Friday, June 6, 2014

On the Other Hand....

Blogger's Note: The following was submitted as a letter to the editor at The Mercury, but was rejected because the newspaper does not publish un-signed letters. However, the editor passed it along to me and it seemed to me like the content was worthy of discussion in the district.

At the last Pottsgrove School Board meeting, the administration allowed two teachers who support the proposed One-to-one computer plan to speak to the board. 

But as one person following my live Tweeting of that meeting pointed out, no staff who are opposed were given the same opportunity.

As long-time readers of this blog may recall, I have mixed feelings about anonymous publications.

Although the letter which appears below is unsigned, I have confirmed the identity and employment of the author as legitimate and as the anonymity is not being used as a way to make a personal attack, but to make a point while protecting a person's employment, I decided it was worth publishing.

Here is that person's opinion:

I am a Pottsgrove School District employee opposed to the One-to-One proposal featured in the June 3rd article "A computer for every student: How to pay for it?" 

My objections are threefold: it distracts from more critical priorities for improving STEM education; it is a solution in search of a problem for students misusing technology in class; and its implementation is hampered by a blind commitment to Apple over cheaper, more manageable options.

I endorse the pro-STEM platform of the new school board, but the most critical priority for STEM should be addressing curricular content, namely the elementary schools' lack of rote learning of math facts. 

The district, ever-eager to pursue the latest pedagogical theories, has taught students a dozen different "strategies" through an inconsistent, constantly changing curriculum, the result being high school algebra classes which rely upon calculators for basic arithmetic. If we wish to prepare students for the jobs of the future, the budget would be better spent on a back-to-basics math program.

Contrary to Technology Director Michael Wagman's characterization of faculty as "on the fence," most with whom I have spoken are opposed. Step into middle or high school classrooms, and you will see no lack of technology. 

Many students spend class on their smartphones and school computers to virtually "pass notes" or watch YouTube videos. With an administration unwilling to ban personal electronics, teachers already feel disempowered by technology. 

Unless strictly managed, a One-to-One will exacerbate this already endemic problem.

Even if this program is necessary, Wagman's "Apple-or-Nothing" line spells a budgetary and IT maintenance nightmare. Apple makes excellent products, but iPad touchscreens are for media consumption, not typing book reports. While MacBooks at least have a keyboard, the brand and ultrathin form factor carries costs. 

Almost all software students use is web-based, leaving no reason besides personal taste for a commitment to this ecosystem. Cheap Windows or even Linux devices could handle these universal apps at a fraction of the cost. Thin-client solutions such as Chromebooks would save money with fewer IT problems. With everything in the cloud, there would be no erroneous saves to local storage on shared devices, nor "I left my laptop at home" excuses for missing homework. It would also enable easier control and monitoring of user activity, which is needed to combat in-class misuse and the district's recent internet-related scandals and fights.

The idea of enticing cyberschoolers (many of whom have compelling reasons for not attending regular school) with electronic bells and whistles, leaves me questioning not only proponents' sense of reason but their motives. 

Based on my personal experiences, I have grave doubts this proposal will benefit teachers, students, or taxpayers. 

I encourage those teachers grumbling behind closed doors but resigned to this decision as a fait accompli to publicly speak out.


  1. As a parent of a student at Pottsgrove High School, I agree that putting a computer in the hands of every child has the potential to contribute to the already technology saturated environment flourishing at the school. Walk down the hallway of the high school and practically every student is "plugged in" either to a phone or an Ipod and completely oblivious to people around him or her. While technology is a wonderful tool, people weren't meant to be plugged in all the time. Some studies clearly suggest that today's technology is contributing to students' diminishing attention spans. While this point may be argued, I feel that the most pressing concern about emerging students in a technology saturated environment is that it will further contribute to their already declining social and communication skills. Certainly technology can expose students to a wide plethora of educational opportunities, but schools should focus on what they are implementing now without adding more to the heap. While technology certainly has its place in learning, our quest for implementing technology shouldn't be all-consuming. There is something to be said for learning basics such as rote memorization. Furthermore, parents have their reasons for sending their students to charter schools or cyber-schools and the idea that providing students with computers will lure these students back to the district is erroneous.

  2. I am the author of the letter posted above, and I agree with all of your points. I am not against technology in the classroom by any means, but it's the implementation that has me most worried.

    I can vouch for what you describe as the students being "plugged in" and that is what I was trying to speak to when I wrote of "misuse of technology." Students are missing a lot of class time due to texting while walking in the halls, and are doing this not just between class periods but when leaving in the middle of class for the bathroom or other errands. However, these habits don't end upon entering the classroom. The constant texting and Youtube watching in class has gotten to the point that many teachers have given up, especially since, as I mentioned in the letter, the administration seems so gung-ho about BYOT and technology in the classroom. I am no medical expert, but I often wonder the same as you do that these habits with personal electronics are contributing to shorter attention spans. And as I also mentioned, the district has had no shortage of social media-related fights and scandals. I am worried that unless implemented very carefully (and the reflexive clamoring for iPads, which are useless for productivity, suggests otherwise), these trends will only get worse with every kid having yet another toy to misuse.

    I think rote memorization is the only viable method to teach basic number sense and phonics. I'm all for critical thinking and the like, but subjects such as science and history rest upon a foundation of basic literacy and arithmetic skills. Without it, you're building on a foundation of sand.

