June 14, 2017
Last week, I spoke in front of teachers who work in my local school district about what I personally see as the honest truth about educational technology. The talk was part of an internal educational technology conference run by district staff, and if you're curious, here are my slides.
In my school district, we use a lot of technology. A lot more than we really should. An average day might include a couple of visits to Schoology, where most of my assignment handouts are posted. Perhaps I'll check Infinite Campus as well to make sure that I'm not failing any of my classes and my grades and attendance are up to date. There are a handful of teachers who don't like using either of these tools mandated by our district, and instead elect to use their own teacher website and in some cases their own hand-coded grading sites. Sometimes, I'll have to use a site like Turnitin, which acts as a digital dropbox for essays and claims that I plagiarized others' work because a couple of other students in the class happened to cite the same source. SmartMusic tries to test my trombone playing ability by transcribing the notes I play in real-time and then sending the recording to my teacher. Applications like Remind101 tell me to return back to our hotel or check in with my chaperone on school trips. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
In an average middle school classroom, some teachers encourage technology-guided hand-holding with behavior management software like ClassDojo. The library staff discourage use of Google for research and instead mandates that students use sources like ABC-CLIO, Safari Montage, EBSCO Information Sources, and Follett Shelf which have poorly designed interfaces that take six too many clicks to get some adequate information. Prezi actively encourages students to create presentations that spend more time transitioning from slide to slide than discussing their presentation content.
In high school, I saw an explosion in technology adoption, with teachers and students using sites like Quizlet, which aims to teach me my polyatomic ions through a set of interactive flashcards, and Naviance, which attempts to keep me on track for college. Teachers throw SurveyMonkey forms at students to grade their peers on class participation, and foreign-language classes use Audacity to record and gauge students' speaking and listening proficiency. MathXL tells me that my math homework is wrong, but doesn't tell me why (and in some cases says the correct answer is the same as the "incorrect" answer I entered). CharmsOffice facilitates communication between teachers and students, but is unreliable and does no better than existing district-mandated solutions like Infinite Campus or Schoology. During a mandatory "flex" period where students are allowed to visit any class they are struggling in, our administration requires that we scan our student IDs using a Flextime Appointment System because the "flex" period has attendance corner cases that our primary attendance system on Infinite Campus cannot handle. Calendly allows teachers to schedule out-of-class meetings with students. At the same time, the school wants every student to have a Chromebook with Securly network monitoring to watch student Internet traffic while they're off campus.
That's only a small preview of the technology our district has adopted, and I'm sure I've forgotten some key components. But last time I checked our district has over twenty different student-facing technology platforms. That's way too many.
While speaking to teachers, I realized that some of the discontent with our current technology situation was not unknown. In fact, there are some teachers who have similar opinions on the issue of educational technology adoption in our district. However, teachers, for the most part, seem to be unaware of some of the largest platforms used for schoolwork by students: technologies that are not sanctioned by the school district such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram.
This is more common than most educators may realize. There are groups for everything from AP United States History to Biology 1. I think the primary reason why these unsanctioned platforms succeed among students is because they already have plenty of engagement and they solve the problem of educational collaboration while also providing users a steady stream of entertaining content. As shown above, you can see that students are posting in our Analysis Honors (my math class this past school year) regarding final grades being updated on Infinite Campus. In many ways, these platforms allow students to ease the burden of constantly checking the plethora of district platforms while also not having to worry about teacher intervention.
Unsanctioned technology is great from a student perspective (I can't say I'm opposed to it), but there are a variety of drawbacks that come with it. Because the technology is unsanctioned, the school district cannot directly regulate anything that occurs inside these study groups. As a result, offensive memes, test questions, and completed homework assignments occasionally appear in these groups, raising concerns about student well-being and academic dishonesty. In some unique cases, district staff members are added to these unsanctioned Facebook groups to help facilitate the discussions, but from what I understand, I do not think those staff members are compensated or working for directly for the district in those rare scenarios. It also creates a fine line between whether a district staff member is your friend or your teacher. Finally, the widespread use of unsanctioned technology among students blurs the line with regards to which educational technologies should be endorsed by the district and which should not.
In addition, a point that several of my teachers have brought up stresses the consequences of excessive technology integration. Anderson Cooper has a report for 60 Minutes on "Brain Hacking", which explores some of the psychological effects of smartphone addiction. TL;DR the effects are analogous to those caused by excessive drug use. The anxiety created by the menagerie of technology platforms used by students doesn't help. As a result, unsanctioned technology flourishes as students try to find the easiest way to keep all of their schoolwork manageable (having your primary social media source as your primary schoolwork source is very desirable). In addition, the fact that today's parents do not know how to deal with this issue should be addressed. The proliferation of Internet-based technologies and smartphones has been so rapid that very few can predict what the long-term effects may be let alone know how to parent a generation that has adopted the technology so quickly.
My rant on bad technology aside. Let's talk about some positives. Email is great, and I think it's still one of the most reliable and standardized modes of communication (though most of my peers don't seem to agree). Google Apps keeps track of my documents and allows me to collaborate on larger projects. EasyBib takes care of all of my MLA citations for formal essays and research reports, and tools such as Desmos and WolframAlpha help me visualize complex math concepts. In addition, I use unsanctioned tools such as Google Calendar, Google Keep, and Facebook to keep myself sane.
Fundamentally, technology is supposed to help us — that's why it exists. But in the realm of modern education, we need to rethink exactly how we're implementing it into our daily lives and whether it's actually making a reasonable impact on student productivity.