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5 Questions You Should Ask Concerning EdTech, But May Not Be

5 Questions You Should Ask Concerning EdTech, But May Not Be

A few weeks ago, I attended a great session led by Katrina Stevens (US Office of Edtech) and Chike Aguh (Advisory Board Company) called, “Building an Edtech Bill of Rights“. In this session, Katrina and Chike masterfully facilitated a necessary discussion on purposeful innovation amongst teachers, EdTech leaders, researchers, entrepreneurs and students…with a focus on teacher/student voice.

During the session, we were challenged to listen to teachers about current educational problems and come up with some “technology based” way of solving them…in a limited amount of time. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been on many sides of edtech but this was new territory for me as I have never been asked…

“What’s your biggest problem and how can we fix it?”

Of all of the sessions that I have been to over the years, this one seems to have struck a nerve because it certainly informed a few thoughts that had been brewing concerning the evaluation of the necessity of tech. I want to know about the discussions and research that went into ideating and creating the product. Who does it serve, how does it solve and why? How does your product compare with others which have similar functions? I also want to know if your infrastructure supports product improvement and your plan of growth accordingly.

In other words…where is your market research and how are you using it? As educators, we believe wholeheartedly in the power of feedback and if I am using your tool in my classroom, you most certainly should be listening to feedback from users and adjusting accordingly when necessary and possible.

Not every tech specialist/teacher will ask these questions but when we consider the number of products on the market and how many make their way into classrooms, someone should be digging deeper.

At a minimal level, we should be considering at least 5 questions BEFORE the tech is thrown into the training rotation.

1. What simple problem does this application solve?

This is a question about purpose. If I can’t use the tool and understand why I need to use it…how can I possibly communicate this to teachers? With that said, people see tools from different perspectives and someone may find some use that I have not…like augmented reality. However, during the planning/pre-funding phase…that developer had to answer this question and should certainly be able to communicate their “why” to you.

2. If the application was made specifically for education, how much educator feedback was considered and was that feedback from a diverse space?

I read an article in Edsurge about the Silicon Valley Education Association and that they have a program for edtech developers to get their product in Silicon Valley schools for testing. To be clear, if this is the ONLY place that your product has been tested and the only place where you are getting feedback, I am going to question this thinking. In addition, how can a product address a need in education if educators are not informing that need? 

3. Does the privacy and terms of service align with my students, myself and our district?

I have to credit Bill Fitzgerald and Audrey Watters with teaching me everything that I know about privacy, terms of service and the language of them. I read their work religiously. This came in handy as I sat in a room looking at potential products for a future venture and as shocking as it was for the men on the other side of the table to be asked about their TOS and privacy…it was necessary as it unlocked a slew of issues that they did not even know that they had. It’s not just about the age of student that can use it. That’s critical, of course. It’s also about ownership of product, life of your service if the product goes away and privacy of all stakeholders. 

4. What type of data is collected and how is that data used?

This should be a “no-brainer” to ask. Data = dollars. Believe that. This is especially important if your parents have signed district documents limiting the use of their child’s data. In addition, if you or your teachers are uploading lessons, how will those lessons be used? Who owns them? If uploading my lessons means that I no longer own them, I should not be uploading them. This information should be located somewhere in the terms of service and if it isn’t…ask.

5. If we are creating and storing within the platform, can our work be exported to use elsewhere?

Visibly, if the platform includes a “download” feature, do it. Upload it to your external hard drive as you never know when that small step will come in handy. Not every product has an “export” feature and for me…that is a deal breaker. If there is no visible export function, ask about it. Again…see the section in TOS about…”If our product is sold…” 

Not every product that we use in schools was made for education but every tech creator should have no problem answering a few questions that are not immediately visible. Gone are the days that we can be oblivious to what happens on the other side of tech. Innovation is a shared responsibility and we must be a part of those discussions as our goals should always be to impact student learning…with effective technology.

Yep, I Resigned

Yep, I Resigned

If you asked me five years ago if I would have ever left the halls of my high school, I would have laughed and said…”No way!” I loved it too much. I still do. I also would not have ever considered leaving my home town…nor would I have seen myself traveling the country to talk about the state of education or collaborating on ideas for change.

There is no way that I could have pictured myself having any form of impact outside of my classroom or city limits. It was not within my reach, vision or possibilities.

I have been fortunate to have had many great experiences since my journey in education began. I always knew that I would eventually train teachers and so did my students as we took great pride in sharing our deepest dreams and encouraging each other. My dreams are possible because of them and I know that I have had great impact on theirs.

