Category Archives: technology

Things I got done this year

After a challenging 2016-17 school year in which I was pressed into duty as Interim Dean of Students, this year I was able to get back to my regular gig as a mid-level administrator. From this perch I am able to work on projects that are important but not urgent; the sweet spot in the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. Here are some projects I completed this year of which I am particularly proud.

Mobile Device Policy The school’s antiquated Cell Phone Policy has been in place since right after 9/11 when the school realized that it needed to permit students to carry a phone so that they could contact their parents in the event of an emergency. But the old policy was hindering academic innovation by decreeing that phones must be off in classroom buildings. Teaming with our Academic Technology Integrationist, Howard Glasser, we wrote a new policy that addresses mobile devices, not just phones, and permits classroom teachers the flexibility they need to employ mobile technology in their pedagogy if they so choose. The new policy also allows students the latitude to use their devices to stay organized and consult the LMS (Canvas). Since this is a boarding school, we also provided new guidelines for our evening study hall and late-night dorm use. You can read more about the new policy in my last blog post, here.

Endangerment Rewrite Going back to last year, I had been working on a revision to one of our major school rules, “Endangering the Safety of Others.” The language in our handbook was frustrating me because this is a large and important category of behaviors that the deans worry about, but the current policy seems only concerned about the dangers of incendiary devices. I also have grown concerned about dangerous driving, helmetless skateboarding, and students providing each other with tattoos and piercings in unsafe ways. The new policy language I wrote addresses these concerns, and it also has changed the name of the rule to the simple “Endangerment,” thus placing equal weight on behaviors than endanger oneself, not just others.

I should note that it took me two attempts to get this policy revision approved by the full faculty. I trust our Quaker process, and my first attempt didn’t provide enough time for discussion. I am very thankful that my colleagues ultimately gave the revision their blessing.

REACH things My role as the REACH admin here in the deans’ office took up a lot of my time and attention this year. While we nominally rolled out REACH at the end of the 2016-17 school year, this was the first full year that we used this digital sign-in/sign-out software. I’ve written about it on blog elsewhere, but I will note that there is an exciting software update coming in August, and it may lead to everyone here liking REACH even more. It has taken time to figure out all the best ways to configure the software to meet our needs most fully, but by the end of the year we were using it to replace our old system of collecting vacation travel information, so we are really converts. If the mobile apps become faster and more pleasurable for the user, then the students and dorm parents will have fewer complaints, and I’ll be able to take advantage of even more of the capabilities in REACH. You can read more about REACH in my blog posts here and here.

Attendance System 3.0 This project was a major undertaking for our IT department, and I can’t claim much credit. I have served as a spokesman for the deans’ office and what we want to see in the functionality of the new system, and I am the dean who most directly supports our attendance supervisor, who is the most important end user. Our new attendance system, which is completely homemade, is now offering a host of new options for students. They can clear cuts and lates electronically without needing to take a piece of paper to a teacher, and their advisor can look over their shoulder and help guide them. The faculty can now pull dynamic info about who is out of school on a given day instead of receiving a static report once per day. (But they can click a little button and subscribe to the report, and then they get an email like the one they used to get. I love the way the new system feels comfortable for users who don’t like change, but offers better visibility to power users.) This big project isn’t done yet, and when the new features for parents are rolled out the whole thing will be far more automated than before. Just as REACH (ideally) takes busywork away from the deans so that they can do more high level, critical thinking tasks to keep kids safe, the new attendance system will ultimately take busywork away from our attendance supervisor.

Network Restricted Lists Gaming addiction is a major story in the NYTimes this week, and we are dealing with it in boarding school land, too. Our old school policies, which forbid students to have televisions in their dorm rooms, haven’t been updated to respond to streaming gaming, “Netflix and chill,” etc. I approached our committee of dorm heads to ask them to collaborate with me on new policy language to address the concern, but they basically came back at me and said, “Why don’t we just shut off the wifi for kids with a problem?” So that’s the approach we have taken. We’ve created two new network access levels (whether a student is on the school’s wifi or wired network) that grant more restricted hours of use. The second, stricter list also denies access to popular gaming, entertainment, and social media sites and services. The hope is that we will not need to use these new tools very often in the coming years, but if we have kids under our care who cannot moderate their own device use such that they are not getting satisfactory sleep, we can temporarily assign them to one of these lists to support them.

