Thursday, November 1, 2007

Time to Resurrect Technology in Rochester

Some schools talk a good technology game, but few walk the talk.

I find this to be particularly disturbing because technology has so much to offer. It can reduce costs by helping to improve productivity. It can provide a much richer lesson in (or out of) the classroom. It can provide customized and self-paced learning experience for students. It can be used to collect and analyze data, which can lead to curriculum improvement. And, it's an oustanding communication tool.

The Detroit News covers a few good examples of technology use:

The Detroit News: Byte-size classes growing (10/29/07)
The Detroit News: Computer access turns the page on textbooks (10/29/07)

Sadly, I believe the Rochester school board is particularly tolerant of poor technology management in the district. Consider these few examples:

  • The community generously provided over $6 million in technology dollars in 2004, and much of it is sitting idly in a bank account. Some of it has been robbed to pay for cost overruns in other parts of the $65 million dollar bond project.

  • The district continues to purchase Dell computers at a cost of approximately $1400 per computer. I challenge you to go to the Dell website and try to configure a computer that costs that much!

  • The district paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the entire district wireless. It took years to implement, primarily due to poor research at the beginning of the project, and poor management throughout the implementation. It's still spotty service at best. And now that it is "working", I have yet to see any presentation that shows a significant benefit to the teachers, students, or taxpayers.

  • Individual citizens are able to capture the Rochester City Council meetings, and stream them on a private website within hours of recording them. The City of Rochester Hills streams their meetings online, so that citizens can view them at their convenience. The Rochester School board won't even discuss it! Furthermore, it could setup RSS feeds to communicate with parents, students, etc. The state superintendent podcasts messages to educators. They're a quick and creative way to communicate. All of these are big communication bangs for almost no dollars!

  • The Rochester Foundation raised a substantial amount of money to purchase SmartBoards... one for each of our 21 schools. But there is no cohesive plan to develop, implement, or share lesson plans that use this exciting technology. This subject has been discussed by some on the Foundation's board, and even discussed in committee by the Rochester School Board, but nothing has been done to address what I see as a problem.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point.

What's worse, this is not "sour grapes" that they reject my technology ideas. It's that I cannot recall a single new or innovative major technology initiative since my time on the board. There is just no vision.

Fortunately there are a few "evangelicals" in the district who are making things happen. It's individual teachers using email. It's teachers who have taken this Smartboard technology and started to use it in the way it was intended -- and beyond. It's teachers that take the time to update their website daily, or are diving into the Pearson Learning project. There are exciting examples of teachers and principals who have conceived and implemented a wide variety of lessons that integrated all kinds of technology in a rich and meaningful way.

But I find it disturbing that this vision and excitement is being driven by small pockets of individuals, and is not coming from those in leadership positions. I believe the board is failing the children of this district -- and the teachers -- by allowing this to continue.

This is a long entry because I've posted both articles below in case the links don't work.


Byte-size classes growing
Michigan Tech, other universities post lectures to iTunes U, for use from Houghton to China.
Marisa Schultz / The Detroit News

With 10 minutes to kill before another class, Aaron McPhall cracks out a video iPod.

But instead of "Family Guy" or "Futurama," the Michigan Technological University student watches "Physics 1600."

Since the school partnered with Apple to make college lectures as easily downloadable as Britney Spears' "Gimme More," students like McPhall can watch or listen to lectures on their own time.

"I wish I could pause and rewind other courses I've taken," said McPhall, a senior from Mount Pleasant who earned an 'A' his recent "Intro to Astronomy" video course. "It's a great model to have for the class. It allows the student to control the lectures."

About 250 schools around the nation use Apple's iTunes U service to manage their audio and video academic content, but Michigan Tech is one of just 28 -- and the only one in Michigan -- that have made all their content public and free on Apple's iTunes Store, where millions of people worldwide already get their music, movies and TV shows.

