Happy New Year

I’ve always been more in tune with the school year than the calendar year. I was born in the fall. In the northern hemisphere, school traditionally starts in the fall. We’ve had a bit of a rest. It’s not like January at all, where the new year comes as an afterthought to the frenzied Christmas season. January 1 is like that lone rogue firework shooting up a few seconds after the finale has ended. It’s the period at the end of the run-on sentence that is the holiday season.

Thanks to MMMMichelle on FlickrNo, the fall is different. We’re rested, and it’s time to get back to work. Not that we haven’t been working all summer or anything, but it’s a different mindset. It’s quieter. Work can be more focused, and less reactive. But with students coming back today, we’ve re-adopted the hectic schedules, the routines, and the academic work. Hopefully, we’ve rested enough over the last couple months to feel recharged about the coming year. There’s a sense of optimism — everyone is excited that school is starting.

From a technology perspective, a challenging year lies ahead. There are some holdover projects from the summer that didn’t quite get finished. We left the last school year with the goal of installing 136 Smartboards in classrooms over the summer, and we managed to get 117 of them done. The rest are coming soon; we hope to have them all done within the next few weeks. Last year’s 45 Smartboards had a dramatic — and totally unexpected — effect on the teachers. We have teachers who have not traditionally embraced technology. They’re not necessarily opposed to it, but they’ve never seen the value of using it in their teaching. These people are more excited about using new technology than they’ve ever been. One of our veteran teachers was very skeptical about getting a Smartboard last year, but threatened to quit this year if we took it away. I’m hoping that we see a similar reaction among the teachers who are getting them this year, which would have a tranformational effect on how teaching and learning happens in our schools.

On the hardware front, we’ve replaced more than 40 classroom computers in our middle school. In most cases, the six-year-old machines being replaced were unbearably slow. The good news is that the teachers now have new computers, and, thanks to nLite, the old ones are getting a new lease on life, too. As it turns out, there’s a lot of stuff in the Windows OS that we don’t use. By not installing those components, we can get fairly snappy performance out of these old machines. There are some limitations — I don’t think we’re going to be using them for CAD or video editing. But for 80% of what we do with computers (office productivity, web access, and email), they work great. This is good news, since we’ll have about 300 of these old computers in secondary-use environments by the end of this school year.

The instructional software front is always a minefield. We’re constantly inundated with vendors touting software solutions to student achievement problems. If you believe them, a computer can teach any kid to pass a proficiency test at a fraction of the cost of traditional instruction. But the research rarely backs this up. Most of the studies that report significant gains are funded by the software companies themselves, and the few independent studies available often have flawed research models. Since many schools don’t really look that closely at this stuff, a lot of money is spent on popular software that has little effect on student achievement.

One example popped up again this week on a listserv here in Ohio. Using an archipelagic metaphor, the program is marketed as a test-prep intervention tool. It doesn’t provide any instruction, and students don’t learn much from it beyond what they would get from taking the same test multiple times. When pressed, the sales people acknowledge that its main strength is in identifying student weaknesses (though you have to already know what the weaknesses are to test them). But still, schools all over the place are trying to use it to provide instruction in math and reading. I didn’t respond to the thread this time. I’ve already made this point at least twice on that list in the last year.

Our technology plan expires at the end of the school year, so we’ll be reviewing and revising it this year. In the past, I’ve been all over the map on this one. On one hand, if you’re making a substantial investment in technology, you need to have a plan. There has to be some goal that you’re reaching for, so you can make intelligent decisions to work toward that common end. On the other hand, if technology is truly integrated into everything we do, having a mandated “technology plan” makes about as much sense has having a “textbook plan” or a “school bus plan” that has to be approved by the state. And since we have to use the state’s format for creating the plan, which, in turn, includes the e-rate requirements, we frequently end up with a document that explains how we’re going to work toward meeting the bureaucrats’ goals for technology in the schools. That’s a lot less useful for us, so we end up with quite a bit of technology planning that isn’t actually in the plan. Still, we’ll take an honest look at what we have from the last three years, set some goals, and try to use the prescribed planning tools to come up with something that is useful for us while meeting all of the state’s requirements.

With the geeky backend stuff, we’re working on some new things that (hopefully) no one will notice. One of these is the configuration of a new firewall, which should improve network security and take some of the load off our routers, which have been pulling double-duty for the last several years. We’re also improving our Internet filtering to close some of the loopholes that students have been exploiting to get around the filter. The expansion of wireless networking is forcing us to re-examine our wireless solution, and a more scalable approach to managing wireless devices is in the works. We’re also jumping into the world of server virtualization, with the hope of combining multiple physical servers into a single physical box. This should save money while improving our backup and failover capabilities.

We received a lot of good feedback on the summer technology classes held in June. Several teachers have launched new blogs. Some are considering the use of Moodle to put parts of their classes online. Many are excited about using Delicious to manage and share bookmarks. Others are just starting to realize the potential of RSS. We’ll be encouraging these teachers and helping them develop and refine those skills throughout the year. I’d like to see us starting to offer professional development opportunities in Moodle, and teaching teachers more about social networking applications that may be useful to them.

The bells are ringing again. The students are in the hall. There aren’t any parking spaces in the staff lot. They’re back. And we’re ready to go.

Have a great year.