2015: The Good, the Bad, and the Crazy

Within the dimension of education technology, 2015 has brought with it an array of new-but-not-particularly-tickling technologies and pedagogical practices, while also celebrating a continued questioning of technology’s value in classrooms across the globe. From where I sit as an Ed Tech Director in a public school district with more than 34,000 students, these are the top five trends that stick out in my mind – from good, to bad, to a little bit crazy:

  1. Nudging iPads, netbooks, and even traditional laptops aside, inexpensive Chromebooks clearly became the student device of choice – as school budgets stretched, web interfaces improved, and GAFE-powered management and convenience continued to impress.
  2. The LMS continued to shape the landscape of instruction, pigeon-holing technology-proficient teachers into the constraints of the system, while also pushing reluctant teachers to collaborate more widely with desperate parents, ever anxious to help.
  3. Online standardized testing drove the increased purchase of classroom technology, finally/gratefully/sadly providing the “compelling why” for polarized legislatures to prioritize public ed-tech spending.
  4. While increased device access facilitated fertile opportunities to stretch Nearpod’s pedagogical power, teachers overwhelmingly preferred Kahoot! for regular, informal, and formative assessment of student dexterity.
  5. To the chagrin of IT directors everywhere, Apple’s middle finger emoticon and upside-down-smiley contributed heavily to 2015’s dubbing as The Year of the Emoji.

2015 - Year of the Emoji

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The Teacher’s Guide to Data Security

Not long ago, a common scene in many classrooms included a teacher’s computer with an important password – for entry into the computer, teacher gradebook, or even bank account – stickied neatly to its monitor.

Password Protection of Yesteryear
Password Protection of Yesteryear
In 2015, however, gone are the days that teachers and students may safely remain so relaxed about data security and privacy.

There are several reasons for this change. First, online fraud continues to skyrocket. Last year, for example, annual fraud costs to retailers reached $32 billion, with mobile commerce fraud growing at an alarming rate. Second, federal and local government administrators have heightened their sensitivity toward data security, in light of recent high-profile security breaches impacting millions of Americans. These and similar massive data breaches have become commonplace. Third, school patrons and their politically-minded friends continue to grow increasingly concerned about the security and privacy of their data, as evidenced by staggering increases in data protection-related legislation across North America and throughout the world.

Simply put, data security is no longer a casual matter.

So, what are teachers to do? The academic, behavior, attendance, demographic, health, fee, and other data related to students must remain secure; and the demands of the profession require an unencumbered workflow. Therefore, when considering tightened security through shifts in habit and procedure, the impact on convenience should also be reviewed. Are proposed changes, even in the name of security, really worth the hassle?

Security Versus Convenience

All told, the safest way to protect student and personal data is likely (although not assuredly) to refrain from using computers, entirely. In one of the most memorable sessions at the 2015 ISTE Conference, Audrey Watters participated on a power-house panel whose intent was to convince the audience that it just might be time to give up on computers in schools. Audrey’s words were chilling, to say the least, and caused many of the ed-technophiles in attendance that day to question the career decisions they’d made up to that point:

Computers and mainframes and networks are a point of control. Computers are a tool of surveillance. Databases and data are how we are disciplined and punished. Quite to the contrary of Seymour [Papert’s] hopes that computers will liberate learners, this will be how all of us will increasingly be monitored and managed…

We live in what law professor Frank Pasquale calls “the black box society.” We are tracked by technology; we are tracked by companies; we are tracked by our employers; we are tracked by the government, and “we have no clear idea of just how far much of this information can travel, how it is used, or its consequences.”

To be clear, it’s typically through the “tracking” that Audrey references that those who would do harm are able inflict the innocent, using data the innocent have failed to protect. Therefore, as teachers – models for a better society – we’re simply not immune to the effects and actions of those with malicious intent. Nevertheless, because our students and their parents live in a hyper-connected digital society, and have come to expect the convenience that technology affords, relinquishing computers is not an option for schools. Instead, we must learn to be savvy by staying one step ahead of the bad guys; just like we’re able to do with our students, each and every day.