A few weeks ago, I submitted my official resignation to my school district and April 1st will be my final day with Arlington ISD, a school district that will always hold a special place in my heart as it really is a spectacular place to learn.

The reality is that to do the work that I believe in and know needs to be done for teachers and students, it is almost impossible to stay within a public education contract. I always said that if it came to be that my time out of school was shifting the focus away from my real job, I would need to make a choice.

And so I did.

The risk is worth it.

What’s Next?

I wish that I could share some big earth shattering announcement but I cannot because as with most things done outside of the norm…great impactful ideas take work and many iterations of thinking. What I will say is that during Google Teacher Academy, I wrote a massive “moonshot” and it is very much so happening! As soon as I can share…believe me, I will.

In the meantime, I am scheduled for the next few months to work directly with schools all over the country on learning goals (with technology) for students and teachers. I’ll also be doing more consulting with developers as educator voice is certainly an often absent necessity.

It’s safe to say that my message of creativity, curiosity and innovation isn’t changing. It will only get louder and one goal is for certain…

I plan to move heaven and earth to make sure that all of our children, especially those of poverty and of color, will have the access and opportunity needed to be creative agents of passion and change in this world. 

So, with that said….I am not leaving education but spreading my wings.

My passion is to serve and resigning from that isn’t an option.

Let’s Have Edu Gamathons, Not Just Gamification

Let’s Have Edu Gamathons, Not Just Gamification

This past weekend, I had the unique opportunity to serve as a teacher mentor for the Austin Education Game Jam, hosted by Globoloria, Atlassian HipChat and Skillpoint Alliance. This “Gamathon” event challenged development teams to create high-quality, commercially viable video games that were content focused while also empowering learning through more meaningful and engaging experiences.

From a spectator standpoint, it was interesting to see teams, with most having only met that day, thinking about what gaming in education could be and then making plans to create that experience. Each group, bringing their own experiences as student learners and entertainment content creators, took great care to think about how game design supports learning and in what area could great impact be made.

Watching each game come to life was an education in and of itself with the most powerful being the moments that we saw developers “googling code” or looking at a quick youtube video to learn how to do some small part in the game. We are all still learners, right? There were also moments when, without thinking, a connection would be made to a childhood learning experience.

“I cringed at the thought of making a game about math because I was never good at math”

“I learned a lot more about the subject while I was making a game about it”

It was in those moments that I had my greatest “aha moment”…

We NEED kids doing this…designing their own games for learning…and yesterday!

Engaging the educational game industry to help drive innovation in learning is certainly critical but involving the diverse expertise of students and forward thinking educators can only drive more successful outcomes.

With that said, watching a room full of developers completely immersed in collaboratively designing, building and learning reminded me of the power of project based learning which then led to a few thoughts…

  • Kids will be empowered learners if they are a part of the creation process and even more so if they are the creators.
  • As Joseph South, with the Department of Education Office of Edtech, pointed out…The key to engaging kids lies in the developers that have mastered the art of capturing their interest. We shouldn’t be communicating that games have zero value. We SHOULD be learning from these game designers.
  • Gamification, in the sense that it exist in education, isn’t the same as immersive learning through gaming.
  • Project based simulation of real world tasks isn’t the same as badges for behaviors.

I have always loved gaming and found myself connecting to the games of my adolescence and why I loved them. I learned to solve problems and in doing so developed parts of my brain that I didn’t even know existed. It wasn’t just about garnering points, it was about doing so in such a way that the embedded skill was second nature.

We know that coding is important and globally we’ve bought in to the idea through our participation in “hour of code”. Now we need to have deeper discussions about next steps and how that looks.

As a person who spent hours on end mastering the moves of every single Tony Hawk game, becoming a digital guitar hero, earning almost every top career path in The Sims, beating my daughter in Dance Dance revolution, spending hours playing Angry Birds while also embedding the game in math lessons and finally understanding football through John Madden…I am exceptionally excited that Entertainment gaming is joining these discussions.

Where do we go now?

Well, we collaborate to drive innovation with students being the driving force.

Can you imagine how we can deeply impact learning?

I can only hope that at these events in the future that race and gender diversity isn’t left on the table in the name tags of the people that didn’t show up. I’m hoping that we/they at least signed up because we need women and people of color in these discussion too. Unfortunately, this event was absent of both of these.