On average, a half-dozen Michigan Tech professors per semester choose to offer their courses through Apple's iTunes U. About 1,300 lectures are downloaded each week by students enrolled in the course and by curious learners from as far away as China.

The service has been a great marketing tool for the university in Houghton. Professors say iTunes U has helped boost students' grades, and students who still go to class like reviewing the recorded lectures.

"Many students are very familiar and comfortable with the iTunes interface," said Patty Lins, director of education technology and online learning at Michigan Tech. "They get their music, their games, their TV that way. And this was just a way to get their coursework as well."

Professors, with microphones clipped to their shirts, hold iTunes classes in studios on campus, sitting behind what looks like a TV anchor desk and saying things like "we are on the air now" or "welcome back."

Steady cameras toggle seamlessly from head shots to PowerPoint presentations and professors' lecture notes.

"I always have to be aware of what the students are seeing," said Christopher Cischke, a lecturer in electrical and computer engineering, who teaches three audio and one video course.

Cischke trades in his typical cargo pants and untucked shirt for dressier clothes when he'll be on camera. After all, he's representing the university to the viewers around world, he says.

"It's been a very positive experience," Cischke said. "It requires very little extra work on my part but it seems like it's made an overall impact on grades."

Students still have to take quizzes and exams in class, so attendance hasn't dropped too much, he said.

Cischke's podcast lectures have been helpful to John van der Laan, a 20-year-old junior on the football team who often misses lectures for game travel.

"In most classes, this means I need to talk with the professors about what I missed and generally I need to teach myself the material," van der Laan said. "(Now) I am able to listen to the podcasts at home, or on the road in a hotel room, and receive almost all the instruction that I missed."

Apple partnered in 2005 with six pilot universities -- Duke, Brown, the University of Michigan's Dental School, Stanford, the University of Missouri School of Journalism and University of Wisconsin-Madison -- to test iTunes in the academic world.

Last year, iTunes opened up the service to other colleges, and Michigan Tech was one of the early adopters. In May Apple added iTunes U to its online store, the wildly popular digital window to Apple's six million songs, 600 television shows and 500 movies. Many colleges have hesitated to make all their material available in the store for a variety of reasons, including intellectual property concerns.

But physics professor Robert Nemiroff is happy Michigan Tech is one of the few that have, as sharing the educational material with as many people as possible is important, he says.

Nemiroff, whose astronomy course has been among the top iTunes U downloads, just received an e-mail from a college student in China curious about astronomy.

Nemiroff teaches two sections of "Intro to Astronomy." One is billed as an online-only course, and the other is a traditional class. Yet he treats them exactly the same, doing only one live lecture, rich with pictures of comets, eclipses and planets. All assignments and quizzes are online, and students can send questions electronically.

Asked if he misses students, Nemiroff said "a little bit, but I think it's kind of cool to be on the cutting edge to have a completely online course."


Computer access turns the page on textbooks
As CDs, Web sites replace books, some fear students without home computers could be left behind.
Charles E. Ramirez / The Detroit News
ROMEO -- Paper or plastic?

Romeo Community Schools in northern Macomb County has started offering some freshmen a choice in their American history classes -- a traditional textbook or a CD-ROM containing the same material, which can be read on a computer.

Administrators like the technology, but not everyone is cheering as Metro Detroit schools explore disks as alternatives to heavy, expensive and quickly out-of-date texts.

Some fear the switch may make old-fashioned book learning fall by the wayside or create a digital divide, leaving behind those without home computers.

The issue reared its head this fall in Romeo when the district offered the high-tech tools for the first time. Students can choose a book, CD-ROMs or a Web site that offers bonuses such as interactive maps, flashcards and educational games.

"The technology is allowing us to take textbooks to a whole new level," said Shannon Griffin, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the district.

Computers may be great, but so are books, said Mike Stobak, a school board member who has three children in the district.

"Having a textbook is a part of helping kids become responsible as they grow up," he said.