We must learn to protect ourselves. We must learn responsible use.

To that end, the first and most important step toward responsible technology use is to understand the basics of data security – required curriculum for all teachers. As teachers, if we’re to model responsible behavior in our stewardship of the data with which we’ve been entrusted, then the following next practices constitute security conventions that must become ingrained within connected classrooms and contemporary school cultures everywhere.


1. Install software updates on a frequent and regular basis. Most major software companies work diligently to keep your data safe and secure by releasing updates to the code they’ve produced. These software patches address known vulnerabilities, but can only work when installed by you or your IT support team.

2. Routinely implement both strong and unique passwords. A strong password – or passphrase – contains a complex (preferably irregular) combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and other symbols; the more characters, the better. The How Secure Is My Password website can help. Alternatively, unique passwords vary from website to website. Using passwords that are both strong and unique is critical. Invariably, even the strongest passwords become weak when used everywhere, for everything.

3. Use a password manager on every device. Password management software facilitates the use of strong and unique passwords, for expert and novice users alike. Products like 1Password, Dashlane, and LastPass make creating unique and strong passwords a snap, and effortlessly sync your login credentials across Windows, Macintosh, and mobile devices.

4. Learn to spot phishing like your bank account depends upon it. Because it probably does. Phishing is the activity of defrauding an online account holder of financial or other confidential information by posing as a legitimate company. Phishing attempts now occur using email, social networking, telephone and other communications, but tell-tale signs often exist. Learn to spot these signs well, and approach unsolicited communication with caution. If it appears too good to be true, it probably is.

5. Make two-factor authentication a habit. If you’re really serious about security, then it’s probably time. Two-factor authentication, or 2FA as it’s commonly abbreviated, adds an extra step to your basic login procedure. Increasing in popularity and now built into a wide range of online systems, this extra step combines something you know with something you have to reliably verify your identity. Because passwords can be stolen, cracked, leaked, guessed, bought, phished, sniffed – or maybe even read from the sticky on your desk – 2FA will increase your safety immensely.

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Maker: #ISTE15’s Session Title Keyword Du Jour

Whereas flipped was the keyword of choice during last year’s ISTE conference, participants this year demanded that maker, making, or make – ahem – make it into session titles in order to best capture their attention.

Here are photos I snapped of a few of the favorite “maker”-related poster sessions I perused. I love the poster and playground session formats, by the way, because of how engaged the audience gets to be! Lectures often mean that the audience gets preached AT. Why would anyone want to be preached AT, when speaking WITH the presenter is accepted and encouraged during poster sessions?

#MakerEd #ISTE2015#ISTE15 #MakerEd  #ISTE15 #MakerEd  #ISTE15 #MakerEd  #ISTE15 #MakerEd

I guess all this emphasis on #MakerEd makes 2015 the “Year of Making” in ed-tech-centric schools across the globe. As a result, I predict that making makes a comeback once again at #ISTE2055, given that making and the DIY culture is not new, and that adhocism and other maker-related activities and philosophies were so prevalent in the 1970s.

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When Convenience Trumps Tradition

In the classic Seinfeld episode “The Comeback,” Elaine Benes feels stifled because her favorite video store undergoes change.1 During the episode, she grows to appreciate the perspective and services provided by Vincent, a video store employee with whom she shares the same taste in movies. When Elaine learns that Vincent has decided to “stop making picks,” she naturally struggles emotionally upon losing the connection once felt.

I think Elaine’s relationship with Vincent and the video store is fascinating, and parallels the relationship many school patrons create with us and the schools in which we work, live, and grow. In a typical setting, we provide (educational) services in such a way that others come to know and love our style, and therefore, greatly value the community and the resulting relationships that consequently develop; often, perhaps, as much as or more than they love the services we provide.

Relationships matter, and great schools are great because they cultivate strong relationships. Moreover, great schools are great because participation in them results in strong, long-lasting relationships, grounded in loyalty. Right?!

Well, maybe.

