More than 700 tech-savvy educators converged last week to compare notes (both digital and analog) and best practices at the EdTech Teacher iPad Summit in Boston.
These professorial pioneers are typically the teachers and administrators that K-thru-12 schools and districts rely on to determine how and to what degree technology is rolled out within their organizations. They also have massive input on what apps, videos and websites should be run on iPads and other devices. So whatever conclusions these folks are arriving to today will no doubt influence most everyone else working in early childhood education through high school and beyond in the months and years ahead.
Here are 10 takeaways from the conference.
The iPad is not the first tech tool to revolutionize education
While iPads, Chromebooks and other devices are flipping traditional teaching models, they are hardly the first inventions to redefine relationships between teachers and students. As author and opening keynote presenter Heidi Hayes Jacobs reminded everyone, books and pencils in their time were technological breakthroughs that transformed not only education but all other walks of life. And before the printing press, there were things like cave-painting and the invention of the alphabet that enabled human beings to store and share knowledge like never before (no touchscreens required!). Among the obvious differences between now and then is the pace of technological development and adoption of newer technologies. However, the arc of history shows that humanity typically figures these things out, and - after periods of messiness - ultimately ends up in a better place. The challenge at hand for teachers is how to harness these innovations in ways that ultimately benefit the student.
"It's not technology per se, but what we do with it," Jacobs said.
Finding the right digital learning tools remains an immense problem
Apple to date has sold more than 14 million iPads to schools, yet the vast majority of even the most connected educators struggle with matching the right app with the right student at the right time. And the discovery problem is not limited to the nearly 100,000 educational applications developed specifically for iOS devices.
The volume of high quality video content available on YouTube and Vimeo is increasing at seemingly exponential levels. This includes everything from Khan Academy, Ted Talks and LearnZillion, to the tens of thousands of teachers who are screencasting lessons to their own students and the broader public at large. And while educational websites don't have the same pop cultural cachet as mobile apps, there remain a lot of high quality learning resources on the web that most teachers have no idea how to locate. Schools can invest in the most sophisticated hardware in the world, but if educators can't identify the proper software, too many new learning opportunities will go to waste.
Many worthy apps are blackballed due to perceived safety considerations
Many district educational technology directors, like Dr. Kristy Sailors of Blue Valley Schools in Overland Park, Kansas, err on the side of extreme caution when determining which apps are appropriate (or inappropriate) for district-level purchasing. Virtually any application that invites users to upload their own content, that can eventually be accessed by others, is a no no. Sailors said bad actors, either in the form of juvenile pranksters within the school or nefarious strangers from outside, too often share offensive and potentially dangerous material.
Sailors and her team of six full-time educational instructors scour every app considered by members of her district for even the most minute potential of profane or unpredictable activity. As she explained at least 4 or 5 times in a one-hour session, "no teacher wants to be on CNN" if a student stumbles upon lewd or inappropriate content. While this is an understandable consideration, particularly when making district-level purchasing decisions, there is obvious potential for overreach here. While it's one thing to bypass a math game that includes an avatar with a shotgun, it's another to disallow 99 percent of screencasting and content creation apps that don't adhere to these almost impossibly strict standards.
Might there be a way for more nuanced decision-making on the parts of teachers and administrators to allow some of these breakthrough apps into the classroom with the proper context and training? If these same standards applied to analog teaching tools, would classrooms be deprived of chalkboards and unabridged dictionaries? Now THAT is a topic teachers should talk about on CNN.
Kids are natural curators of educational media
The opposite of this top-down approach to controlling educational media options is to enable students - particularly at the middle school and high school level - to identify learning resources themselves that they can share with teachers and fellow students. As discussed above, teachers are having extreme difficulty finding the best digital tools for their classrooms. Letting students, who in many cases are more comfortable with the devices and online platforms, discover and share resources they find for particular assignments makes a whole lot of sense.
When students become teachers
Anyone who Googles "Adam Smith and Karl Marx" will see a thoughtfully-produced video of the two economists produced by a Chicago-area high school student and former pupil of teacher Shawn McCusker. With more than 60,000 views to date, the student-produced video is a worthy primer to the topic of capitalism vs. marxism. As EdTechTeacher founder and speaker Thomas Daccord noted, a combination of the right teacher and the right technology gives "students the tools and inspiration to develop and engaging video" that can influence other students and the public at large.
When educators become video game developers
The technical barriers to entry to developing applications and even video games are eroding. At the same time, students are becoming increasingly responsive to gamified curricula. According to opening keynote Heidi Hayes Jacobs, developing "games is the next new and important skill set for teachers." She anticipates that many teachers will begin developing games, as well as apps with Siri-like voice-activation prompts, within the next few years.
"The Ikea-ization of education"
Analog learning is evolving alongside digital learning. Traditional classrooms, explained Jacobs and several other presenters, have not evolved that much since the 19th century one-room school house. More progressive schools are not only figuring out how to incorporate technology, but also developing modular, configurable classrooms and learning settings that encourage more creativity and collaboration. In the future, perhaps desks will serve as little more than charging stations.
Harnessing technology to capture the literal written word
A few months ago, when 3M debuted its new Post-it Plus app, I really didn't understand the concept. When initially sampling Post-It Plus, which encourages users to take digital pictures of their offline scribbles and reminder notes, I thought it was a cheap promotional hook for a 100+-year-old manufacturing company that was arriving late to mobile. What I didn't realize, and what was explained by keynote presenter Greg Kulowiec, was how this could be a great tool for teachers, students and others to digitally archive, mix, and share doodles, ideas and whatever else that is more naturally captured with pencils and pens.
Older, analog tools shouldn't be disregarded and uniformly replaced by newer and shinier devices. As Kuloweic explained, it's not the tool, but how you use it.
"Using an iPad made me realize I should use paper more often and use it differently," he said. "Doing offline work is something we shouldn't walk away from."
Common Core Standards are, well, pretty standard
Love them, hate them, or generally indifferent of them, Common Core Standards are not unlike other educational standards rolled out in countries all over the world. While the name and current iteration may eventually go away under a different political environment, the underlying concepts that the Common Core is trying to achieve are prevalent across the globe. Academic publishers investing in Common Core-aligned materials won't have to completely go back to the drawing board (or digital whiteboard) if Common Core eventually goes away.
The new rules of assessment
While Common Core assesses certain Math and English Language Arts skills at each grade level, these evaluations are limited to capturing individual moments of time in a student's life. Anyone who has taken a standardized test knows that one's mood or energy level can play a huge role in performance. Nobody believes standardized tests will go away anytime soon, but there is hope that as technology enables easier content creation, students will be assessed and evaluated on more project-driven initiatives that convey a broader set of skills over time.
"The media you create should be a replacement for older style assessment," argues Jacobs.
While student-produced screencasts likely won't replace bubble-sheets anytime soon, technology is allowing us to quantitatively AND qualitatively assess student performance like never before.
Can't wait to see what comes next!