Again and again, the story of these projects is one in which open-minded collaboration with colleagues leads to better outcomes than if I just apply executive force. I don’t always get exactly what I want, but (if I try sometimes) the school gets what it needs. Happy summer vacation, school people!

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Back From ATLIS

I returned last night from the ATLIS Annual Conference in Washington, DC. (Okay, technically it was in Crystal City, VA.) Due to my busy schedule, I was only able to attend one day of the three-day conference, but I still got a lot out of my time there and co-led a session that represented the culmination of a year’s worth of work. ATLIS is the “Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools,” and basically, these are my people. It’s incredibly energizing to be among so many fellow educators who are engaged in the task of thoughtfully employing technology in schools, either as their primary job description (IT directors and technology integrationists) or as a focus they’ve chosen within their work as classroom teachers or administrators.

Before discussing the session that I co-led at 11:00am yesterday, I want to praise the session I attended first thing in the morning, “Digital Health and Wellness: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach.” A school counselor, librarian, and dean from Sidwell Friends School shared what Sidwell has done to create a common terminology and set of goals that are vertically shared PreK-12 at their school. Because Sidwell is a fellow Friends school, a lot of what they have done could be deployed directly at the school where I work with little alteration and it would be a good cultural fit. I appreciate the generosity with which the Sidwell team shared their story and their resources. The session was booked into one of the smallest meeting rooms at the venue, and I’m glad I arrived early since it was standing room only, and there were attendees sitting on the floor everywhere. We might deduce that, even among this very tech-forward crowd, there is a great deal of concern about the health and wellness risks that come with the devices and media our kids are bringing with them to school every day.

Indeed, the session that I co-led with my colleague Howard Glasser (@hglasser) was an outgrowth of our work this year writing a new mobile device policy for our school. Our session, “Mobile Device Policies: Exploring Reasons and Experiences” was nominally a chance for us to share out what we’ve done with our new policy, but as we brainstormed what we wanted to do with our hour, it quickly evolved into a session that was far less about the Eric and Howard show, and far more about sharing the wisdom of all of the attendees in what we hoped would be an interesting meeting of the minds.

To that end, we impaneled an all-star trio of tech leaders, Dawn Berkeley (@theberknologist), Jared Colley (@jcolley8), and John Yen (@johnyen), to bring together a variety of points of view and to help break up the sage-on-the-stage dynamic that might have developed if Howard and I did all the talking. It’s a shame that we didn’t feel confident enough at the start of this process to request a longer time slot. Howard and I held hour-long Skype conversations with our panelists before we asked them to formally present with us, and I wish we could have recorded those conversations and uploaded them to YouTube. We were able to go into greater depth just shooting the breeze in that format, but all three were wonderfully eloquent, thoughtful, and good-humored as panelists. They fielded one pre-canned question posed by Howard and me (“How has your school’s mobile device policy impacted the teaching and learning at your school?”), and then responded to a variety of questions from our audience of roughly 35 attendees. We had questions about addressing poor behavior from students, dealing with rampant gaming, and bringing along reticent colleagues. Overall, our panel and the attendees left me with a sense of optimism that the benefits of mobile devices far outweigh the dangers, and the core beliefs that Howard and I wrote into our school’s new policy were affirmed.

Perhaps the heart of our session was an interactive poll we created as a conversation starter using Pear Deck. We asked the audience to weigh in their minds where their school’s mobile device policy fit on a spectrum from traditional to progressive and then to plot that on a line so we could visualize the variety in the room. Then we asked them to do the same thing regarding their school’s pedagogy (again, traditional to progressive spectrum). Finally we joined those two lines as an x and y-axis to create a Cartesian coordinate map. Here’s what the results look like:

Because the mobile device policy that Howard and I brought to our school’s faculty for approval was accepted, we feel that we’ve shifted our school’s policy from the far left (most traditional) to somewhere in the progressive range. Perhaps our policy is now out ahead of our school’s pedagogy, which is a bit more traditional, but the policy we wrote gives individual teachers the flexibility to determine how mobile devices are used in their classes, so there will be a wide range of choices on display at our school in the coming years. We hope that the Pear Deck activity will empower attendees of our session to go back to their schools with data about where their school’s policy fits into the broader ecosystem, and perhaps to persuade their colleagues that change is needed.

