"These students today are very adept at working together, to find information, and to create knowledge. What they're not adept at yet is knowing what questions are the best ones to ask before they go looking for that information. And yes, I firmly believe, that in my thinking of reform, that our new collaborative tools, our web 2.0 tools, will make the difference in making that happen in classrooms."
Jim Hirsch is the Associate Superintendent for Technology and Academic Services at the 53,000 student Plano Independent School District. I visited Plano ISD in November when we held a 2-day workshop on Moodle, and I remember being struck by the superb training facilities that they have there. I interviewed Jim last week, using an article in eSchool News on "Education 2.0" as the starting point for the discussion on school reform and technology.
Because much of the discussion on "School 2.0" or "Education 2.0" usually comes from the grass-roots level of teacher-practioners who feel that the school administration doesn't support the use of new technologies, I thought it would be interesting to interview Jim. Jim comes across as determined, pragmatic, organized, focused, and methodical. He is articulate, and I felt that every answer he gave to my questions had been thought about and spoken by him before. Jim has been an outspoken proponent of "Open Technologies," which is not the same thing, necessarily, as "Open Source" or "Free and Open Source" software, so I was prepared to listen carefully as to how he discussed those topics.
- In the eSchool News article, Jim is quoted as predicting that within five years "not a single desktop [at Plano] will carry the image of a proprietary school software program." They are aiming to totally move away from their dependence on proprietary client-based software, and moving into a web-based sphere of development. They want to extend learning outside of the school walls, including to devices that most used by their students and their families--including cell phones. Much of this, he believes, will be possible through Open Source or Open Technologies.
- Usually I hear from teachers that it is hard to implement web and collaborative tools in the classroom because the districts are restricting their use. I asked Jim what was happening in Plano, since the push is coming from the district side. He replied that they are two years away from becoming a "majority minority" district, and they've been in quick transition for the last few years, meaning that they are coming to the realization that they can't do business as they have done in the past to help all of their students to receive high-quality instruction to to achieve. Their approach is very pragmatic, as they can't afford to use technology that doesn't accomplish that. They don't want to wait for the teacher ground-swell--they want to figure it out now.
- How is this different than the technology promises of the last 20 years? He agrees that often technology has been placed in classrooms with "hope" but without "planning." He thinks more and more schools are thinking about how to truly leverage their resources to actually make a difference. Low cost technologies with high impact are starting to get adopted, like wireless keyboard in the classroom that can be passed around and be used by the students to impact what's being presented. Much less expensive than a digital chalkboard, and more effective.
- Even their low-income families have cell phones (in fact, they more often have a cell phone than a land line, which requires more stability). So then the challenge is to figure out how to use these technologies that they have access to.
- To implement student-centered learning takes a lot of planning and training. Training is a big part of changing from students being "given knowledge" to "participating."
- Parental involvement--by and large the parents are interested in being more informed and more involved in the student learning. Plano have put into place a system that sends an email to parents based on "trigger points" that they get to define. They are trying to make the parents more of a partner in the learning process.
- They involve their teachers "intimately" in the curriculum development process, and they provide teacher-leaders with the most up-to-date tools and information that they can--both to get input from their teams and to provide initial training and support. This involves hundreds of teacher-leaders.
- How do you figure out what new technologies to focus and train on? Until the technology gets out into the hands of the teachers, they don't know how they will be used or how successful they will be. I was very impressed with this mind-set from Jim. They have to be agile enough, and open to input from the teachers, to figure out what tools and training actually work. He uses the word "trust" here--that the teachers have to trust that their input will make a difference, so that they are willing to give it.
- The technologies getting most quickly adopted are those that allow the students to participate and collaborate, like "large group viewing" from a projector. Both teachers and students have said the same thing--the students get a chance to deliver their creation in front of the classroom.
- They are trying not to draw a distinction between Open Source / Open Technology and proprietary software based on cost, but rather on use and the strength the application brings to learning.
- Open Office: are using in a limited number of classrooms. It is part of the goal to move away from proprietary desktop software, but Microsoft Office-built parts of their curriculum make that hard to do immediately, particularly PowerPoint presentations that don't play well in Open Office. They don't want any unknown holes in their curriculum, so have to identify those resources and then determine what they are going to do.
- Much easier to implement has been the Free and Open Source program GIMP, the graphical image program. They can roll out GIMP very quickly and very easily in a mass implementation, because the dependencies on previously-built training materials aren't there.
- I asked Jim if it was appropriate to link the new web technologies and school reform. He does believe that the classroom environment and teaching strategies do need to be reformed. Our students of today, because of access to media, the internet, and instant messaging "no longer rely on a historical perspective to make decisions." The rely much more on their friends and what they can find on a search engine. They are good at getting information, but don't know what questions to ask before looking for the information (and maybe in evaluating that information). He does think the Web 2.0 tools will really help in the classroom.
- Blogs and wikis: they are at the infancy stage in using these. When commercial-free sites became available, teachers asked to use them. Rather than have the teachers go out and use different services, they have committed to providing the resources internally. This means that they have moved more slowly than some of the early adopters might have liked, but they have actively involved those teachers who are most interested in helping to make the decisions about how to bring blogs and wikis into the curriculum. And once they are in the curriculum, they will become systemic. Producing their own resources for blogs and wikis will also give them the ability to manage them "in the way that is most appropriate" for their community and make decisions about student safety. Currently, all blogs being used are being kept internal and not available to the outside world. (They use Wordpress as their blogging platform.)
- Moodle--all their new development on on-line courses are now being done on Moodle. They have been doing online courses since February of 2000. They want to move all their existing content to Moodle and wish they had a utility to do that (heads-up, Moodle consultants!).
- How are their proprietary vendors responding to these initiatives? They all ask the same first question: have we done something wrong? He tells them no, but that they need to consider how their product and service might work in the new environment. Removing proprietary desktop software doesn't mean that Plano won't have products and services that are needed from vendors--it just changes the model of what is paid for.
- It's not just about instructional technology, but also involves administrative systems: they are working on the development of their own ERP system, looking for something totally web-based.
- The big concern about web-based applications for students is what happens if the network goes down. We also talked about data privacy and the ownership of data, as well as the local hosting of services.
- They don't use Linux on the desktop "at this point in time." They do use it on their server farms. They have 120 units of ultra-mobile units on order that will run Linux. It is a direction that they are "definitely having as a requirement."
- They have 31,000 desktop computers, one computer for every 2.2 students. But they are not pushing for a 1:1 environment. Every student needs teacher interaction every day, and collaboration doesn't require computing. You can overdo the technology on occasion, but the reverse is worse. He tells the touching story of one of their 8-year-old students guide a parent through the process of helping her parent fill out an online job application at a kiosk. "It's incumbent upon us in public education to provide our students with experiences that allow them to function in their natural world--and that includes technology."
- He's noticed that many of their students are moving from MySpace to FaceBook.
- Jim doesn't blog, but he does track them and tries to contribute.