Thursday, February 27, 2014

OpenEd: Deliver Content and Instruction to Your Students Through iPad

OpenEd, the world's largest K-12 education resource catalog that, according to their web site, contains over "million Common Core aligned videos, games, and assessments," just released their student iPad app in the iTunes App Store.

With OpenED, educators can create a course for free. Each course is assigned a unique code which then can be shared with students. Students then enter the code into their OpenEd iPad app to access the course. OpenEd now includes over 1 million education resources that includes content from PBS,BrightStorm,  EdCite, and BrainGenie. Best of all, OpenEd is Free to Use!

Here's the link to OpenEd.

Check out the OpenEd app in the iTunes App Store here.

OpenEd's iPad Interface

Daybook Pro: An App to Help Teachers Deliver Instruction and Content Through the iPad

Daybook Pro, the iPad app that allows teachers to deliver lessons and teaching content through their tablets, has just gotten better. Users can now directly add files to the app from their Dropbox account. Their website also offers a new set of video tutorials that will get users started with Daybook Pro. If you want to see how this app can meet the needs of classroom teachers, you can check out their onsite introductory video here.  Daybook Pro is also quite affordable at $10 a year or $1 per month.

Daybook Pro Interface
I experimented with Daybook Pro, and it is an excellent option for teachers looking for a content and instructional delivery system using their iPads.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Time for School Leaders to See Teaching as 21st Century Profession, Not Assembly-Line Work

School leaders and policymakers have a serious misperception about the role and job of teaching that undermines teaching as a profession and perpetuates the view that the role of teaching is akin to being an assembly-line worker. It is no wonder American politicians, policymakers and corporate reformers have bought wholeheartedly into the idea of value-added teacher evaluations. When you hold a deep-seated view that a teacher’s job is simply to “add value” in the form of knowledge as students roll through the classroom assembly line, then the perception is that the “physical act of imparting knowledge"---or teaching in this view---is just about being physically in front of students and nothing else.

Americans have long held the belief that teachers aren't doing their jobs unless they are in front of kids. Planning periods and professional development as well as tasks like grading papers are never calculated into the teacher workday, and that demonstrates fully that the American education system stubbornly holds on to a dated and ancient view of both what exactly is the act of teaching. In short, we just can’t give up the view that teachers should only be paid for the actual time they are in front of kids. We then expect them to spend hours in the afternoon-evenings and on weekends grading papers, lesson planning and attending to their professional development.

It’s time for school administrators and policymakers to remember that good teaching starts with all those things teachers do outside of the classroom too. It’s too bad we can’t let go of this factory model view of teachers and start to discuss some real 21st century solutions that will allow teachers to increase their professional capacity by restructuring both the time and amount of time teachers spend in front of students. After all, are our teachers babysitters for parents while they work, or are they professionals who are actually engaged in one of the noblest of professions?

In his book, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland, Pasi Sahlberg writes:
“In lower-secondary schools, on average, Finnish teachers teach about 600 hours annually (i.e., 800 lessons of 45 minutes each). This corresponds to four teaching lessons daily. According to the OECD, in the United States the average annual total teaching time in lower-secondary grades is 1,080 hours, which, in turn, equals six or more daily lessons or other forms of instruction of 50 minutes each.”
In other words, the Finnish education system sees teaching much more broadly than we in America do.  They see those activities---professional development, tutoring, grading student work, providing remediation---as much a part of “teaching” as being in front of the classroom. For years, American education has expected teachers to do these things on their own time, even with paltry efforts to provide planning period time during the school day.

If we wanted to do one thing that would have the greatest impact on teaching and student learning, perhaps we need to more broadly define “teaching” as the Finns do. For example, we might:
  • Consider teacher planning times as sacred and not fill them up with mundane and mandated meetings. Allow teachers to use that time for planning, grading, and even re-mediating students.
  • Rethink our views of “teaching” to include all the things effective teachers do---planning, creating new learning activities, grading/providing feedback, tutoring, professional development. We really do need to stop thinking of teachers as only doing their job when they’re in front of kids.
  • Hold professional development during the regular workday rather than expect teachers to sit in the afternoons after spending all day teaching. I still remember how scattered and tired my mind was at the end of the day was after facing multiple classrooms full of students. Professional development need to be melded to the act of teaching. It should be included as part of the workday.
  • Look at how we can restructure our school days to allow for more time to do all the things required to be a good teacher instead of expecting that teachers do these things on their time, at home or after school. It’s no wonder teachers burn out and tire of the profession. How many other professions are expected to work without pay? We need to create schedules that allow teachers to devote time to all the tasks of teaching.
We Americans, especially school leaders, politicians, and policymakers have a mistaken perception of what should be included in the act of “teaching” when it comes to how we structure compensation and what teachers do day-to-day. We like to boast about 21st century schooling and teaching, while at the same time we hold on stubbornly to a 20th century perception of the teaching profession. Maybe it’s time we let that go. We need to redefine teaching broadly in how we manage our schools and include time for teachers to do all that teachers do in their school day.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Update! Pearson Sees Most of NC Users as Satisfied with PowerSchool---Huh?