The Privilege of Learning, Rethinking Traditional Schooling

The Privilege of Learning, Rethinking Traditional Schooling

In 2009, I was fortunate enough to visit New Tech High School in Coppell, TX…a “New Tech Network” school centered on project based learning and authentic student-led experiences. Prior to that visit, everything that I understood about education involved teachers as the holders of information with students waiting to grasp onto every word. Within a few moments of walking through the halls of New Tech, I knew that I was experiencing something life-changing. It was as if the doors of learning were unlocked ever so slightly and I haven’t been the same educator since.

It was on that day that I first experienced what freedom to explore and learn meant. I saw kids, deeply draped in trust, collaborating, researching, discussing and even studying from all corners of the building. I saw a “grading system” that had zero numerical value but a life value far greater than a red pen could mark.

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 2.14.43 PM

I saw kids, excited about the “global awareness” project they were collaboratively creating…entranced by their ideas as well as the ongoing feedback of their peers…while also editing final videos for online submission to youtube.

I remember leaving New Tech full of excitement and wonder and I was eager to try implementing some of those ideas into my own math classroom. I started with changing the way that I taught by giving much less and asking much more. That simple change, while not easy, profoundly changed who I was as a teacher.

Over the last few years, I’ve been to many different schools and I have only felt such a life-changing jolt on two other occasions. One…after visiting Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and the other…Anastasis Academy in Colorado. Like New Tech, both schools are inquiry driven and project based, with one (SLA) being a public magnet high school founded by a man with a transformative vision and The Franklin Institute. The second…a private school (Anastasis) formed because a pair of teachers wanted to create a “new paradigm in education”.

In both situations, the differences in belief and approach to learning versus traditional schooling were obvious from multiple views. Kids were empowered to think, dream, act and learn with many iterations of thought. Partnerships between students, teachers and parents were clearly evident. Students were trusted to be human and teachers were trusted to be their own curriculum writers instead of forced to teach from a district box-set of ideas. Both locations boasted students who spoke of the privilege that they felt to learn in such an authentic manner that their voices and ideas were not only heard but empowered to ignite their individual paths.

Each trip, while months apart, forced me to think about the possibilities for kids and the future leaders that they can become if we stopped living in the traditional sense of school and shifted our thinking to be truly focused on empowering kids to be architects of their own thoughts and lovers of the art of learning.

It should not be surprising to adults when students can articulate their own thoughts. We should not be shocked when a teenager makes some incredible scientific discovery or creates a work of art “beyond his/her years”.

When I am told, “…designed/created by a student”, I do not want to live in a world where my response is, “Are you serious?”….but instead… “of course”.

If we listen to our learners, our schools should be empowering…

  • Ideas
  • Voice
  • Passion
  • Activism
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Relationships
  • Community
  • Research
  • Cultural Cognizance
  • Invention
  • Learning

If we aren’t doing those things, why should we question when kids lack a spark or intent when approaching school? Why should we be concerned when attendance lacks while discipline referrals reach new peaks? Why should we wonder why parental support falters? Why question the social connectedness of teachers to ideas or opportunities for growth?

Why question what we haven’t established, implemented or supported…in the traditional sense?

Why have we created and accepted a system where authentic learning is a matter of privilege?

We all speak of educational change and/or reform but no such change is possible until we cut the leashes of traditional learning and redefine our purpose for school. The key to getting there is tucked in the dusty boxes that are currently holding the muted thoughts of our greatest assets.

Our Kids

What do they think about learning? What do they think about school? How would they change it?

What small change can you make in your classroom/school to empower “untraditional” growth?

What needs to happen to support more meaningful and authentic approaches to growth?

(Noticeably absent from the list above…Technology. We don’t need to empower technology. We need to empower our learners…who they are and who they can become. The technology should be accessible…supporting and empowering all of the characteristics listed and more)

Because Slavery Should Not Be Edtech Gamified #slavesimulation

my great grandfather, a product of slavery
my great grandfather, a product of slavery

It’s been four days now of complete and total commitment to bringing forth awareness about PBS affiliate, ThirteenNY‘s “game” on slaves escaping to freedom in which badges are awarded for risks along the way. This “game”, which received exceptional reviews AND AWARDS from teachers and media affiliates from all over the country, has been used in classrooms since at least 2012.

