Avoid magical thinking: ‘Design for online’ this fall

As coronavirus cases continue to increase across the country, numerous school districts are reluctantly announcing that they will be doing ‘remote learning’ again this fall. Although we had the summer to prepare for this eventuality, unfortunately we have instead seen a lot of magical thinking from educational leaders and policy makers. 

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As much as we want our children to go back to school in person, we can’t underestimate how harmful this magical thinking can be.

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We are seeing a wide variety of school schedules being proposed for the fall, even in locations that are leading the world in infection rates. Many of them center learning in person at school as the main modality, with accommodations perhaps being made for students, families, and educators who are rightfully concerned about becoming infected with a deadly virus.

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Given that every time a place opens up we seem to have a surge of infections there, centering a school’s fall reopening plan on in-person instruction sure feels like magical thinking. We aren’t providing schools with the funding or supplies necessary to keep students and educators safe and, even if we did, there are a number of other issues for which we don’t have very good answers

Many of the schools that are still planning to be face-to-face this fall will have to switch over in the next couple of weeks. It’s also likely that a surge of cases in their area will shut them back down again soon after opening. Even those that are planning to start in person – either entirely or with a staggered schedule – realize that many families are going to keep their children at home. And schools may have to dip in and out of in person, online, and hybrid modalities throughout the year, depending on what happens with the coronavirus.

This is what I have been recommending to the schools and educators that I am working with this summer:

Design for online this fall. Even if you’re lucky enough to have students in person in your classrooms at some point, use that precious time to work on technology skills, social-emotional resilience, building students’ capacity to be self-directed learners, creating classroom community, etc. Given that you have some of your students learning remotely anyway, design for online instead of asking teachers to do double work for both in school and at home. Even the kids that are sitting in front of you in class should do their learning work online – the same learning work that the kids at home are doing. It’s incredibly likely that you’re going to have to be wholly remote at some point this school year anyway. Designing for online as your primary modality allows you maximum flexibility and a more seamless transition when you almost inevitably have to shift over to remote instruction. It also protects your staff from burnout, and most communities will support you.

I don’t see any other reasonable way to do school this fall. Anything else seems like magical thinking. Magical thinking that our schools and communities will be free of the virus despite inadequate safety protections. Magical thinking that students and parents will engage in appropriate mask wearing, hand washing, and social distancing precautions. Magical thinking that teachers can operate simultaneously in face-to-face, online, hybrid, and/or hyflex modalities all year, even with scant training on how to do so. Magical thinking that the decisions that we make this summer about in-person instruction are going to somehow hold for an entire school year. And so on… 

Students and families are going to pay the price if they are in school systems that haven’t invested heavily this summer in professional learning for teachers to teach effectively online. Students and families are going to pay the price if they are in school systems that haven’t figured out how to remedy device and Internet bandwidth inequities. Students and families are going to pay the price if they are in school systems that continue to prepare primarily for in person learning and have neglected online learning.

Magical Thinking 09Magical Thinking 11I also think it’s worth considering what we are fighting for this fall. Are we fighting for compelling visions of learning and teaching in person, or just child care so that people can get back to work?

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Our families gave us grace in the spring when we did remote learning because it was an ‘emergency.’ If we squandered the summer by engaging in magical thinking about returning in person this fall instead of making the organizational investments that we needed to make, they’re not going to give us the same grace again. And they’ll be right. We had our chance this summer to get better at online learning. And many school systems didn’t do nearly enough.

Is your school system ready to ‘design for online’ this fall and do it well?