Yesterday, I posted about the many issues we are struggling with North Carolina’s roll-out of the Pearson’s PowerSchool student data system. Today, there was an article of interest on the News and Observer web site entitled “NC Schools Dealing with Problem-Plagued State Computer System.” According to the article, North Carolina is spending $7.1 million dollars implementing PowerSchool this year. During the last decade, North Carolina also spent millions on the old but now defunct NC WISE data system. The article also says Pearson has corrected a lot of problems as well. But from a school's perspective, they haven't corrected the biggest problems we're experiencing. 

Still, I just can’t help but comment on this statement by Pearson spokesman Brandon Pinette:
“We are confident the system is working better every day, and that the majority of users are satisfied with the new capabilities they have.”
Now that statement is a bit puzzling. From where does Pearson obtain this “confidence?” Also, where do they get information about the "majority of users being satisfied with this product?" As far as I know, I haven’t seen any surveys or any other ways they have asked us, the customers, how things are going. When a company makes those assertions you just have to wonder who they're talking to.

I just had to email my parents today and apologize once again for problems caused by their issues. That makes three times this year, that I can recall, that I have had to apologize to parents for problems caused by Pearson’s PowerSchool. I can’t even count the number of times teachers have expressed frustration with the software. Parents have been understanding so far, but one can only imagine what's going to happen when some student loses out on getting into college because of a Pearson mishap on a high school transcript.

Pearson and the state needs to refocus their efforts to get PowerSchool to do the simplest of things. For example, the main capabilities that need to always work for high schools ( I can’t speak for elementary or middle schools) are:
  • Attendance Data: Need to flawlessly be able to enter and retrieve accurate attendance data.
  • Grading Data: Need to flawlessly be able to enter and retrieve grading data.
  • Reporting Functions: Need to be able to print effectively our most important reports. These include: progress reports (with accurate attendance data), report cards (with accurate attendance data, GPAs), and accurate transcripts.
From a school operations perspective, these are the must-have functions of any student data system. Whether it can interface with test-data systems, disciplinary data systems, or any other state systems is secondary to normal, everyday school operations. Focus should be on getting the primary functions schools need to work.

The state should have paid the extra money for a later roll-out or somehow negotiated better terms with Pearson. Yes, it has been difficult. I was around with the roll-out of NC WISE and it was difficult as well, but this Pearson PowerSchool rollout, in my opinion is ten times worse. And, to make matters worse, we actually have individuals who work for Pearson who think the majority of users are satisfied. Perhaps its nice when your company has a virtual monopoly on a product.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Pearson PowerSchool Disasters in NC and Tech Lessons to Be Learned From It

I have always fundamentally understood that when it comes to implementation of new innovations, whether technological, instructional or organizational, it is a cardinal rule to “Not implement too much at once!” I’ve heard that mantra during my whole career as an educator, and even as a classroom teacher we have been cautioned not to try to change too much too fast. In school leadership, they tell you the same thing. Trying to implement too much, too fast, usually results in nothing being implemented well or at all.

It’s too bad the state of North Carolina recently forgot this important wisdom when it took on implementing Pearson’s PowerSchool student data system, a new online educator evaluation system called NCEES, or North Carolina Educator Evaluation System, and a new teaching assessment resource system called Schoolnet. Now that we are one-half year in with implementation, all three systems have been been so buggy as to be almost unusable.

About four years ago, Pearson purchased the company that supported North Carolina’s Student data system called NC WISE. Pearson then informed the state that it was shutting down support for NC WISE. Naturally, North Carolina then purchased Pearson’s PowerSchool software to provide the state with a state-wide student data system. In addition, North Carolina won a considerable sum of money from its Race to the Top application, and a portion of this was used to create a “one-stop data portal” for all the data educators need. State education officials called this portal “Home Base.” Through “Home Base,” educators theoretically can access  three programs and all the data they could possibly want. One is PowerSchool which is the state’s student data depository and teacher grade book. Next is the NCEES or the North Carolina Educator Evaluation System, and Schoolnet, which is a source that helps teachers with formative assessments tied to state testing. The idea was that educators would have one portal to access each of these important programs. While all three have been failing to work as intended, PowerSchool seems to have the greatest impact on school operations and on kids and it has caused one problem after another.