This work of rewriting our school’s mobile device policy is the signature accomplishment of my 2017-18 school year, but it would have never occurred to me to use it as the jumping off point to lead a session at a conference. I owe Howard a great debt of gratitude for dragging me into this enterprise. Howard is a masterful coach; so masterful in fact that he manages to coach me without me noticing that he is doing so! Our session was one of two that Howard co-led at ATLIS, so he is helping to put our school on the map as a leader in the area of educational technology. (The other session was “School Community as a Driver of Change.”) I’m also deeply grateful to Dawn, Jared, and John for giving so generously of their time as our panelists. I know that conference attendees chose to come to our session specifically because of the respect they feel for those three tech leaders.

 

Using REACH for Vacation Travel Planning

My colleagues and I in the deans’ office have been dissatisfied in recent years with the way in which we collect vacation travel plans from our students, and our inability to organize those plans usefully once we receive them. We are just about to throw in the towel and outsource the whole thing, but we thought we’d try an experiment for our last major vacation of the year (spring break) and use REACH as our travel planning hub. (You can read my previous post about REACH here.)

Our old system requires parents to login to the school’s parent portal and fill out a form that is linked to our database. The form then populates an Excel spreadsheet that is very detailed and sortable. However, the hurdles that this system asks parents to jump over, such as remembering their login info and completing a very extensive form, lead to low compliance. Many parents just email us instead, or call, and then we are stuck entering all of the information into the form, or more often we just house information in multiple places, which leads to mistakes. We need to pass this information along to the car service we use to shuttle students to the nearby train station and three major airports, and errors can be costly and lead to urgent crises.

REACH puts the onus on the students to fill out their vacation leave request. (Our school used to make the students fill out a paper form back in the day, so this isn’t without precedent for us.) They need to get all of the pertinent info from their parents, including flight data and so forth, and then submit it for electronic approval by their parents, host (if there is one), and finally the deans. Now that REACH has a well-designed mobile app, nearly all of our boarders have the ability to fill out their vacation travel info from their phone at any time. You can imagine how much more accessible this system is than asking parents to sit down at a laptop and navigate to a web site, login, and then follow several links to a form. REACH easily generates an Excel spreadsheet, too, so there is no loss of spreadsheet-ability, but our old form had a lot more columns for specific info. In particular, with REACH students put their flight info into the “Notes” field, so it is doesn’t get broken out in detail in Excel as it would using our old form.

That concern aside, we are much, much closer to 100% compliance using REACH, and that’s an enormous improvement over the system we’ve been using for the last few years.

Moreover, I see many opportunities to improve upon this first attempt. When we first started using REACH, Brian Murray (the company’s Director for North America) showed me how to format the leave type for this purpose, but I forgot some of the good advice he gave me. So I correctly created a specific “Spring Break 2018” leave type, and I created the correct work flow for the “actors” (people who need to give approval), but I didn’t pay attention to the transportation categories. I should have custom built just two options for students: “school provided ground transportation” and “family provided ground transportation.” Instead, the kids selected from the crazy quilt of options we normally give them (GS Van, Uber/Taxi, Car – parent driver, Car – other, Public Transportation, etc.). This meant that I had to send about 30 follow-up emails to students who chose transportation options that required me to be psychic in order to know whether they wanted us to book them a limo or if they were trying to say that another student’s parent was driving them. That really wasn’t such a headache, and I’ll get it right next time.

One aspect of REACH that our old system can’t duplicate is that it provides greater visibility to the students’ dorm parents (“hall teachers” in our school’s parlance). Those important adults can see the students’ leave requests, although many of them haven’t fully figured out REACH yet. (You could rephrase that to say, “The school hasn’t provided them the training they need,” and that blame falls on my shoulders.) But they are certainly able to see whether a student has left campus or not, which used to be rather chaotic and opaque before we started using REACH. We agreed earlier in the year to a solid workflow in which students have their dorm rooms checked for cleanliness by a dorm parent, who gives them a paper check-out ticket. The student brings that ticket to the deans’ office, and we SISO them out on REACH when they are actually leaving campus. (SISO stands for “sign-in/sign-out,” if you aren’t hip to the lingo.) Every adult on campus who logs into REACH can see who is still here and who has departed, and vice-versa at the end of each vacation.