P.S. We need to do this in higher education too…

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10 quick thoughts on mobile phones in schools

No cell phones!A few quick thoughts…

  1. Most people realize that mobile phones are actually mobile computers. But many schools that claim to be doing everything they can to get technology into the hands of schoolchildren then ban their students from using the computers that they bring in their pockets every day. The issue apparently is not technology, it’s control. We need to call this for what it is.
  2. Students know that mobile phones are powerful learning devices. They know that when we ban them, we are sending them messages that we don’t get it. Or that we’re not really about learning.
  3. We have to stop blaming the device. Classroom management stems from good instruction.
  4. We have to stop the ‘holier than thou’ pronouncements about today’s kids. We haven’t seen significant evolutionary changes in children in just a few decades. Our students (or their brains) are not substantially different, they just have different opportunities. Nostalgia aside, we adults were often bored out of our minds in school too. If we had Facebook, texting, Snapchat, and other avenues to alleviate our boredom, we would have turned to them as well. Let’s quit the arrogant attitudes of moral superiority.
  5. Banning and blocking does absolutely nothing to teach students about inappropriate or untimely mobile phone usage because it removes the decision-making locus from students to educators. Students don’t ever get a chance to own their mobile phone behavior when they are just passive – and usually resentful or bewildered – recipients of our fiats.
  6. Many schools say that they’re trying to foster more student agency. That should mean more than fairly-constrained choices related to content. Student choice in environmental contexts and instructional tools (ahem, learning technologies) matters too.
  7. No one – I repeat, no one – can concentrate without any distractions whatsoever for 45-50 minutes straight. Nor can they then repeat that 6 to 8 times a day. Is our goal with these ‘digital distraction’ bans to have students’ 100% attention at all times or else? If so, are we just punishing students for how our human brains work?
  8. Maybe it’s not the phone that’s leading to students’ distraction. Distraction can result from hunger, fatigue, illness, anxiety, boredom, an overstimulating classroom environment, the desire to engage in additional research, or a whole host of other factors (e.g., frequency of daydreaming is highest during undemanding, easy tasks). Let’s avoid simplistic solutions to complex contexts.
  9. If we involved students in the creation of school mobile phone policies – with authentic input and decision-making, including about ‘consequences’ – instead of fighting with them, we probably would be pleasantly surprised at the outcomes.
  10. When students use mobile phones despite our bans, maybe they’re not defiant. Maybe they’re rational given the context in which they’re embedded. Did I mention that classroom management stems from good instruction?

Image credit: No cell phones!, Joe Pemberton

The surveillance of our youth

Big BrotherLike many school districts, the Southeast Polk School District in Pleasant Hill, Iowa monitors the Web usage of its students on district-provided computers for inappropriate activity. And like some school districts, Southeast Polk also uses a monitoring service that sends weekly emails to parents summarizing their students’ Internet search history. This raises some difficult issues because we know that young people need space away from the heavy thumb of adults for healthy identity formation and the development of self. 

Why do teenagers go to the mall, or congregate at the park, or cruise the strip, or gravitate toward the online spaces where adults aren’t? Because they need spaces that are separate from us. Should we monitor every single book or online resource that our children read? Should we use biometric school lunch checkout systems so that we can see exactly what our children eat for lunch each day? Should we dig through our children’s belongings and rooms every morning after they leave for school to see if they’re doing something that they shouldn’t? Should we install RFID and GPS tags into our children’s clothing and backpacks so that we can track them in real time? Should we slap lifelogging cameras on our kids and review them every evening? Should we install keystroke logging software or monitor everything that youth search for on the Internet? Which of these makes you uncomfortable and which doesn’t?

We can think of numerous reasons why students might search the Internet for things that they don’t want their parents to know about, just like they talk daily about things that they don’t want their parents to know about. For instance, perhaps there is a gay boy who’s struggling to make sense of things but is not ready to come out to his family yet. Or a teenage girl with liberal politics in an ultraconservative family. Or a young couple that is pregnant and searching for information and options before they tell their parents. Or a teen who’s in a spat with a peer but doesn’t want clueless adults stepping in and creating more drama. Or any teen or tween with normal adolescent concerns who just needs some information, resources, or nonlocal empathy and connection. Do these students deserve some space? Do they deserve a presumption of privacy? Or should they immediately and automatically be outed by school software?

danah boyd asks some important questions about youth privacy, including Who has the right to monitor youth? and Which actors continue to assert power over youth? She also notes that:

Just because teens’ content is publicly accessible does not mean that it is intended for universal audiences nor does it mean that the onlooker understands what they see. . . . How do we leverage the visibility of online content to see and hear youth in a healthy way? How do we use the technologies that we have to protect them rather than focusing on punishing them? . . . How do we create eyes on the digital street? How do we do so in a way that’s not creepy?

