iSchool Bus Takes Tech To Teachers - InformationWeek
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9/10/2015
08:06 AM
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iSchool Bus Takes Tech To Teachers

The iSchool Initiative is teaching school districts how to build better classrooms with technology.

MacBook To Fitbit: 11 Back-To-School Must-Have Gadgets
MacBook To Fitbit: 11 Back-To-School Must-Have Gadgets
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

It is, in its way, a school bus, but it's not the big yellow bus of your childhood. The iSchool Initiative's Digital Learning Revolution Tour (DLRTour) might be the bus that delivers a new idea of school to the next generation of students.

The iSchool Initiative started when Travis Allen's high school teacher confiscated his smartphone -- the smartphone he had been using to take class notes. In a telephone interview with InformationWeek, Travis said, "I was a high school student five years ago and I used my phone to do everything. As you can imagine, I was taking notes and the policy was 'no cell phones.' It was confiscated, and I went home complaining. My parents looked at me and said, 'Stop talking and do something about it.'"

What Allen did was make a video. And people watched the video. Five years later, the iSchool Initiative works with school districts to help educators understand how to translate student needs into classroom design. The effort also aims to help teachers use technology in ways that actually support students rather than merely ticking off a "use technology" check-box.

[ See what happens when technology meets forest fires. Read Using Data To Fight Wildfires: An Inside Look. ]

Allen said that interest in the iSchool Initiative has been growing. "In the last four years, we've presented to 150,000 teachers and administrators in eight countries," he said. iSchool has presented to many of those teachers using a single tool -- a bus called DLRTour. 

The DLRTour Bus

(Image: iSchool Initiative)

The DLRTour Bus

(Image: iSchool Initiative)

"It highlights what true mobile technology can look like in the classroom," Allen said. One of the first and most important tasks, Allen said, is to switch the emphasis away from the technology.

"The common factor in initiatives that don't succeed is that the focus is on the technology. They're buying a tablet rather than a learning experience," he said. "The 'device-centric learning environment' deploys technology for its own sake, and the technology gets in the way."

Travis Allen, founder, iSchool Initiative

(Image: iSchool Initiative)

Travis Allen, founder, iSchool Initiative

(Image: iSchool Initiative)

Some districts move one step beyond a device-centric environment, Allen said, but a limited move may not be enough. "The second phase is a 'content-centric learning environment.' This is all about the latest app," he said. "It might be iMovie or something like that. This can totally kill creativity. Now we're learning with technology." Both device-centric and content-centric environments focus on the wrong things, Allen said, because they look in the wrong directions.

"We want to move to a student-centric learning environment," Allen said. "Then, the technology is like oxygen: It's invisible but there every day. Let's take the Civil War -- I can assign an iMovie project, but the focus is on the software and the teacher has to be an expert on the software. I'd rather see the teacher say that you have 10 minutes to convince people of your point of view on the war. You can use whatever [tools] you want."

Allen said that this focus on the students and their work means that students can use the technology they're comfortable with outside the classroom and can help one another learn. The teacher doesn't have to be a technology expert because the focus remains on the student and the subject matter rather than the technology.

End With Technology

While the emphasis of the iSchool Initiative isn't on the technology, it does focus on how schools can best take advantage of technology. Cisco is one of the vendors partnering with iSchool. Renee Patton, director of education at Cisco, talked about the factors that can keep schools from succeeding with technology initiatives. Failing schools "don't have a clear vision, strategy, or plan, and they don't have the right partners at the table," she said in a telephone interview with InformationWeek. "They haven't thought it through from an infrastructure or content PoV. They can go down one avenue and not consider the whole."

The iSchool Initiative helps schools develop their technology vision, according to Patton. "We can go in with the infrastructure for the mobility and the other parts and do the implementation with our partners," she said. "You pair the cultural change and change management with how you do things from a technical perspective."

Changing the culture of a school is the iSchool Initiative's strong suit. "Our organization focuses on what we're good at, and we are open about what we're not good at," Allen said. "We're not teachers. At our core, we come at it from the student perspective."

Demonstrations and talks take place inside the DLRTour bus.

(Image: Infinity Marketing)

Demonstrations and talks take place inside the DLRTour bus.

(Image: Infinity Marketing)

Allen said that the iSchool Initiative's principles are best expressed in a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

Start With Partners

As for putting the philosophy into practice, Allen said, "I can inspire you so that when you go home you dream of the ocean. You figure out what curriculum you want to develop as a teacher. At our core, we partner with the schools to build culture."

The iSchool Initiative doesn't go into a school district alone. After being invited in, Allen said, "We help them build a technology roadmap, and then bring in partners like Cisco to help them implement the program."

After succeeding with high-level changes to district cultures, Allen said that the initiative is now taking a more intensive approach with a handful of school districts. "Anderson, South Carolina, told us they couldn't go one to one [devices to students] because they didn't have the funding. We helped them build the roadmap, they got $7 million in funding, they pitched to the school board, and we moved our team to South Carolina and lived for 40 days in a home there to help implement the roadmap," Allen said.

Allen looks at where the iSchool Initiative is and where he hopes it will be in coming years (after the college senior has a degree in hand). "We're probably reaching a couple of thousand districts on a surface level," he said. "What we've started doing, with Cisco's help, is partnering with specific districts in depth. We've partnered with 10 districts of various sizes in Texas," he explained, adding that the organization hopes to reach 30 to 50 school districts in partnership next year.

As for the bus, Allen said, "We do about 100 events every year with the tour bus. We have 30,000 to 40,000 people who walk through the bus [a year]. About 75 of the stops will be individual districts."