There is even a little room for humor in this process, which makes it fun for the deans and dorm folks. I create custom locations for each vacation to which students are SISOed when they go on leave. Thanksgiving was “Turkey Time,” winter break was “Tinsel Town,” and our upcoming spring break will be “Cherry Blossom Wonderland.” You even get to assign each location in REACH a color of your choice, so I get to have seasonal fun with that, too.

After spring break my fellow deans and I will reevaluate how things went and decide if we are going to use REACH for vacation travel planning next year. As of this writing, I am leaning towards dedicating a year to working with it and improving upon what we’ve accomplished. We should reap productivity gains as returning students develop experience with the system and come to understand what is expected of them. As more adults on campus gain proficiency with REACH, they should come to enjoy the window it grants them into the work we do in the deans’ office, and they’ll be better able to care for their advisees and dorm charges.

I’ll try to write a post-spring-break breakdown of how things went. Stay tuned.

Addendum to “Initial Strategic Planning Thoughts”

I ended my last post about our strategic planning process with a concern that we might overreact to the perceived threats to our students that come from addictive mobile devices and social media. My argument was that this problem is tactical, not strategic, and that the tech companies and government regulators will address it. Sure enough, the big business news today is that a well-known activist hedge fund (Jana Partners) and others are applying pressure on Apple to improve parental controls so that parents can limit screen time and protect their children online. And Apple didn’t wait long to issue a response; they say improved parental controls are already in the works and on the way. Therefore, I’m sticking to my argument: our strategic plan shouldn’t overreact to fears about technology at the expense of innovative curricular/pedagogical goals.

GMO Posters from my students

My IB Theory of Knowledge students have been studying the debate regarding the safety of GMO foods. The purpose of this unit isn’t actually for them to become experts on GMOs, or for me to convince them that GMOs are or are not safe. The GMO topic is just an entry point to discuss the ways in which the biological sciences (an “Area of Knowledge” or “AOK” in IB lingo) construct knowledge and establish facts.

Today I asked them to create digital posters that summarize their current opinion on GMOs and include a nod to the epistemological aspect of our coursework. (Some students fulfilled the second requirement a little better than others.) This is a fairly shallow assignment for a class such as TOK, but before you write it off completely, recall that summarizing and designing are verbs associated with the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy (“create”). Moreover, the posters satirically respond to the politically charged nature of the GMO debate using a medium popular in social media discourse.

You’ll note that most of the digital posters were made with either Adobe Spark or PowerPoint; I recommended those two options at the start of the activity. The posters made with Adobe Spark are automatically imbued with that slick, designed-by-a-social-media-pro feel due to their built in templates, but the students who chose PowerPoint did so because they are very proficient with it, and their posters are sometimes even better (from a design standpoint) than the ones made with Spark.

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Responding to “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

Jean M. Twenge’s article in The Atlantic published yesterday, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” is a thought-provoking, and, I’m sorry to say, accurate look at what the author calls “iGen,” the post-Millennial generation. Defined as those born between 1995 and 2012, they have grown up with smartphones and social media, and they are markedly different from the generations before them as a result. I often read articles such as this one with the expectation that I will disagree with many of the author’s claims, and that my first-hand experience with adolescents will not support their theses, but in this case Twenge is consistently on target. Her research has unveiled some of the benefits of being a member of iGen (greater physical safety, less risk taking), but it is the drawbacks of all of that iPhone time that she focusses on. Depression and social-media-via-smartphone saturation seem to go hand in hand, as her research has clearly demonstrated. Whether or not the smartphone has “ruined” this generation is obviously not something we’ll be able to know for sixty years or so, but there are an awful lot of depressed adolescents walking around right now.

If you are not raising teens or working in secondary ed, you might be stunned to hear Twenge’s data about declining interest among teens in getting a driver’s license. But it’s true! Many suburban teens these days are showing no urgency to get a license. They socialize via their phones from home, or their parents drive them where they need to go. Twenge doesn’t mention Uber and other ride-sharing services. Among the ominous news in this article, the author may have missed an opportunity to talk about the environmental benefits that come from a generation that is ambivalent about driving. Ride-sharing and public transportation may decrease the number of cars on the road in the coming decades as iGen shifts fully into adulthood.