"They learn about taking care of their textbooks, not losing them and the consequences of not doing those things."

The technology behind the digital school books has been around for years -- the publishing companies that sell textbooks to school districts have included the same content on CD-ROMs and access to Web sites featuring online editions with the purchase of book sets.

Across the country, public school districts in California, Florida and Texas offer students electronic versions of class textbooks.

And in Metro Detroit, districts such as Lake Orion and Plymouth-Canton have been using Web site- and CD-ROM-based textbooks for years.

Advocates say the technologies have several advantages over their paper counterparts.

They help students avoid injuries from overstuffed backpacks. Those concerns prompted Plymouth-Canton Community Schools to use more technology, in part because the district has three high schools -- Canton, Plymouth and Salem -- spread out over a 305-acre campus. School officials were concerned students could hurt their backs lugging books between them.

Proponents said disks and Web sites also offer the freedom of mobility and are easier to update.

"Often the information in a textbook can be out of date by the time we purchase it," said Ken Gutman, assistant superintendent of Lake Orion Community Schools.

"But students have access to the latest information in online textbooks, because it's so much easier for the publishers to update it on their Web-based textbooks."

The technology may also help districts meet the state's new rigorous high school graduation requirements, said Joe Beck, Romeo superintendent.

The state adopted the tougher new graduation requirements, which call for more math and science, in April 2006. For instance, Beck said, there isn't a single math textbook that has lessons that meet all of those requirements. And since most districts like his don't have the money to buy several books for a single class, CD-ROM- and Web-based textbooks may be the perfect solution, he said.

And arguably the most appealing to Michigan public school districts, in an age of budget crunches and cutbacks in state financial aid, is that it enables school systems to purchase fewer sets of textbooks and save money.

The Romeo district has saved about $10,000 by making the CD-ROM and Web site textbooks available to students in its ninth-grade American history class at Romeo High School, said Griffin.

The school has 517 students taking the class, and rather than purchase 517 textbooks, it bought 400, she said. Students can choose to be assigned a textbook for the class or use either the CD-ROM or Web edition.

"It allowed us to shift resources," Griffin said. "Now we can use that $10,000 to put technology -- such as a digital projector -- in that social studies classroom."

Still, some school officials and parents feel the technology has shortcomings. Some families don't have computers or high-speed Internet access. And others have more than one child, and if they all have to use the computer to study or do homework, it can create backlogs.

"I think we're going about it backwards," said Jennifer White, a trustee on the Board of Education of Romeo Community Schools with a daughter who is a student in the district.

"I think we need to put technology in our schools, not send it home."

Romeo High School parent Sue Saliga said the technology should be used only as a supplement to textbooks because not everyone has a computer or high-speed Internet at home.

"The technology has a problem: Not every student is a visual learner," said Saliga, an Oakland University professor.

Her sons Nathan, 16, and Steven, 15, use digital technology in school. Steven said his experience with the technology has been mixed. Earlier this school year, the sophomore's biology teacher attempted to get him and his classmates to use the Internet version of the class textbook, but recently told them to stop because the Web site would bog down, Steven Saliga said.

"It was also hard because not everyone has high-speed Internet at home, so we wasted a lot of class time going to the library to use the computers there to log on," he said.

However, Steven Saliga also has a Java computer programming class where the students' only access to a textbook is through a Web site.

And he says he prefers the electronic versions of textbooks over thick bricks of paper and ink.

"It's easier to read textbooks on the computer," he said.

"I'd rather not have to carry around a bunch of books."


Anonymous said...

You have hit the nail on the head, but I wonder who is listening. Not only is there no real program, the service provided for repairs other than minor ones can shut down certain pieces of equipment for months.

The TV cable transmission is poor, sound system is mushy, and obviously the equipment is obsolete.

School productions are an important part of learning, yet sound and lighting on stages at the elementary level is non existent. Six hundred parents come to see their children, music teachers work for months, and no one can see or hear the production. Where were the plans for these stages in all the recent renovations? Is this not a good use of technology dollars?

