We should have an instructional technology plan

I’ve written before about the fact that BUSD is far from leading the way when it comes to instructional technology (or communications technology, for that matter).  I appreciate, and share, our superintendent’s vision that BUSD become a “world-class” district.  But no 21st century world-class public school district is without a comprehensive plan for the use of technology in the classroom.  The development of such a plan, coordinated by instructional leaders with input from the many resources we have in our parent community, should be a top priority for the district.Tablet

Many parents and teachers are wary of plans to use more technology in the classroom.  And perhaps with good reason; there are plenty of “tech in schools gone awry” stories to warrant proceeding with caution.  But there are also many examples of uses of technology in the classroom that enable differentiated learning, help close the “digital divide,” and engage more girls and students of color in STEM fields.  This short piece, in a newsletter devoted to educational technology issues, has a number of sensible tips for K-12 districts contemplating improvements in their use of instructional technology. It makes the important points that it is wise to start small, leverage early adopters, and, most importantly, start with a vision that is grounded in instruction, not just the latest device or gadget.

Fully implementing a true technology vision for BUSD will likely require resources we don’t currently have.  Part of the vision, and the action plan, should be to look outside the district for technology resources.  San Francisco has done so; we should too.  But as advocates of cooking and gardening know all too well, it’s very difficult to attract outside funding without a clear plan for the future.  Creating that plan is the first step, and it’s not a costly one.  We should take it.

Why doesn’t BUSD text or tweet?

Chart

The Huffington Post, Feb. 2, 2014

Berkeleyside had an excellent article (really an exposé) yesterday about the City of Berkeley’s failure to develop a social media policy after three years of study.  Emilie Raguso’s reporting focused in particular on law enforcement, and how the Berkeley police might be able to use social media to help solve crimes and alert the public to ongoing danger.

The article didn’t mention the school district’s absence from social media, but I find it just as glaring as the city’s absence.  Individual schools, like Rosa Parks, have robust Facebook pages (and less-than-robust Twitter feeds), but BUSD has no Facebook page, no Twitter account, and, as far as I know, does not use text messaging as a way of reaching a broad swath of the community with important announcements.  The District uses its website, as well as email and phone blasts, as the primary means of communication. To be fair, the website has a ton of content and is much easier to navigate than it used to be, and the relatively new “A+” newsletter is a welcome source of information in a concise, easy-to-read format. So there has been a lot of progress.

But ultimately this comes down to communication, which has received more attention from the District in recent years, but has long been a weakness.  Communication with parents and the larger community is critical — to engage parents (including non-English speakers) in their children’s educational life, and in case of emergencies.  For example, parents revived Rosa Parks’ dormant Twitter feed immediately following the Sandy Hook tragedy, because we realized it would be a highly effective way to disseminate information quickly in an emergency.  There is no reason why the District cannot have a Twitter feed.

The District should also add texting to its communication toolbox.  Many families do not have or use email regularly, and apparently nobody listens to voicemail anymore.  Many of the parents in the BUSD community have cell phones and can receive text messages, however.  There are any number of mass-texting products on the market, including this free product designed specifically for schools.  Let’s show the city how it can be done.

“An important skill in the 1980s”

1981 article screen

“They are . . . learning computer literacy, an important skill in the 1980s.”

Cleaning out her basement, my mom recently came across a scrapbook containing this article from April 1981, when I was in first grade at Cragmont School, and my mom was a parent volunteer.  She was, I believe, the first educator to bring computers into Berkeley public school classrooms.

The article, which notes that computer literacy is “an important skill in the 1980s,” is striking to me.  There are more computers in the District now, of course, but I am not convinced that most kids’ elementary school classroom experience is being enhanced by technology to a significantly greater extent than mine was as a Berkeley student thirty years ago.

Thanks to our local special tax (BSEP), we have a dedicated annual budget for technology in Berkeley, but it is limited.  Very little money from the District’s general fund is spent on technology; the teachers, classified support staff, and the technology itself are all stretched thin, even with BSEP funds and the generous support of the Berkeley Public Schools Fund.  There are islands of exciting innovation across the District, in some schools and in some classrooms, and the District has used one-time funds to temporarily add one more teacher on special assignment to support all schools with the use of technology and the new Common Core standards.  But as this District document makes clear, the use of technology varies widely from school to school across the city.

I would like to see us evaluate what we are doing well with respect to technology, and how we could improve.  We should study whether best practices from other districts can provide models for technology instruction that we may want to adapt and implement, and whether doing so will require a greater expenditure of resources from the District’s general fund.  With the new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) on the horizon, now is the time to consider whether there is more we can be doing with technology, particularly if it can be used to support teachers in their efforts to boost the achievement of English Learners and children from lower-income families.  The community input that is a key component of the LCFF process provides a perfect opportunity for parents, teachers, classified staff, and administrators to engage with each other about the potential for technology in our schools.

In addition, as I learned recently, some members of the District’s “Technology Subcommittee” are proposing that the District commission a study, perhaps to be conducted (at no cost) by grad students at U.C. Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.  In general, I am a huge proponent of taking advantage of the research capabilities of our neighbors on the U.C. campus; our new superintendent, Dr. Evans, speaks often about capitalizing on this infrequently-tapped resource. Doing so now — to assess where we are and where we could be with respect to technology (or at the very least to research best practices from similarly situated districts) — seems like an easy call to me.

This is only a test.

Don’t worry – not the CST test.  This is just a test to see if the blogging function on this website works.  I’ve never blogged before but I think this will be a useful way for me to comment on various issues facing the Berkeley schools.  I will link to the blog posts on my Facebook page, so if you want to make sure you don’t miss one, go ahead and “like” my Facebook page, which you can find here: http://www.facebook.com/tyalperforschoolboard.

I want to experiment, during the campaign, with different methods of communication – not only to reach more voters, but also to further my thinking about the ways in which BUSD can improve its communication with parents, guardians, and the larger community.  There’s been some real improvement over the past few years in that area, but I still think that, as a District, we don’t reach enough of our intended audience with important school-related information.  Some of the District’s methods of communication are outdated and therefore less effective than they could be.  If we want parents to be engaged in their children’s education, we need to clearly and effectively communicate with them — all of them (not just those who, like me, are on email all day long).

So this blog post is a test just to see if I successfully figured out the blogging function on this website.  And the blog generally is a test of one method of communication that I plan to use during the campaign, and hopefully as a board member as well.