Last night a tweet came across my feed that shook me to the core, while reminding me that traditional institutions have no guarantee of future success. It reminded me that while face to face relationships may be important, other commodities – like convenience – may be more valued, under certain circumstances.


Tweet #1:Blockbuster_1
 Tweet #2:


In addition to feeling nostalgic for the favorite video stores I often visited as a kid, when I processed the message sent in that simple tweet, I also wondered about the schools we love today. Will our schools still exist decades down the road? Does institutional loyalty even matter? Is a face-to-face, human connection always needed?

Have you ever wished Netflix offered an in-person “Vincent,” with whom you might better relate, or trust?

Me, neither. And yet “Vincent,” and the thousands of employees just like him, lie at the heart of what once made Blockbuster so overwhelmingly great.

For the last nine months I’ve had the privilege of leading Canyons Virtual High School (CVHS): our District’s online learning program, created in response to Utah’s 2011 Senate Bill 65. In four short years, CVHS has grown from having zero students in 2011 to serving over 2,400 unique students in 2014-15. This growth has come without gimmicks, without marketing beyond simple word-of-mouth, and without requiring students to participate. In other words, in four short years, our virtual school has grown from serving zero students, to now serving one in every five of our traditional high school students, for at least one of the courses they might take.

Board Update - CVHS June 2015.005

Now, I don’t know what the future will bring for CVHS or the other schools in our District and across the country; but I do know that people today demand convenience! I’ve also learned that anytime/anywhere access to entertainment and to learning appears to be a key factor underlying success. In the case of both CVHS and Netflix, relationships matter; but convenience has mattered so much more.

So, what’s your take? What will your school need to do to keep from getting Blockbustered? Has online learning changed the way your students succeed?

Show 1 footnote

  1. Kids: video stores existed back in the olden days, way back when your parents were young, and “streaming” had something to do with water.
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I (still) feel bad for schools that celebrate “digital learning” only one day per year!

I wrote this about Digital Learning Day last year, and still feel the same way today.

Honestly, there’s no such thing as “digital learning.” Learning is just learning, whether the learner requires electricity or not. Digital tools can make learning easier, but they can also complicate the process at times, as well. Even so, learning with digital tools should be a constant presence, every day, in (nearly?) every classroom, in every school.

And while we’re on the subject, what’s the deal with #futureready? Shouldn’t learning with digital tools be a requirement in all schools today? It seems to me that if Superintendents are…

  1. Fostering and Leading a Culture of Digital Learning Within Our Schools.
  2. Helping Schools and Families Transition to High-speed Connectivity.
  3. Empowering Educators through Professional Learning Opportunities.
  4. Accelerating Progress Toward Universal Access for All Students to Quality Devices.
  5. Providing Access to Quality Digital Content.
  6. Offering Digital Tools to Help Students And Families #ReachHigher.
  7. Mentoring Other Districts and Helping Them Transition to Digital Learning.

…then they’re really committed to ensuring their schools are #presentready.


Learning with Pencils Avatar

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The Present and Future of Pedagogical Breakthroughs

Robert Slavin, in 2012:

While [computer-assisted instruction] will surely continue to play a role, I believe that real breakthroughs in teaching methods will come from classroom (as opposed to individualized) technologies that help teachers orchestrate diverse technological as well as non-technological resources.

He continues:

In theory, every lesson might contain some appropriate mix of all of these technology and non-technology resources, but an unaided teacher would have difficulty organizing all of this and adapting it in light of children’s responses on the fly. The future of instruction may be in exciting new technologies, but those technologies alone will not transform the classroom–we will always need an equal focus on new tools AND effective human methods paired with effective professional development.

True then, true now.

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To the Teachers of My Children

Inspired by Pam Moran’s excellent example, I thought it would be appropriate to resurrect one of the most heartfelt posts I’ve ever written. Since sharing this open letter three years ago, my love and appreciation for great teachers – everywhere – has only grown. There is no profession more impacting.

Thank you, teachers, for all you give and do to make this world a better place!

