

McClelland programmed the game using popular phrases familiar to kids. For instance, if they click on the wrong answer, they're likely to hear the "D'oh!" popularized by Homer Simpson. If they get it right, they might hear a "Woo hoo."

Instant feedback

The Bloomfield Hills district is making a significant investment in the Promethean white boards. About $2.1 million has been committed to put them in all of its classrooms.

Conn was among the first to try them, and she said they make a difference in the classroom. The screen is connected to a computer, and it takes just a few clicks for her to call up lessons. The board also is interactive, allowing students to manipulate it.

The voting system allows Conn to constantly assess students, asking them to record correct answers on the hand-held device.

The instantaneous feedback means that instead of waiting until she grades a quiz to see who is struggling and which concepts students aren't getting, Conn finds out "just like that," she said with a sharp snap of her fingers.

It also means she can do some re-teaching on the fly if she sees many students answering a question wrong.

Mitchell Shults and Destiny Lynch, both 8-year-old third-graders, said the boards make classes more fun.

"You can play games on it and learn a lot of stuff," Mitchell said.

The voting, Destiny said, gets kids excited, especially when the whole class records the correct answer.

Technology makes it possible

At 7:45 on a Tuesday morning at Fisher Elementary, Deborah Reichman and her students were sitting around a table in a small conference room learning to speak the Chinese language. Reichman, the school's intervention specialist, doesn't know how -- she's learning with her students.

They go over a worksheet, practicing saying words and numbers in Chinese. When they get to a word they're unfamiliar with, Reichman has a plan.

"We may have to change or alter how we pronounce it when Mr. Nemo gets online," she said.

Nemo Ma is a teacher at the Nanao School in Guangzhou, China, and he is usually online when the kids meet to provide assistance and give them a chance to interact with a native Chinese speaker. Often, he places his mouth close to the lens of his camera and slowly enunciates the words so the students in Redford Township can see how his mouth moves. His image is projected on a large screen in the conference room.

The two schools are partnered through a program they call A Classroom Without Walls. The idea here isn't to create fluent Chinese speakers, Fisher Principal Brian Galdes said.

"Our goal is for the students ... to be global citizens, to interact with students from another culture one-on-one," Galdes said.

About 30 kids are involved in the program, in which they also use an online program to learn the language. And they have pen pals at the school in China. They chat with their e-pals, exchanging stories about their lives. But they also work on projects together.

Without technology, "we wouldn't be able to communicate," said Bradford Thomas, 10, a fifth-grader. "We'd have to write letters. And it'd probably take too long for them to reply."

Contact LORI HIGGINS at 248-351-3694 or


Ric said...

Thanks for your focus on educational technology. A quality 21st Century education must include the skills addressed by information and communication technology literacy.

The Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning ( is a 3,000 member non profit organization that works with educators to more effectively teach and learn with technology. Our organization is currently involved in multiple initiatives to encourage innovative projects described in the Detroit Free Press article of 11/26/07.

Mike Reno said...

Hi Ric.

I'm quite familiar with MACUL, dating back to my early days as a computer programmer, working for Tom Hartsig and Tom Juett at the Macomb Intermediate School District. We wrote some of the first CBT programs on the Atari, Radio Shack, and Apple computers.

I know a few of the innovative media center specialists in Rochester are involved in MACUL.

I've put a link to MACUL on my blog. Please send me emails if there are topics that deserve attention!

==> Mike.

Ric said...

Will do!
Thanks Mike. We appreciate your advocacy for educational technology.