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EdTech Update





Is good data-driven decision-making possible?

Is data-driven decision-making possible in schools? I've long worried about it and am glad to hear Chris Lehman echo this concern in his excellent presention (excellent because I agree with almost everything he says?) at Ignite Philly:

Chris, you're singing the librarians' old songs about research and problem-based learning and presentation and authenticity. Great!

But back to data-driven decisions. Why are these nearly impossible to make well at a school level? From an earlier column, A Trick Question:

At last spring’s interviews for our new high school library media specialist, the stumper question was:

"How will you demonstrate that the library media program is having a positive impact on student achievement in the school?"

How did that nasty little question get in there with “Tell us a little about yourself” and “Describe a successful lesson you’ve taught”? Now those questions most of us could answer with one frontal lobe tied behind our cerebellums.

Given the increased emphasis on accountability and data-driven practices, it’s question all of us, librarians and technologists alike, need to be ready to answer - even if we are not looking for a new job or don’t want to be in the position of needing to look for one.

While I would never be quick enough to have said this without knowing the question was coming, I believe the best response to the question would be another question: “How does your school measure student achievement now?”

If the answer was simply, “Our school measures student achievement by standardized or state test scores,” I would then reply, “There is an empirical way of determining whether the library program is having an impact on such scores, but I don’t think you’d really want to run such a study. Here’s why:
  • Are you willing to have a significant portion of your students (and teachers) go without library services and resources as part of a control group?
  • Are you willing to wait 3-4 years for reliable longitudinal data?
  • Are you willing to measure only those students who are here their entire educational careers?
  • Are you willing to change nothing else in the school to eliminate all other factors that might influence test scores?
  • Will the groups we analyze be large enough to be considered statistically significant?
  • Are you willing to provide the statistical and research expertise needed to make the study valid?"
I surmised then that "No school I know of has the will to run such as study."

If test scores are the sole measure of "student achievement," there are indeed some things we in schools can be excellent at doing with data. We can identify individual students who perform below established norms and we can look at groups of students with certain characteristics (ELL, FRP, SpEd) and see how they compare with the norms. We can do trend tracking of such groups.

We are good at determining which groups need help. But what comes next is the "gotcha."

Schools are unwilling and unequipped to do controlled studies on the effectiveness of any single intervention over a period of time to improve the test scores of a school or group. The typical pattern is to throw as many changes into a curriculum as possible and hope something sticks.

Let's say our SpEd population is showing low reading scores. A building may well decide to:
  1. Increase the use of differentiated instruction
  2. Try a new computerized reading program
  3. Increase the SSR program
Pretty good strategies, huh? But here is the rub. What happens, let's say, if the groups scores rise. Any one of these interventions may have been effective. All of them may have created some of the improvement. Two of them in combination may have led to the improvement. The Hawthorne Effect might be in play and gains this year, might not be shown next year. Some may be effective, but take more than a year to show results. A completely extraneous variable may have been present (a new teacher or principal, perhaps).

Schools should not be tasked with doing research. This was what university lab schools are (were) for. Every school doing its own research on effective educational practices makes no more sense than every hospital being a research hospital and every student being a guinea pig.

I am not sure what the answer to this problem might be nor has anyone to date given me a good solution to this problem (if even willing to admit a problem exists.)  I do believe that carefully applied valid research can help teachers improve their instructional practices.

It just shouldn't be up to the practitioner to also be a researcher.

Your thoughts?

Facebook - an educational resource?

"Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law". Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of the Council of Europe
Every website shall remain unblocked until proven to be "harmful to minors."
The Blue Skunk

I'm going to visit with our elementary principals' group in a couple weeks. I've (ominously) been asked to discuss Facebook  with them. One never knows the genesis of such a request, but it may center around why our district doesn't block such sites.

Or maybe it is purely academic curiosity. I hope so, but I think I will be prepared just in case.

I don't much care one way or the other if kids have access to Facebook itself at school. I am a very occasional and reluctant user of the service. I just don't get the appeal. (Although now that I am up to 60 friends, I may consider running for public office.) Its value on the surface seems recreational in nature and it's probably a nuisance trying to keep kids from using it.