Reviews like… (as posted to their website and linked)

KOTAKU – They Made a Video Game About Slavery, And It’s Actually Good
“It’s not only an engaging video game, it’s a harrowing, illuminating look at the realities of life as an American slave…
I was struck by how effectively the game placed me in the shoes of an American slave. The precarious nature of my existence was readily apparent… 

USA TODAY – 4 out of 4 stars – Kids relive history with free role-playing game
“realistic” “brilliant” “ingenious” “fascinating” “a powerful game that all kids should experience”
The branching storylines, each tied to your possible decisions, are brilliant in their diversity and ingenious in how they weave together to create the fascinating story path of this game.

School Library Journal – “Media Mix: ‘Flight to Freedom’ for Black History Month”
The game is educational, fun, and will definitely hold the attention of students in grades 5 to 8.

Ground Control Parenting – “Mission U.S.: Helping Middle Schoolers Enjoy Learning American History”
A game to teach middle schoolers about slavery? Could be cringe-worthy; I had to try it. I enlisted my 7th grade son to play it with me, and off we went into the world of Lucy the slave. Two minutes in, we were hooked.

As an educator, parent and aunt of a student in this age range, I am disheartened that the consensus on learning for students in this age range is that it needs to be “gamified” and fun” to be interesting.

Engaging? Yes

Interesting? Yes

Fun? Not if “fun” means simulation and badging built on the premise of a horrific event such as slavery

How/Why Does This Happen?

The development of a series of games starts with hefty planning. The idea of learning history in an interactive format is a great one. It is. However, when choosing which acts of history to play, consideration should have been given as to which moments were appropriate and how to do them justice.

The slave mission was built on the idea that users could  “understand what a real slave felt” while walking around in Lucy’s shoes. Unfortunately this is also where the game failed because one cannot simulate the emotional scars of slavery. Read more about “why simulation should not be used” from the Anti-Defamation League in reference to the Holocaust.

No matter how “uncomfortable” one is while playing a game, it’s still absent of the worry of physical abuse, rape, mutilation or death. It’s still not the emotional scars of being “nothing” in the eyes of the people whose lifestyle you are in fact enabling.

So again…how does this happen? There’s research on the part of those with the idea, planning, more research and meetings with potential funding groups. Those funding groups typically make awareness known about what types of projects they are funding which often results in projects created to meet the needs of the money being issued. This game was groundbreaking in that no one else has successfully done it. Wait…it WAS done and did in fact result in a lawsuit being filed by parents in 1995.

At any rate, many people said “yes” to this game and not one thought that it was inappropriate including a group of historians who not only supported it but advised along the way…which begs the question…

While we know that our stories and narratives are absent from schools, was this the way to do it?

While I cannot and will not speak for the entire black community. As a teacher, technology specialist, daughter, mother and aunt…I say…NO

Fast forward to the launch of the game itself. Press releases are sent out. Contacts are made with potential high volume reviewers. Sometimes those reviews are pre-written and sometimes a person is asked to review. (I’ve been approached for many different apps to review and have declined)

Too many people should have and could have stopped this insanity and no one did. For that, I am still annoyed with the greater Edtech Community about.

Studying Slavery

I want my kids to examine primary documents, research, interview real people, watch revelations captured via film, discuss and maybe even do some writing to reflect and think. I want them to look at the wholistic aspect of slavery and not just on the part of slaves but on the slave owners too.

I also want them to examine their own history and the role that their family played. There are rich lessons that can be had if we stop assuming that all lessons need the glitz and glamour of animation, interactivity through technology and badging.

While I do believe in using games for learning, I do not believe that slavery is an appropriate place for it.

It’s too important of a topic to be minimized by “fun”.

Slave Simulation, An Edtech Game for Classrooms

Slave Simulation, An Edtech Game for Classrooms

Yesterday, I was shocked to open my email from Common Sense Media’s Graphite to find a recommendation and review for the game, Mission US: Flight to Freedom as a recommended piece of technology to “celebrate black history month and beyond” (It has since been removed).  Flight to Freedom is a role playing game in which…Continue Reading

My Eduparent Perspective: Identity Crisis

When my daughter was three, we enrolled her in her first ballet class with gymnastics soon thereafter. The natural progression from that point was competitive cheerleading which she participated in until she was in high school. My niece followed the same pattern. As a matter of fact, our girls were the most “girliest” of girls…Continue Reading

Because Black Kids Get Suspended for Talking

It’s only fitting that my first post of 2015 is about my 15 year old son…my motivation for equity and advocacy. The phone rings. It’s his principal… “I’m calling to inform you that I am putting your son in ISS because he was talking in geometry and his teacher said that she asked him to stop talking…Continue Reading