The iPhone and social media addiction that Twenge describes is also crowding out other risky behaviors, as other researchers have begun to suspect. Drug, tobacco, and alcohol use are all less prevalent among iGen. Given the long-lasting damage that substance problems inflict, often following teens through college into adulthood, until they finally receive treatment, I have to wonder if the smartphone and social media addiction is going to turn out to be less of a problem. Perhaps what technology hath wrought, technology can undo, in the form of new apps that limit screen time and social media use. There’s clearly an opportunity for parenting to make a difference here, too. Already, a small number of parents are taking the tough steps and confiscating their kids’ devices at bed time. (Twenge seems shocked to learn that adolescents all take their phones to bed with them every night. This elicits an eye roll from boarding school folks like me.) Whereas experimentation with substances often occurs away from home where parents aren’t present, this generation of homebodies can be helped by adults telling them, “No more phone time for you today. Go outside and play!”

Twenge also reports less sexual activity occurring among iGen. However, it seems to me that a significant amount of the shaming, bullying, and harassing that is causing depression among those addicted to their devices is sexual in nature (or proto-sexual, as it relates to body shaming, or not dressing like the cool kids, etc.). This is one of the saddest elements of Twenge’s research. This generation is getting extra doses of the worst parts of relationships/romance/sexuality — that is, the moments of shame, embarrassment, awkwardness, regret — without the good parts. Admittedly, teen pregnancy rates are down among iGen, and that’s heartening news, but not if everyone is walking around depressed.

What should adults be doing to respond to this data? I usually prefer carrots to sticks, and catching flies with honey. (Sorry about the mixed metaphors.) Yes, we can confiscate devices and shut off the wifi and so forth, but we need to put an emphasis on drawing youngsters into healthy physical activities, such as athletics, orienteering, biking, and the arts. And we need to create guidelines at dances and other IRL social gatherings that encourage kids to put the phones away and live in the moment, instead of recording it all for Instagram or Snapchat. One can’t help feeling that Twenge is recommending more square dances and roller-rink parties; i.e., a return to my Gen-X elementary school experience.

As is often the case when I read pieces such as this one, I feel privileged to work at a boarding school. Our 24/7 access to students creates an opening to shape their experiences in ways that might help increase mindful living-in-the-present and decrease nose-in-phone time. But even for us, it is a tough challenge. My colleagues and I will need to strategize as the school year begins in (alas) a few short weeks.

Twitter’s problem is it’s too literary

Twitter’s second quarter earnings release last Thursday sent its stock tumbling as the market reacted poorly to the news that net user growth was flat. The stock dropped more than 16% on the news, and the lack of user growth seemed to confirm the long-running skeptics’ narrative that Twitter is doomed to join Myspace in the social-media-platform graveyard.

The argument has always been that Twitter is too arcane with its @-mentions and hashtags, and the character limit means that it’s just for people with short attention spans who want to chase celebrities. But does that argument really hold up under greater scrutiny? Snapchat, beloved by adolescents everywhere, is actually more confusing to master, and the interface is disorienting to new users. Instagram, the other fast-growing social media platform, has borrowed the hashtag and @-mention vocabulary from Twitter, and is in fact more #-ridden than Twitter.

Twitter’s lack of growth may actually be explained by a narrative that is paradoxically the opposite of the one that dominates the conversation: The platform is too full of intellectual and literary depth, despite the much maligned character limit, too appeal to the lowbrow masses.

While my Facebook feed is mostly full of memes, links to YouTube videos that I won’t follow, and uninformed political opinions from acquaintances who were never really my friends in the first place, Twitter brings me the latest thoughts of Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates), Simon Schama (@simon_schama), Atul Gawande (@Atul_Gawande) — you know, actual writers. The platform makes it easy to follow leading intellectuals in any field, plus serious journalists whose opinions on current events aren’t nonsensical bloviating. Anyone can join in the conversation on Twitter, but unlike the walled garden of your selected friends on other platforms, your shallow and ill-informed opinions, when broadcast on Twitter, are free game for mockery and derision from the quickest-witted wags in the world, and yes, they can demolish you while using only 140 characters. The Twittersphere is a hostile place for illiterate morons. (Not that that stops them from tweeting, but you can block or filter them out, or create lists, etc.)

The pessimist in me worries that society’s anti-intellectualism does spell bad times ahead for Twitter. Their new plans to monetize the platform sound horrid and could ruin the service, so hopefully the rumors will finally prove to be true and one of the tech behemoths (Google?) will swallow Twitter and hide its lack of earnings growth inside their massive, synergistic whatnots.