Related: DC Public Schools, Education, In the Media, Money, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues, Technology, Workforce Issues

iThink iAm iDream


Pervasive technology is driving dramatic transformation of education.  Check.

In the District of Columbia, with evidence supplied by the outmoded technology known as pencils and erasers, a scandal is blooming around cheating on standardized tests.  Check.

At the Apple headquarters on “Infinite Loop” in Cupertino, California, where I spent a day with other private college presidents and provosts and Apple gurus last week, the main topic of discussion was not whether, but when, universities would accept the reality of teaching and learning through “the cloud” — the pervasive use of mobile devices readily accessing the databases of all knowledge ever produced as mediated through iTunes or YouTube or (god forbid we should say this at Apple)…Google.

At the D.C. Public School headquarters last week, the emphasis was on damage control stemming from yet another setback to the tortured reputation of DCPS as one of the most troubled school districts in America.  Chancellor-nominee Kaya Henderson, who deserves praise and support for her courage in taking on this school system, gainfully tried to rally her troops in the face of mounting evidence in the cheating scandal.  Meanwhile, former Chancellor Michelle Rhee continued to demonstrate her heck-with-you-too attitude — a bulwark against rational discourse — by attacking the media for publishing news about the scandal that might taint her “legacy” in DC.  I’m not sure that her private confession to Jay Mathews that her remarks were “stupid” really counts as a public retraction, but we’ll take what we can get from someone whose real achievement was the alienation of many people who really do care about improving educational opportunity for our children in DC.

Which takes me back to that auditorium in Cupertino where a parade of really smart people — mostly men, a few women, but no African American or Latino speakers — insisted that we’ll soon be relegating classrooms and libraries and even teachers to the asheap of discarded ideas about teaching and learning, replacing them with iPads and 4G access.

Needless to say, a few presidents and provosts were a wee tad skeptical.  My colleague Sandy Unger, president of Goucher, made an eloquent defense of ye olde college as a place where great teachers and eager young minds come together, eyeball-to-eyeball, to think, to challenge, to explore, to question, to learn together.   Some of us pointed out that the whole point of college is not simply to know where to acquire knowledge — a skill for which technology proficiency is certainly helpful — but more important, how to invent knowledge, how to develop sophisticated skills in critical reasoning and numerical proficiency and communication across a wide array of platforms, including in-person speaking, teaching and learning.

I asked the Apple gurus a question about how they are addressing the digital divide — which is also a great teaching and learning divide.  I see it every day on Trinity’s campus.  So many of our students simply cannot afford the latest gee-whiz technology, the iStuff and the expensive broadband access plans all that stuff requires.  So many of our students, graduates of underperforming public school systems, also need eyeball-to-eyeball teaching and guidance.  “The cloud” is an elusive dream for millions of students in America.

The Apple execs looked thoughtful about this, but had no answers.  Their world is high-end learners and the people who frequent the Apple stores in Georgetown or Ballston or 5th Avenue.  They talked a lot about taking their stores to “where the people are.”  I fantasized about one of those bright, shiny glass Apple cubes on the corner of Rhode Island and 4th Street.  In my dreams.

I want the DC Public Schools to be transformed, and I want my students to have access to all of the same opportunities that the most fortunate children of Palo Alto have readily available to them.  I want my students to be able to walk into the Apple store, know exactly what they want, and be able to purchase the latest gizmos with as much confidence as a Stanford sophomore.  I want Apple and Microsoft and Google and all of the behemoth companies that are transforming the world to suit their business models to spend more time learning about the real learning challenges across the digital divide.

Coming back on the plane from California I gave in to temptation and watched “The Social Network,” the movie about the guy who created Facebook as an undergraduate at Harvard.  Mark Zuckerberg became the world’s youngest billionaire by capitalizing on his brilliant ability to program while stealing the essential idea from his classmates.  And, not to be lost in the story, the whole idea arose from a thoroughly misogynist creation “Facemash” rating women in sororities during a drunken evening in Zuckerberg’s dorm room.

Hmmm.  So, one guy makes billions by less than honorable methods.  Meanwhile, teachers and principals in DC are under the microscope for cheating.

Dishonesty is unacceptable wherever and whenever it occurs.

Zuckerberg was able to pay out hundreds of millions in claims against him and remain one of the great success stories of this age.

But thousands of graduates of DCPS, not having learned what their test scores promised they had learned, will never have the educational success to achieve the economic security they need to keep up with technological inventions and new ways of teaching, learning and living.

The tech industry says it wants educational reform, but thus far its engagement — while lavishing a great deal of money on the effort, to be sure — has had little impact on transforming learning for the most impoverished students.  At some level, that’s because the focus has been on huge systemic issues like high stakes testing and union contracts.  In fact, some of the solutions might be simpler and more direct:  better access to classroom technologies, including putting technology into the hands of students and families who cannot buy their own, might, in fact, have a greater impact on student learning than all of the money spent on systemic theories gone awry.  Maybe replacing those pencils and erasers with buttons can help reduce cheating.  Worth a try!

I’m in favor of technology, no doubt about it, and I admire all of the innovators in Silicon Valley.  I just want them to get out of the Valley and come to the real world once in a while to listen to those who practice the fine arts of teaching and learning in some of the world’s most difficult places every day.  Really smart people don’t have all the answers, but they do have the ability to help the rest of us find better solutions.

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2 Responses to iThink iAm iDream

  1. I agree with much of what you say. When I served as Chief Innovation Officer for MedStar Health, I heard time and time again that technology was going to be in the hands of the urban poor of D.C. for applications such as Personal Health Record.

    There is a “digital divide” in our country (I cannot remember who originally said that).

  2. efavorite says:

    Really – you think Henderson deserves praise and support for this (as reported in the Washington Post):

    “Even before USA Today ran its March 28 story on test score erasures, Acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson was trying to rally her staff. “Tons of negative press is swirling around right now,” she said, according to notes taken at her monthly meeting with principals on March 23.

    “You know why it is swirling now?” she was quoted as saying in the notes, which a participant shared with The Post. “To knock us off our game. So keep your eyes on the prize — delivering to our kids.”

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: