Dear Kris, Raina, and Jesse:

I’m writing to share my response to the “Technology Think Tank” memo discussed at last Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting (1/28/2014).

I’d like to begin by saying that my comments are directed to our administrative team, not to volunteers who’ve given their time and energy to the task of thinking through the role of technology in our district. Their efforts are freely given and much appreciated.

The memo delivered to the board last Tuesday is, in my view, problematic in three areas:

  • Evidence and argument
  • Consideration of costs, including effects of “technology” on health
  • The memo’s use of an “inputs” model of educational quality

Evidence and argument

Ironically, Tuesday night’s Common Core presentation included discussion of the Common-Core requirement that middle-school students “acknowledge alternate or opposing claims.”

This standard is not met by the Think Tank memo, which makes no mention of alternate claims or of peer-reviewed research contradicting the memo’s assertions. Indeed, the memo reads very much like a manifesto, not a reasoned analysis.

No mention is made of the long and disappointing history of “technology” in the schools, documented by Stanford education professor Larry Cuban in Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom.

No mention is made of research showing the drawbacks of reading on screen. (A good place to start: You won’t remember this article, or anything else you read online, unless you print it out).

And no consideration is given to the district’s own recent experience with “infusing” technology into the classroom, which is directly relevant to any new technology initiatives we might undertake.

As you know, shortly after the district completed construction of a new middle school equipped with built-in computer projector systems in every classroom, the administration scrapped the projector systems and commenced installation of Smart Boards—which performed exactly the same tasks the computer-projector systems performed but at many times the cost. e.g.: I recall, at the time, Smart Board light bulbs going for $400 apiece, compared to perhaps forty dollars for projector light bulbs.

The selling point for Smart Boards was that they had touch screens. But the touch screens failed so frequently that my son’s Earth Science teacher was forced to halt her class repeatedly in order to recalibrate the screen. Finally she gave up and used the Smart Board as a very expensive computer projector system.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t an optimal solution, either, because the Smart Boards crashed a lot. One of my son’s teachers took to telling his students that the “Smart Board gods” determined whether and when his classroom Smart Board would actually work.

Needless to say, the time teachers spent rebooting the Smart Board and recalibrating the Smart Board screen was time they could not spend teaching.

None of this recent history is acknowledged in the memo, and no thought is given to making sure it doesn’t happen again.

No consideration of costs, including negative effects on health

There are very few unalloyed positives in life. Hence the pro-and-con list.

This principle may be especially true of technological advances, which seem always to create new problems in the process of solving old ones. The industrial revolution brought pollution and global warming; the internet brought cyberbullying and the NSA. As far as I can tell, this is to be expected.

The potential costs, including the financial costs, of making iPads and Chromebooks as ubiquitous in our classrooms as paper and pencil are not considered or even acknowledged in the memo.

Perhaps most troubling, the memo does not address the health effects of increased exposure to blue light in the evening, which I think we should assume would result from a movement away from textbooks to iPads and Chromebooks. (See: “‘Blue Light’ May Impair Students’ Sleep” by Sarah Sparks, Education Week Vol. 33 Issue 14.)

Blue light is a significant health issue. New research finds that blue light affects even the blind. (Blue Light Stimulates Cognitive Brain Activity in Visually Blind Individuals, Gilles Vandewalle, et al).

Inputs, not outputs

Finally, the memo hews strictly to an “inputs” model of educational quality: quality is defined in terms of the things we do and buy, not in terms of the things students learn and achieve.

No consideration is given to what the “outputs” of making computer technology ubiquitous in our classrooms are likely to be.

Will students learn more?

Learn more quickly?

Will teachers’ lives be made easier?

Speaking as an instructor myself, I can tell you that educational technology often makes life harder for teachers, not easier, as the leaked email from a former IUFSD union president attested a couple of years ago (in reference to the time-consuming task of entering data to e-schools, as I recall).

The memo’s unblinking focus on inputs must count as a missed opportunity, because in fact “technology” may have an important role to play both in increasing student learning and in making teacher’s lives easier (making teachers’ work more efficient, that is to say).

Neither better learning nor greater efficiency will result from a bulk purchase of iPads and Chromebooks, however. We know this from the results of other districts’ bulk purchases of iPads and laptops, which have produced no gains in achievement or apparent efficiency. (A representative headline in the Times: “In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores” | Matt Richtel | 9/3/2011. The accompanying photograph shows four children clustered in front of a Smart Board. And see: Are Schools Getting a Big Enough Bang for Their Education Technology Buck? by Ulrich Boser | June 14, 2013 | Center for American Progress.)

Ignoring the “technology” that actually shows potential

At present, the most promising use of technology in the schools appears to be its capacity to serve as an automated homework assigner and assessor. Stuart S. Yeh’s Raising Student Achievement Through Rapid Assessment And Test Reform is an important book here, one that I hope the Think Tank will read and consider.

My family has experienced this form of educational technology firsthand. At Fordham Prep, our son’s physics teacher created a homework system using Moodle, a platform  free of charge to educators. Students did their homework in the customary manner, using paper and pencil (a superb technology that has endured to this day precisely because it is so simple and reliable).

But they accessed the daily problem sets from their teacher’s Moodle site, which graded each problem the instant they entered their answers. If an answer was wrong, students could be given the first one or two steps of the solution and go from there; they could also ask for and be provided as many extra-practice problems of the same type as they wished to do. The program included a dashboard that allowed the teacher to see at a glance who had done the homework and how each student had fared. If numerous students missed a problem, the teacher could re-teach the next day.

Our son liked the system very much, and we never heard a complaint from his friends. The teacher was happy with the set-up, too. (We had a long conversation with him on the subject.)

There are today numerous programs of this type on the market—including programs that can recognize and respond to certain aspects of grammar and writing. (I would dearly love to have access to the latter for my own teaching.) I don’t know whether any of these programs would in fact increase learning or decrease demands on teacher time, but Yeh’s research gives us reason to believe they might. Certainly, ‘rapid assessment’ software makes sense in a way further hardware purchases do not.

Moreover, because few IUFSD teachers collect and correct homework (at least in my experience), rapid-assessment software potentially fills a significant gap in our educational programs.

But on this subject, too, the memo is silent, making no mention of rapid-assessment software or of the research supporting its use. Because the memo focuses exclusively on inputs, the potential value of rapid-assessment software to Irvington teachers and students is given no consideration.

I hope that task will be taken up soon.

Thank you for listening –


Buying technology – business v. schools
Response to administrator technology memo
John D on flipped classrooms and board policy
Wrong track
“Our goal”
The digital natives are restless
Flipped classrooms (and more) in IUFSD
Email from an NYU student on his experience in a flipped classroom
IEF #25 Off Cycle Grant Request – Expanding the Possibilites of
..Learning Through Technology Rich Classrooms – 2013-14

• SUPERINTENDENT: Curriculum should be infused with technology
• CURRICULUM: I am a child-centered professional
• TECHNOLOGY DIRECTOR: Jesse Lubinsky, Technology Director, Twitter feed
• TECHNOLOGY DIRECTOR: Jesse Lubinsky, NY ETech Ed blog