Now, it’s January, and there are still enormous issues with the system. In PowerSchool, students’ transcripts aren’t always accurate. Schools can’t access discipline incident features, and sometimes report cards can’t be printed. We can’t even trust attendance data on report cards right now due to issues with software. The list of failures for this program is way too long list in this blog post. The short of it is that there’s a whole lot of educators and staff in this state frustrated with this software and its gazillion bugs. I’m not even sure Pearson, nor the state education department can even repair its image after this fiasco. In addition, PowerSchool is beginning to become the butt of many, many jokes among educators. Say the name, and many times there is a collective groan in the room. When I have to tell a parent that I can’t print them a report card right now because of some technical issue in the program, or I have teachers frustrated repeatedly because they can’t get in to take attendance; that’s a pretty good sign that PowerSchool as a product fails to provide the service it’s supposed to provide.

Tech support is also non-existent or sparse. If you can ever get someone in tech support to answer your email, you usually get the answer, “We’re working on it.” That too is hardly acceptable. Should it not be worked on before it’s used? Would I want my car dealer to tell me as I drove off, “Come in next week and we’ll add the brakes?” If my cell phone service or cable provider were to tell me that for even two or three days, I would be looking to change providers. Perhaps North Carolina needs to do the same. If Pearson can’t deliver a product that streamlines and makes it easier for educators to do their jobs, then maybe we need to find another product.

Now those still trying to salvage this sinking ship will try to tell you that there are always bugs when you try to implement something new. Yes, there are always issues, but what we’re dealing with here is a “Pestilential PowerSchool Swarm of bugs” that should be embarrassing to those who still advocate for this product. When I go to my computer, I shouldn’t feel dread when I realize I have to access Home Base. It should fit my experience as a user seamlessly. But that isn’t how it is with PowerSchool or NCEES or Schoolnet. Instead, when someone calls me wanting a schedule, I am overcome with dread as I click on my PowerSchool shortcut icon. Will it work this time? Will I be able to easily find the information I want? The odds are perhaps 50-50 or 20-50, depending on the time of day, week or month. It might even prove impossible.

In my opinion, North Carolina and Pearson have forgotten some fundamental principles that could have guided their implementation and avoided all the issues we face with Home Base, PowerSchool and NCEES. Here’s some advice, and some lesson principles we might learn from this experience.

1. Limit implementation. Instead of trying to implement 3 new data systems at once,  try one. The problem is we have three new programs and neither of them is working well 6 months into implementation. Why not try to get one implemented and working rather than having three that fail to work properly. You can save a great deal of frustration for everybody by being realistic in your implementation plans. Start small and add, rather then hit everybody with everything at once.

2. Realize that a data system or program can’t possibly do everything. Far as I know, the PowerSchool program as Pearson originally designed might function well. North Carolina has obviously asked for all these updates and revisions to make the system its own. Perhaps it’s time to take a realistic assessment of the software limitations and just realize it can’t do all that we would like it to do. When programs get complicated; things go wrong. Just ask Microsoft or even Apple. Get a program that operates well, then you can have an experimental version operating on the side to try new features and ideas. You can’t sail a ship as you build it!

3. Keep it simple.  Steve Jobs understood this well. When anything---software to TVs----get more and more complicated; then more and more can go wrong and usually does. So what if you can claim your student data system does all these things. But what good is it if it does none of those things well? Simple is good. Keep the user experience simple. Complexity is only good when it’s simple.

4. Always keep the end user in mind. This is just plain common sense. Software manufacturers know this. You can’t sell a product that makes its users miserable. When designing any student data system, you must always keep those using it in mind. Perhaps it would be neat to add the ability to enter disciplinary data into the system. But if doing so makes the user experience more difficult, then table the idea until you can incorporate and reflect on the user experience. Keeping the end user in mind at all times means making sure you know who your users are and what they need to be able to do to successfully operate from day-to-day.

In some ways, North Carolina’s struggles with PowerSchool, NCEES, and Home Base is symptomatic of a greater problem we have in education. In our zeal to make things better, we sometimes make things worse. Also, instead of letting what we do as educators----teaching and learning---drive how we design what we do, we let the stuff---the technology----drive what we do. Our data systems should not dictate what we do in our schools; they should not even be noticeable. I certainly should not dread using them. There are major issues with these systems. Perhaps its time to start with just the imperatives; what must our data systems do to facilitate the operation of our schools. Then, we build that first and make it work.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Using Your Kindle Tablet App and Chrome 'Send to Kindle' Extension to Read Web Articles

There is not a single day that goes by that I don't use my Kindle apps on my iPads. I have indicated many times before that I am a converted e-book reader, and I can honestly say that I rarely purchase a book now in any other format. In fact, for the first time in my life, whether or not there is an e-book version determines whether I purchase the book or not. There are several titles on Amazon's website that I have yet to purchase simply because there is no e-book version.