    What also bothers me is a suspicion I have that this proposal is being driven more by a desire to promote and advertise the school as "cutting edge" than actual considerations as to what is good for the students. Mr. Wagman said at the schoolboard meeting that he expected the biggest benefit of this program is that it would help students improve on Common Core, and yet the only teachers he found to argue his case at the meeting were foreign language teachers. They certainly should have as much a say as anyone else, but wouldn't having teachers of common core subjects weighing in been more persuasive?

  3. As a Pottsgrove taxpayer, I strongly disagree with providing Apple computers in the hands of all students. First off, Safari, their browser, is not compatible with so many of the web-based programs that are needed. I know it is not compatible with eSchoolbook, a major program used.

    There are so many better alternatives, PCs are fine and get the job done.

    Also, if you provide laptops to all students, what about all the virus out there, we know kids surf the web with total disregard to the consequences. There was a major virus this year, Kryptolocker, that complete hijacked the computer.

    I think this has to be put to a vote to the taxpayers, not just randomly done.

  4. @Bright22
    You can run different browsers on a Mac, Safari is just the default one that comes installed with the operating system. Firefox is actually the standard browser that is being used at Pottsgrove from what I'm aware.

    Also Safari IS most likely compatible with whatever website you're trying to use, and you just haven't updated or downloaded the necessary "plug ins" (additional software) required (flash, java, etc).


    In regards to the letter, many of these points made were already refuted during Mr. Wagman's presentation.

    Apple computers is at the very forefront of integrating technology into curriculum. You can't settle for second or third best options and expect to see first rate results.

    Chromebooks are a one trick pony, not that much more cost efficient (especially in regards to functionality vs price) and as far as Linux based many of these kids have even heard the word Linux before never the less touch a Linux based system...I would probably guess a handful if that.

    Appropriate technology use in the classroom seems to me like it should be a classroom management issue that falls under the teachers responsibility. I'm not a teacher but I fail to see the issue in enforcing kids to put personal devices away unless there is a project requiring google docs project/designed time/something of that nature.

    A one to one is the future and honestly seems to be coming close to a standard at this point. An implementation now would be more beneficial than later.

    -1:1 Supporter

    1. Writer of the original letter here.

      Apple has been successful pitching to schools, but there's nothing inherent to it as especially suited to classrooms. This myth is a legacy of the Apple II era. Could you please elaborate as to how Apple is still at the "forefront of integrating technology into curriculum?"

      As stated in my letter, iPads (and other tablets) and schoolwork don't mix. I can't imagine tapping on the screen to write, switching between Safari and Pages, unable to splitscreen or multitask. Moreover, iPads don't support Flash. A few Flash-based web-apps the district is using have an equivalent on App Store, but this means paying twice. Macbook Airs are nice, but even at discount, you're paying for the form factor and the logo and they're overkill for easy-maintenance-and-monitoring thin-client setups. Virtual desktops can be run from cheaper devices with lower specs.

      Chromebooks are limited to web-based apps, but 99% of what classes do is read text, do online exercises/quizzes, and type on Google Docs. The rare cases for which a full OS is needed is Photoshop and publishing for art, and CAD and other specialized software for tech-related classes, for which the district already has desktop workstations (some of which have to run Windows). This is a totally acceptable trade-off for computers with a retail price 1/4 the Macbook Air's. With these savings, the district could give middle schoolers devices with keyboards. Moreover, their limited functionality has its own advantages; there's less the students can do to damage or misuse the technology.

      Appropriate technology use is as much the responsibility of administration and IT as it is teachers, who cannot do what they need to do and monitor every student's computer screen at the same time. In many cases, students minimize a browser open to Youtube when they see the teacher approach. If the district is to introduce a 1-to-1, it is the responsibility of IT to create mechanisms for tightly monitoring and controlling student use.

      If it were up to teachers, there'd be a rule that all smartphones stay in lockers, but the administration has taken a different line, apparently in deference to demands from some parents that their children be on call 24/7. It's the administration's responsibility to set strict rules and policy guidelines, and in this regard, they are shirking their responsibility. This wasn't always the case. Personal electronics were banned before. Things only changed in the last six or seven years with the smartphone revolution. Despite this revolution, many area school districts have held firm, unlike Pottsgrove. Without administration support, teachers call out students texting under their desks, but are unable to really do anything about it. Teachers can confiscate a device for the class period, but can't keep it any longer, and find that students, without fear of further punishment, will continue this behavior the very next day.

      One-to-one may very well be the future, but the district has more pressing needs with it scoring only average marks in math, writing, and reading relative to a state which includes Philadelphia's schools. For its demographics and location, it's underperforming on every count. There are many schools without one-to-one programs outperforming Pottsgrove. Before we hand out laptops to students, expecting them to magically improve in common core, curricular content, not the medium, needs to be addressed. The problem here is not teachers, but a fickle school board and administration constantly chasing after new fads. I'm all for occasional fine tunings, but it's to the point that both teachers and their students are confused. Any consistent back-to-basics has to be done at the elementary level, those students who are going to be left out of the one-to-one anyway. No laptop is going to save students who are unable to do basic arithmetic in their heads or write coherent three-point essays by 6th grade.

    2. Without having the basic memorization of numbers and functions... all else is a moot point. I am tired of having to teach my child math because the spiralling reform math does not teach kids. It is no cooincidence that Pottsgrove has been falling in rankings since switching to Everday Math... yet the board and the admin have done nothing to hold anyone accountable for this.

      I am fearfull of a school that renews commitment to EDM and revamps the remainder of the math program to Self Discovery Math..
      In fact the Algebra 2 class was being taught Trig because they did not realize that algebra 2 was the 2nd half of the algebra 1 book

  5. Thank you for speaking out against this, hopefully the administration will listen to good common sense!