– – –

My grandfather’s passing last week accompanied, for me, several very important lessons that rarely come in any other fashion:

  1. Life is short.
  2. Time is precious.
  3. Quite often, we don’t fully appreciate what we have until it’s gone.

As a result, I’m writing with hopes that you’ll consider carefully how precious the time is that you’re able to spend with my children. Realistically, during this time of year, you’re able to spend more time with them than I. Do you realize how lucky you are?

Like many parents, I’m not as concerned with how well you teach my kids to take tests. I’m really not. In fact, I’d rather you use each priceless minute to captivate their imaginations, guide them in deep thinking, help them to create, and cultivate a love of learning so deeply engrained that they grow to no longer need your services.

Do that, and the scores will take care of themselves.

I’ve done my best to provide an energetic learning environment in our home, but am desperately relying on you, your skills, and the time you have to spend with my child to fill in any holes I might not even know exist. Because my kids have grown comfortable using technology when they learn (and they gravitate toward anything with a screen), I think you’ll have the best luck in leveraging technology’s potential for instruction. Nevertheless, I’ll also trust your judgment in determining how best to reach my child; and hope – earnestly hope – there’s consistently constructive purpose behind the ways you choose to spend the time that you’re given.

Kids Deserve Great Teachers!

I’m counting on you like no other, and want you to know how deeply grateful I am for your meaningful efforts. Yours is a difficult job, I know, but unquestionably invaluable. If there’s ever any way I can help in your classroom, I’ll jump at the chance to work by your side. I love my children, and will do all that it takes to prepare them for their future.

All that I ask is that you do the same.

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Why the Haters Hate: CCSS Edition

The more I analyze the contentions of those advocating for no common standards, the more I’m convinced of two important truths. Those who rationally oppose typically do so because:

  1. They didn’t play a role in creating the standards and would, therefore, have them shift.
  2. They misunderstand, resist, or ignore the critical role schools play in credentialing.

Regardless of motive, many so-called haters often land at the point of irrationality, embracing theories of conspiracy, with dreams for the day when school means little more than the feel of play-doh while dancing to the aroma of old-fashioned paste.

Long live 1984?

Essential School Supply

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When Should You Buy Your Child a Smartphone?

A few days ago, I did a riff off this Dan Tynan article – When Should You Buy Your Child a Smartphone? – in a brief interview for one of our local news outlets. I was hoping they would post our segment online (like they sometimes do), but apparently different news days produce varying quantities of news output. 1

I like the advice Tynan gives in his column. Younger children should be phased in to technology access, kids don’t instinctively know how to use all phone features, and parental controls should be responsibly used. Nevertheless, there are a few items he left out of the equation.

Texting Child

The answer to the question in this post’s title varies from family to family, and from child to child. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. As parents help their children to navigate digital waters, they should bear each of these recommendations in mind:

  1. Regularly speak with your children about technology and how they use the Internet.
    – Ask specific questions about apps and the people with whom they interact.
  2. Work with your children to define the boundaries of inappropriate and appropriate conduct, content, and times and places for technology use. 2
    – Ask about how they react when they come across something inappropriate. If you’re not comfortable with their response, then they’re not ready for a smartphone.
    – Consider the example you’re setting for your child. Most children follow the example we set for them.
  3. Remember that safe and appropriate technology use is a process, not an event.
    – Kids will make mistakes and parents will make mistakes.
    – The best advice is to always work together as a family to ensure technology use strengthens family relationships.

While there may be some (in highly influential circles) who argue that kids should run wild online, the experienced parent knows that a guided and safeguarded path is often best. 3 Do many kids need more freedom than they currently have? Probably, yes. Will they best benefit from blind trust? Absolutely not.

Finding safety and balance, together as a family, is the best way to run.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Translation: HDTV wasn’t real kind to this face.
  2. Typically, public schools focus teaching on how to keep kids safe online. Because the definition of “appropriate” can vary greatly from family to family, curriculum rarely sets such boundaries.
  3. Why put so much stock in the voice of one so inexperienced? See my comment to Ms. boyd at the end of her post.
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