But I do care that we give all Internet resources due process, just as we would give due process to any library or text book before before removing it from our schools.

For educators who don't use Facebook, it needs to placed in some kind of context beyond the scare stories on Dateline. Here are some things I think my principals ought to know about these kinds of social networking sites:

1. How and why people use sites like Facebook. I think I will show the short Common Craft video Social Networking in Plain English and share the Educause two-page document 7 Things You Should Know About Facebook II.

2. That there may be Informational value to having access to Facebook, and that really, we should be blocking based on content, not format. Along with both Obama and McCain, one of our favorite sons, a first year US Representative, uses Facebook to connect with his constituents:

Shouldn't students have access to this information?

3. Facebook is but a single manifestation of social networking, a means of communication and recreation that today's children are growing up with. Club Penguin and Webkinz are popular social networking sites for the pre-school set. Facebook is replacing e-mail as a preferred method of communication. Even educational gaming is becoming more social, as evidenced by new and emerging products like vMathLive.

4. Schools DO need to teach safety and privacy with all social networking tools. If we don't, who will? Educators need to know that privacy levels can be set on most sites and children need to know how to do this as well.

5. Safety issues need to be put in perspective by sharing reputable information resources such as Predators & cyberbullies: Reality check by Larry Magid & Anne Collier at report:

"we do not have a single case related to MySpace where someone has been abducted." - social media researcher danah boyd

Recommend the books MySpace Unraveled and Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to USe the Internet Safely and Responsibily. Emphasize that "reputation destruction" and cyberbullying are more likely hazards than predation.



6. It's OK for individual buildings, libraries and classrooms to set their own rules on what is considered "productive" use of school time and technology. But a district-wide block needs to considered by a range of stakeholders after study, not as a knee-jerk response to any single request.

OK, readers. What would you do at a command performance of administrators asking for a discussion about Facebook? Help me out here...

  I just remembered that I addressed this issue a couple years ago, See also Seven Things All Adults Should Know About MySpace at Education World. Duh.



Advice to the computer-lorn

As Blue Skunk readers know, I sometimes get "advice to the computer/library-lorn e-mails. Being a guy,  I am always happy to provide a response. But you all can do better! So here is the letter:

Hello Mr. Johnson,

My name is Nancy ... and I am a 42 year old, 1st year teacher.....that says a lot right there doesn't it!?!

1 week before school I was given the 4-5-6th grade computer classes to teach.  I know very basic about computer and I know nothing on how to teach computer.  An example of how I feel about teaching computer......Let's say you sang in the choir during high school and I will even give you college choir.  Then one week before school started you were asked to teach music class ~ This is how I feel about teaching computer class.  I am an accomplished musician so I could easily go in and teach music and do a wonderful job  I have used a computer and I am familiar with Microsoft Office but that is my extent.

My there a book, a program, a curriculum available to the average computer person that would help them become an excellent computer TEACHER?

Thank you for your time and prayers (if you would be so kind)!  I can hardly wait to hear from you!!!



Here is my response:

Hi Nancy,

First, please call me Doug.

I suspect that I will give you an answer you may not want to hear. Although I am sure they exist, I can’t recommend any specific textbook series or professional development book on computer skills. Teaching tech skills alone, without immediate application, is counter productive, IMHO. But that doesn’t help you.

This would be my plan:
  • Find another district with a set of technology skills already written and use it as a starting point for the things you want your students to know and be able to do by the end of the term. You are always welcome to use our district’s.
  • Next I would work with my classroom teachers to determine the units of study they will working on during the term. Develop projects related to those units that support. complement or extend the curricular objectives. Examples can be found here.
  • With students, develop quality criteria for each project – a checklist or rubric.
  • Thread Internet safety discussions throughout the class.
  • Finally, make it your goal to learn along with the students. If you don’t know a program or know it well, then let the kids figure it out and teach it to you.

This may make an interesting question to post to my blog readers. They, I’m sure, will have more and better ideas than I’ve presented to you.

All the best,


And here is your chance to help Nancy out. Please leave any resources or advice she might be able to use.

I can use all the prayers and blessings I can get. Thanks!