Education and the "Self-Checkout" Mentality

My spiritual colleague in Jesuit education Matt Emerson wrote a very nice post over at America titled "Avoiding Education as Self-Checkout Line." It's a great read, and he does an excellent job of getting to the heart of one of the key challenges as more and more technology is introduced into classrooms, namely the potential for dehumanizing the classroom and the interactions between students and teachers. I'll quote a few things here, but please do go read the entire article.

He summarizes his thesis pretty concisely:

But the more we embrace an “app-for-everything” mentality, the more we marginalize the human role.

I think he's spot-on with that danger, but I do think he glosses over some of the ways in which using apps, even some of the specific apps he calls out, can actually increase the engagement that is so important.

For example, he mentions a "Pick a Student" app, that helps teachers call on students at random.

[The app] encourages a corresponding disengagement from those same students. In the few seconds it takes to walk around and scan the room, deciding whom to call on, teachers can learn valuable information from faces, posture, or scribbles on a notebook.

Again, he's not wrong, and an app like that (which I have used on occasion) could certainly discourage teachers from being mindful about what's going on in their classroom. But is this any different from the English teacher when I was in high school who relied on "The Fickle Finger of Fate"? He would assign every student a card from a standard deck, and, when appropriate, draw a card randomly to call on students. Was he unaware of what was going on in the classroom? Not at all. I can't speak for him, but when I have used a similar process (or app), it's because I want assistance being random. Rather than get distracted by the student who is making (or avoiding) eye contact, sometimes I just want to call on somebody without having to think about it. Using an app for that process frees me up to actually be more observant about what's happening.

Now I don't mean to focus on just that one app. Obviously it's just one example that he uses. But I do think more attention should be paid to the ways in which these apps can free us teachers for the more important tasks.

I'm also, perhaps naïvely, less worried than Matt is about losing those specific content skills because of apps.

After all, do we want math teachers who cannot generate equations? Do we want English teachers who, having depended so long on software, can no longer explain semicolons, who can no longer create sophisticated sentences that showcase various usage rules? I hope the answer is a unanimous "no."

My answer is of course "no", but is that a straw man? If I had an app that generated, say, Latin grammar practice (I haven't found one, but it probably exists), that wouldn't prevent me from writing my own exercises. Maybe that's just me, and maybe it's naïve. But if I had a way to give my students more practice at the mechanics of Latin grammar, while freeing up my time to work on entirely new kinds of projects and assessments, or to spend more time connecting with the students one-on-one, that would be a net positive. Of course I should still write my own exercises, my own test questions. But I see these new technologies as freeing me up to focus on the higher level work of a teacher, the tasks that technology cannot readily replace.

All the dangers that Matt Emerson lists are very real. But so are the benefits of this technology. Perhaps it's a bit like the "cognitive surplus" that Clay Shirkey writes about. When I look at all this new technology, I see the dangers, but I cannot help but see the potential. I'm not looking to offload any of those personal, humanizing aspects of teaching, and I try to find apps that help me focus on precisely those things.

For example, the "Speed Grader" app that works with Canvas can automate some of the process of grading, enter the scores into the grade book directly, etc. That doesn't mean I'm going to be less mindful of my students' performance. Instead, if I can cut a few minutes off the logistics of keeping track of grades, that gives me more time to ask questions like, "How did they perform on this, as a class?" or "What can I do next to really see if they understand the material?"

I couldn't agree more with Matt's conclusion:

That kind of learning requires wise and prudent guides. It requires men and women who evoke a love of inquiry. It requires teachers who know when to challenge and when to console and who offer advice more ennobling than what students see on social media.

All of this is not tangential to the curriculum; it is intrinsic to the curriculum. But none of it can be outsourced. None of it can be downloaded. It can only be lived, every day, by teachers confident in who they are and who care deeply about what they do.

He is exactly right. The most important things we do can't be replaced by technology. But the parts that can be outsourced? That's where we need to ask ourselves the right questions: What am I gaining from this technology and what am I giving up? And once answered, we have to discern what is best for our students–and for us.

Bring Your Own Context

The gears of change are turning at my school, as we continue moving toward the 2014–2015 school year when all students will be required to have iPads.[1] At a conference this summer with around 500 other teachers at Jesuit schools, seemingly everybody I talked to was at some point on this same path, either their students already had a device or they were moving in that direction. The big question I heard over and over: iPads or BYOD/BYOT (Bring Your Own Device/Tech)?[2]

In those discussions, the individuals pushing for a BYOD deployment had various practical reasons (i.e., projected cost savings by having students bring their own device), but the pedagogical defenses of BYOD almost always boiled down to this: the device doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with it. Or as the staff at one school likes to put it: “It’s about the verbs, not the nouns.” As much as that argument fit how I generally think about education, I found myself unable to really buy into BYOD as a solution.