The focus remains on creating a key sense of longing in the teacher. "The concept of the bus is to bring some of the excitement of a trade show to people who never get to go to conferences," Allen said.

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio
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GAProgrammer
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GAProgrammer,
User Rank: Ninja
9/16/2015 | 4:50:48 PM
Re: beneficial technology
Not to be a naysayer, but I'd love to see if these districts actually incorporate this philosophy. Maybe check back on 5 years time..

While I applaud his efforts, he is selling an idea, not a product. Trying to implement an ethereal concept into a centrally-controlled, cash-strapped government bureaucracy is a while project of its own.

I think he has a lofty idea that may not necessarily take the real world into account. Students WILL use technology to cheat in any way they can - this reality has to be a part of any idea they put in place. That alone may negate most of the positives.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
9/15/2015 | 8:48:07 PM
Re: beneficial technology
<which my fellow students accepted the same way they would have accepted a walker or ear-trumpet if I had brought one to class -- it was a gift to the old guy).>

LoL @Curt, I'm sure the "old guy" was a gift to the class in term of contributions and insight.
Kelly22
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Kelly22,
User Rank: Strategist
9/14/2015 | 12:55:34 PM
Re: beneficial technology
Good point, Curt - technology enables distraction but it's not the only means of diverting students' attention. I remember in grade school, one of my classmates used to sneak a library book under her desk to read while she was bored in class!

I've heard of teachers who enforce blanket bans on tech, and schools where kids are given laptops so the school can check a box. I think Allen has the answer in taking a student-centric approach and teaching kids to use technology they're comfortable with to solve problems. Technology is "like oxygen" in most students' lives and will continue to be as they graduate college and enter the workforce. The earlier they learn how to use it responsibly, the more comfortable they will be.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
9/14/2015 | 11:23:16 AM
Re: beneficial technology
@Ariella, when I was in grad shool most recently (about five years ago), one of my profs had a "no laptops" rule. After the first class I went to them and explained that I could type to keep up with their talking, had been taking notes on a laptop for roughly 20 years, and can almost always read my typing after the fact. I also don't look like the sort of person who spends all of his time on Facebook. I received a dispensation (which my fellow students accepted the same way they would have accepted a walker or ear-trumpet if I had brought one to class -- it was a gift to the old guy).

I understand that technology can be very distracting, but when the school answer is a blanket ban I can't escape the feeling that they're missing a "teachable moment." I snuck "unauthorized" books into class when I was in elementary school: Avoiding a boring lecture through a hand-held alternative isn't something that came into being with the iPad. I think that more students should be taught to use the technology responsibly, but I know this is a topic on which there are many varying and equally legitimate opinions.

I'm really enjoying the conversation among everyone here -- I really appreciate this community!
nasimson
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nasimson,
User Rank: Ninja
9/12/2015 | 5:48:39 AM
student-centric
I like the approach of the iSchool program: away from device-centric; away from software-centric. Student-centric! The analogy of tech **like Oxygen** is really good!

We need this in more schools, in more districts, in more states, in more countries!

This truly deserve a radio show of its own!
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
9/11/2015 | 11:30:03 AM
Re: beneficial technology
@soozyg, I served on the technology advisory committee for my son's middle and high schools. We tended to focus on getting desktop and laptop computers into the schools -- this was just before the tablet took off as a serious technology player.

Helping students deal with the "technology gap" is a huge issue for many schools, and it's not a new issue: I remember not being allowed to use a calculator in math class until I got to university because (in the early to mid 70s) calculators were expensive and considered an unfair advantage for those with money. There are a lot of ways to level the playing field: it's interesting to see the different approaches taken by schools.
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
9/10/2015 | 4:35:55 PM
Re: beneficial technology
While student devices can be a distraction in the classroom they can also be used as a tool. If teachers are posing question to students and they use devices to help find answers or verify facts they can be very useful.

 

I completely understand the tick the box mentality with technology so much of the curriculum being used in schools is developed with traditional teaching methods in mind, technology is often an afterthought. If we get to the point of curriculum that is integrated with technology then we will overcome this hurdle. Until then the smart boards are often expensive white boards.
soozyg
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soozyg,
User Rank: Ninja
9/10/2015 | 12:19:43 PM
Re: beneficial technology
As for laptops for students, they do often pose a distraction. 

I agree they pose a distraction. I do not know the results in Marietta, whether it affected the classroom or not.
soozyg
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soozyg,
User Rank: Ninja
9/10/2015 | 12:17:26 PM
Re: beneficial technology
They all get smartboards now because there is government money specifically earmarked for that kind of technology. They also used to get software from Adobe that was purchased with grants (now that it's on subscription models, I'm not sure they still do).

Marietta raised money with a program--I can't remember the name and it's not showing on Google--that took 1 penny from every item purchased in Marietta. They raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Every year.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Author
9/10/2015 | 12:05:10 PM
Re: beneficial technology
<The effort also aims to help teachers use technology in ways that actually support students rather than merely ticking off a "use technology" check-box.> If they can accomplish that, well, they'd be doing a lot more than what I've seen schools do so far. They all get smartboards now because there is government money specifically earmarked for that kind of technology. They also used to get software from Adobe that was purchased with grants (now that it's on subscription models, I'm not sure they still do). But very little real use was made of these things. Teachers keener on tech used the smartboards, but most of them used them the same way teachers of the last generation used the low-tech projectors. As for laptops for students, they do often pose a distraction. That's why one of my daughter's college professors has an absolute rule of no devices in his class. I respect him for it because I know, having taught myself, that students are very distractable. Also he holds himself to the same, and I can't abide teachers who check their phones while teaching -- very unprofessional. 
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