Cameras in classrooms, flexcams for presentation, larger less cumbersome monitors are truly needed. The money should not be sitting in an account and could reach the students classroom by classroom. Hands on is the only way for kids to make technology a part of their life. Media time is but once a week for an hour. It is an important place to begin, but what happens there must be carried into the classroom daily.

There is no common thread for purchasing from building to building, and little direction in what is out there to improve each building.

Demostrations by companies should be common place at staff meetings to see what is out there, and how they can utilize these innovations.

Thanks go to Media Specialists,teachers,and Tech Coaches who keep the program going.

James H @ 48307 said...

I have been a business and technology consultant for over 18 years. Sadly, this is an old story often repeated. Fortunately, this story can be re-written.

It really comes down to creativity, courage and leadership. If the Administration can not provide this, RCS should outsource this function. The current role of technology lead should go to one person / company who can NOT bid on the actual work to be done. They are the visionary and watchdog.

The first task of this person is to define the measurable outcomes and strategic advantages this investment gives (directly) to our kids or how it aides instruction. This is not hard to do. You just have to do it...and stick to it.

More below if you are interested...


A few notes on how technology is different today (it's not just PCs and wireless access.)

1. Technologically, our kids are already way ahead of us and the RCS. Admit it! That is step 1.

2. Whatever solution RCS develops must heavily involve the kids.

3. Marketing departments of businesses are learning this now. They have less influence over what people think about their brands (via TV spots, print ads, etc.) now that the internet is here (filled with blogs, Facebook, Utube, forums, etc.)

4. In short, you are not what you say you are; you are what the community says you are.

5. So, if you want to be known as 'technologically advanced district' you better have the 'street cred' of the kids and the insiders within the industry and universities. Otherwise, it is all just spin.

6. To do this, you have to give up some level of control while sticking to your vision and measurable outcomes. That is usually too scary for most people...which is why they fall behind the times.

7. But again, that takes courage, creative and leadership. Funny how it always comes back to that.

Bill Milligan said...


I agree with you on this. While I don't know the details of the particular situation in Rochester you write about, it is an issue that resonates everywhere. I do think there are gaps created by both the lack of technology in certain situations and an abundance of technology in some other situations where money and equipment have been thrown at a district or institution and no clear plan of implementation and use (or training, for that matter) has occured.

As an instructor, I also have a pet peeve about how Power Point is sometimes used: simply to regurgitate the same information found in the textbook being used. I'm not sure that's effective use of technology usage when that occurs. But maybe that's just me.

Mike Reno said...

Interesting tidbit from the 11/18/07 Livonia Eccentric:

LPS offers podcasts of meetings

A new digital recording of the Livonia Public Schools board meetings ensures listeners won't have to miss a discussion or a vote.

Starting Nov. 5, the district began to record and post audio from the board's meetings on its Web site.

Ken McMullen, senior communications specialist, said it is another way for people in and outside of the district to follow the board's discussions.

The meetings are aired live on cable in Livonia and Westland and replayed throughout the week. However, McMullen said the online podcasts serve people who aren't cable subscribers, who live outside the district or those who want to tune in on their own schedule.

"With the resources we have, we're trying to do everything possible to communicate with people," he said.

Meetings that are televised - including committee of the whole and regular board meetings - will also be recorded this way.

McMullen said the podcasts will be available as early as the morning following a meeting.

LPS did not have to purchase any additional equipment to offer podcasts of the meetings, he said.

To listen, visit, select the link for "school board" and click "minutes" from the pull-down menu. Listeners can plug headphones into their computers or record the file on a CD or MP3 player.

The district also recently redesigned its Web site home page and added a link to information for prospective families.

On Monday's agenda

The board will decide on a $200,000 proposal to add security cameras and electronic key cards to the district's elementary schools and central administration building. Money would come from the 1992 technology bond.