For a while, I wasn’t able to articulate exactly why that argument didn’t sit well with me. It is about the verbs, the new styles of activities that this technology can enable, more than it is about the technology itself, right? Yet it occurs to me now that it’s precisely because I agree it’s about the verbs not the nouns that I can’t (yet) advocate for a BYOD deployment.

What do I mean? Well, it’s pretty obvious to any teacher who has started to think about these new technologies that once all students have powerful, network-connected devices in their hands at all times, the classroom is going to change. It has to. At many schools, those changes have been underway for a while now–it’s well-documented. For many teachers, that’s a scary prospect. Sure, some are excited by the changes, others are more hesitant, but I think most would admit to at least some fear. We teachers didn’t learn this way, so we have to chart this new course on our own. That’s not a simple task.

Changing our curriculum and pedagogy is a long-term, labor-intensive task. It’s not going to happen overnight, or even over one school year. It will take a lot of time and energy. I’ve only scratched the surface of this, but I’ve talked to enough teachers who are further down this road to know that it’s not a small job. For all those reasons, the actual technology, the hardware, needs to disappear as much as possible, so that teachers and students can focus on those other pieces.

A BYOD program solves this problem by letting everybody, teachers and students, use whichever device with which they are comfortable. In theory, everybody can focus on the learning (the verbs), because they already know how to use the device in front of them. That only works, of course, if most of the faculty and students are already comfortable with some appropriate piece of technology. In my context[3], the school I’m at now, that’s really not the case, either for the students or the faculty.

So, for my school, choosing one device for everybody will, I think, help us focus on the verbs. I happen to think the iPad, for all its flaws (and I’m able to enumerate its flaws better than most), is well-suited for letting the technology get out of the way. But even if the iPad weren’t an option for some reason, I would really push (again, talking only about my context here) for all faculty and students to be on the same device, whatever that may be. And then, in two years or ten, once the faculty and students have all become accustomed to a new way of learning, perhaps the device, the noun, can truly become unimportant.

There are multiple paths to success here. The key is understanding the endpoint–a classroom truly transformed by the new opportunities technology presents. In some contexts, BYOD may be the clearest path to that goal, in others it’s important to choose the correct device. The point is to expend as little energy as possible on the technology in order to focus on the real challenges.

  1. I’m trying to avoid saying “We’re going 1:1 with iPads.” How long before the term “1:1” feels out-of-date? When the printing press was invented, how long did Cambridge brag about going 1:1 with books?  ↩

  2. Interestingly, those were really the only two options a heard. A handful of schools had been using laptops for a while, and were sticking with them, and one school was going with the Microsoft Surface (to the dismay of some of the teachers), but the vast majority saw the choice as iPad or BYOD.  ↩

  3. The other piece that I have come to grips with is as obvious as it is important: my opinion, if it’s valid at all, is based entirely on my own experience and context. There is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution for taking this leap.  ↩

Battery Life: The iPad's Killer Feature

One thing that didn't happen during my iPad trial? Tripping over charging cables. The battery life of the iPad, including the iPad mini that's become my primary device, is taken for granted a bit. But in a school, knowing that your device will last all day, no matter how you are using it, is transformative. I'm currently at 10 hours of use, and still have 32% battery remaining. All hardware requires trade-offs (like the non-Retina display I'm using right now), but I for one am glad Apple has prioritized battery life. Less than 10 hours would be a huge disappointment now.


iTunes U and Edmodo

The Info tab for my AP Latin course. Lofty goals.

For this school year, I have been using Edmodo as the LMS for all of my classes. It’s worked better than I had anticipated, and certainly better than our school’s current system. For the period my AP students were a part of the iPad trial, I wanted to test out using iTunes U, so I created a course just to use during those five weeks.

There are enough great walkthroughs of iTunes U out there that I won’t go into much detail, but there are a lot of things that I, and my students, liked about it.


  • The teacher interface for managing the course was easy to learn and pleasant to use.
  • The ability to easily add content was very helpful, particularly when adding content from the iTunes Store. I added (free) apps, iBooks, and podcasts to the course, and the students had no problems finding them. In general, the students seemed to have less trouble accessing any of the posted resources than with Edmodo.
  • Most students took notes in their preferred note-taking app, but the ability to take notes on books, podcasts, and lectures and have them all in one place was very slick.
  • So long as the students had Notifications enabled, I could be reasonably certain that if I posted something, they would see it.
  • Several students commented that they simply liked using iTunes U better, because it was so well-designed. That "delight" factor is tough to quantify, but not unimportant.


  • As a teacher, I could only update the course from my computer. Not a huge problem, but as I am using my iPad more and more, this was annoying.
  • Communicating with the students was easy, but that communication was only one-way. There was no way for students to turn in materials or communicate with me or the class (other than email, of course).