Similarly, First Monday notes:

The right to privacy is stipulated in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [and] Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as numerous international and regional human rights treaties and conventions [and has been found to be a protected Constitutional right by the U.S. Supreme Court]. The right to privacy essentially protects the integrity of the individual and his or her home, family, and correspondence. A common denominator for the different areas of privacy is access control: thus control over what others know about us; control over private decisions and actions; and control over a physical space. The right to privacy builds on the presumption that a zone of autonomy around the individual is central to individual freedom and self-determination.

Should school districts be complicit in the hypersurveillance of our young people? What messages do we send our students when we monitor their every action and send out weekly reports? Are we creating digital social graphs for our children and then placing them in the hands of commercial vendors? Are we intentionally instituting oppositional and distrustful stances against our own students? Are we fostering the creation of graduates who will shrug at the infringement of their civil liberties as adults because their families and educators have done so for years?

I wonder if there’s an opt out for families that don’t want to Big Brother or helicopter parent their children…

See also

Image credit: Big Brother is watching you, Photon

The real reason we ban cell phones

Marc Prensky said:

Let’s admit that the real reason we ban cell phones is that, given the opportunity to use them, students would “vote with their attention,” just as adults “vote with their feet” by leaving the room when a presentation is not compelling. Why shouldn’t our students have the same option with their education when educators fail to deliver compelling content?

via Listen to the Natives

Not sure I buy into the idea that educators should be ‘delivering content,’ no matter how compelling! But I like the quote. Anyone else besides me want to admit that if you had mobile phones and social media when you were a kid, you would have tried to escape your boring classrooms too?

We can mandate their attendance but it’s nearly impossible to mandate their attention.

Irresponsible fearmongering

Pokemon Go

Three days after the launch of Pokemon Go here in the United States, a central office administrator told me that his superintendent had emailed the entire district leadership team, warning them about the game because “six teenagers already had been killed by wandering into traffic while playing the game.” The administrator with whom I spoke said that he was concerned and also curious about what I thought.

A five-second Google search shows that the superintendent’s email is completely false. Some other funky, mostly harmless stuff has happened – as well as many positive stories too – but six teenagers killed in traffic is not one of them. There are a number of Pokemon Go hoaxes floating around and, of course, the usual handwringing, freaking out, and alarmism that accompany the launch of any new technology popular with young people.

I gently explained all of this to the administrator, and he was quick to note that this was not the first time that the superintendent had been alarmist regarding youth and technology. We had a good conversation and he walked away feeling more relaxed and informed.

The larger issue is our obligation as school leaders to avoid irresponsible fearmongering. Our messages and behaviors influence our educators and communities. They usually trust the information that we send them as principals and superintendents. I am pretty certain that we have a deep obligation to at least do some basic fact-checking instead of disseminating easily-disproven falsehoods. Otherwise we contribute to the fear and anxiety that already exist regarding youth and technology and impede our own technology integration efforts.

If we wish to facilitate digitally-rich learning spaces so that our students can use learning technologies in interesting and instructionally powerful ways, we can’t keep weighing down the fearful side of the balance scale…

Peak indifference to surveillance

Cory Doctorow said:

In the educational domain we see a lot of normalisation of designing computers so that their users can’t override them. For example, school-supplied laptops can be designed so that educators can monitor what their users are doing. . . . [Students] are completely helpless because their machines are designed to prevent them from doing anything.

We have this path of surveillance that starts with prisoners, then mental patients, refugees, students, benefits claimants, blue collar workers and then white collar workers. That’s the migration path for surveillance and students are really low in the curve. People who work in education are very close to the front lines of the legitimisation of surveillance and designing computers to control their users rather than being controlled by users.

via http://www.online-educa.com/OEB_Newsportal/cory-doctorow-surveillance-privacy