While being an e-book reader enthusiast means I am a heavy Kindle App user, I have also found some other features of this app very useful as I work on my doctoral degree. As many who have entered graduate degree programs might know, once you enter this level of graduate degree work, the mountains of reading required grow exponentially. Having a Kindle means I don't have to lug around stacks of books or articles to read. Amazon and the Kindle app gives us doctoral students some options that make the reading even easier.

One of these options are Chrome extensions that make getting web articles to your Kindle or in your Kindle app almost as easy as clicking on a button. Two of my favorite extensions that work essentially the same are "Send to Kindle for Google Chrome" and "Send to Kindle" by Klip Me. Here's how they work.

1. You find an web article you wish to have access in you Kindle document library. Click on the "Send to Kindle" extension button on your Chrome toolbar.

2. A drop down menu appears that gives you three options. One is to Send to Kindle, one is to Preview and Send to Kindle, and a third option allows you send text you selected beforehand. Select the task you desire. I often select "preview and send" in order to see the format before its sent.

Send to Kind Chrome Extension Screenshot

3. Once you have selected preview and send, you web article appears without all the ads and other distracting content. Click the send button and the article is on its way to your Kindle app.

4. Open your Kindle app on your handheld device. Go to your documents library and simply download the article from the cloud to your device. Open the document and read. The beauty of opening the web article in your Kindle app is that now you can highlight and make notes to the document right on your device.

Web Article Opened in Kindle App

Having an Kindle account and using both the Kindle App, Chrome Send to Kindle extension makes it quite easy to send those graduate school articles to you handheld device so that you can read them anywhere and still not have a stack of articles to carry around.

Efforts to Change the "Common Core" Name Will Perhaps Doom Them Even More

It seems that in an effort to curtail criticism and the growing backlash against the "Common Core," states are simply changing the name of them, hoping to "rebrand" them. (See this article entitled "Some States Customize Education Overhaul, Ditch Common Core Label.")

I would say this tactic is deceptive and ethically wrong. While it might certainly help with "marketing" the standards in the short term, it does not address the deeper concerns about the standards themselves. Nor does it address concerns that people have that the whole purpose of these standards that seems to drive commercial opportunity.

In education and in life, we have no business trying to "disguise" things in order to make them acceptable. There's something in that strategy that makes me cringe with nausea at the unethical nature of such a solution. Besides it simply will not work. Educators and the public are too smart to buy these stupid marketing strategies.

The name of the standards is not the problem. People have concerns about them, from the way they were developed, adopted and implemented to their structure and content. Instead of ignoring those concerns, those who support them are ethically obligated to address them. Here's just a few of the concerns as I seem them.

  • First of all, the Common Core Standards were "coerced." While supporters point out out that many states chose to "adopt" them, some states simply adopted them to get federal money under Race to the Top. Arne Duncan's use of bribery to get states to adopt them instead of truly presenting the standards and encouraging debate about them was wrong-headed and now it's time to pay the devil his due. Instead of taking the time to argue and support their adoption, states had to adopt to get funding. Perhaps that at heart is Duncan's misconceptions about educators. He believes is salesmanship not rationally engaging educators in fruitful debate about his policy. That seems to be same problem demonstrated by politicians and policymakers trying to change the name to disguise them.
  • Secondly, as Diane Ravitch has pointed out everywhere I've read, "the Common Core Standards were never tested before being implemented." We don't know whether and how they work. There's plenty of boasting out there about their ability to take our students into the 21st century, but no evidence to back it up. We don't know whether they are developmentally appropriate either. There may be standards that don't match kids because we've never tested them. They were rushed to implementation without anyone taking any kind of lengthy critical look as to what they might look like in classroom practice. Now that they are being used in the classroom, it is no wonder educators and parents are seeing problems with them. That was mistake number two about these standards. You can't rush something as important as national standards into implementation.
  • Thirdly, there's no one in charge of revision and adjusting problems with the standards. They're just out there. The problem is, because those pushing these standards rushed their implementation, they didn't take the time for the entire educational establishment to take ownership of them. We know enough about "top-down" initiatives in this country in education to realize that would not work. With something as important as standards, it is important to take time work on them with the people who will be teaching them. If you want these standards to work, you have to get educators to take ownership of them.
All the marketing schemes in the world won't save the Common Core Standards if the process to develop, adopt, and implement them wasn't sound and convincing to educators. Efforts to use bribery by the federal government did not help. If the Common Core Standards are that great, then let's focus on those aspects and let's work to address the concerns that educators and others express about them and make them better. Let's be open and honest about them. Let's allow the debate to happen about both their adoption and their substance that did not happen because states were too busy trying to fulfill federal mandates. Trying to deceive the public and educators by changing their name will not be successful in the long term.