So, when all of my students have iPads, would I prefer iTunes U or Edmodo? I’m still not sure. I have a lot of issues with Edmodo. For one, I’m wary of any free service whose business model is unclear to me. What happens if/when Edmodo is purchased by some textbook company? I’m also not a fan of their iOS apps, which are buggy at best and non-functional at worst. Still, Edmodo does a lot of things well. Namely, it is easy for students to interact with me and their classmates. That has been even more useful this year than I would have anticipated. In addition, Edmodo’s ability to do some basic polls, quizzes, and to collect assignments can really make it a one-stop shop for most teachers. With iTunes U, I would continue to use other sites (like Quia) for online quizzes and Dropbox or Evernote for assignments. That being said, for an iPad-centric environment iTunes U is a powerful, well-designed app whose design alone makes it a great option. Fortunately I don’t have to decide today.

Using iTunes U for five weeks did really highlight one of its strengths: the ability to create a self-paced course. While my course was created as “In-Session” so that I could attach due dates to assignments, it was obvious that iTunes U would really shine in creating a self-paced learning environment. While at first that doesn’t seem to apply to a high school classroom, I began to think about how it really could help create a more student-focused environment. What if my Latin 4 class had different units, that they completed at their own pace? There could be a “War Unit” with excerpts from Caesar, Nepos, and Vergil. There could be a “Love” unit with Catullus, Ovid, and Vergil. Students would work in class, but at their own pace, on whichever unit seemed most interesting at that time. I would love to create a course like this (cf), and iTunes U would make it very doable for the teacher. Summer enrichment courses or AP review would also be great candidates for a self-directed iTunes U course.

For now though, both Edmodo and iTunes U are pretty good options for teachers. Now if our grade book and SMS software would finally enter the 21st century, I’d be in good shape.

AP delenda est?

A recent NY Times article reported that Dartmouth is no longer accepting credit for high scores on AP tests. According to Dartmouth, 90% of students who scored a 5 on the AP Psychology test couldn't pass the exam for Dartmouth's intro psych class. Now this is only my first year teaching an AP course, so I don't speak with a lot of experience here, but this only serves to feed this question that's been gnawing at me: Can a content-based AP course truly coexist with an innovative 1:1 iPad deployment?

During the five weeks that all of my students had iPads, we were reading the tail-end of the Julius Caesar portion of the AP Latin syllabus. After a semester of traipsing through Gaul with C. Iulius, my students, while good soldiers, grew noticeably weary of the material. The brief foray into the cultures of the Druids and their "wicker man" helped, but there's only so much one can do to make Caesar's genocide palatable for teenage girls. Since they all had the iPads, I tried to think of ways they could save us.

Unfortunately, I kept running into two problems. I will be the first to admit that these are probably just illustrations of my own limitations, as somebody still new to both AP Latin and teaching with iPads. Still, no easy solution presented itself.

The first problem I had was with time. Some of the ideas I had for ways to engage with the material would have necessarily meant slowing down the pace at which we moved through the curriculum. The AP syllabus is not a small chunk of reading, and while I am happy to slow down and look at a few sections in-depth, there's a limit to how much of that can be done while still getting through at least most of the syllabus–which is the expectation.

The larger issue I found myself running up against was the curriculum itself. My students had in their hands devices containing virtually every word ever written in Latin that has survived. Yet, they are stuck reading only the lines that the College Board has declared to be worthwhile. You love Ovid? Sorry, no time. You want to be a lawyer, so Cicero sounds interesting? No can do. The rigidity of an AP curriculum is not new, but it is highlighted when the students have these Internet-connected devices.

I realize I am teaching a dead language, but I like to convince myself that I can still teach important skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, etc. Based on what I've read and my limited experience, teaching those skills is vastly more palatable when the subject matter is something the students are passionate about. How great would it be to let the students choose which Latin authors they want to read and then teach some text to their classmates? The new technologies make that very possible, but what happens when curriculum stands in the way?

To paraphrase Fraser Speirs again, technology, pedagogy, and curriculum all have to adapt to really get lasting change. At my school, the technology is coming, I can learn the pedagogy, but what do I do when I don't control the curriculum? AP courses aren't going away any time soon, so is it possible to really change anything in that context?


Pure Loyalty, a service in NYC for high school students who are not allowed to have their electronic devices in school. They park a truck outside the school, lock up the phones and iPods, and then return them at the end of the day.

Is there a better example of the problem with the way schools look at technology? Now BYOD doesn't really work, and a kid texting from a "dumb phone" is probably better off leaving the phone at home.

But isn't there something vaguely Brazil about schools telling students: "You have very powerful, pocket-sized computers. DO NOT bring them to school!"

If you had told me in 1997 about the capabilities of an iPod Touch, I would have been amazed. If you then told me that I would have to pay money to keep from bringing it into school, I would've been confused.

(Via Kottke)

Steve Jobs: "Technology Cannot Fix Education"

Steve Jobs, in 1996:

"I used to think that technology could help education. I've probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I've had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What's wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent."

Digital textbooks are shiny and new, but not a panacea.