A Technology Question

I received the following question from a voter about technology in the classroom and, specifically, the iPads. We only get a minute or two answer these questions in the forums, so I thought I would share a deeper dive.


Ms. Munnell, I really like what you have to say about innovation and technology. I believe that sets you apart from the other candidates. As an Instructional Technology specialist for FCPS, what you say really resonates with me. Do you mind briefly sharing with me your position on iPADs and what you see as the optimal approach for APS to engage in distance learning.”

It is hard to be brief regarding my position on iPads...

I have a long history with iPads in APS.

Prior to 2013, each APS school had a technology budget under the principal or the ITC. In my case, at Washington-Liberty HS (W-L), I controlled the budget.  Because ITCs were not controlled specifically by a supervisor at the Ed Center (a real failing in APS), I could determine how the budget got spent with the approval of my principal. I wrote several grants and, using that money and APS money, bought first iPods and then iPads. 

In each instance, I had a cohort of teachers willing to spend time after school to learn how to use these devices. Together, we identified apps for different content areas, apps for content development, and classroom management. Year one, I had 4 carts of 26 iPads and 16 teachers (my early adopters) who each received an iPad. Each quarter, 4 teachers had exclusive use of a cart of iPads. I co-taught some lessons, and in other cases, I was around to provide technical assistance. After year one, the first 16 teachers said having the carts in their classroom all the time was a waste because they couldn’t use them that much. In other words, their instructional practice didn’t allow for daily use, except in the case of doing a quick internet lookup, or the current quarter wasn’t conducive to switching their practice to incorporate more technology; i.e. 1st quarter and 4th quarter. Year two, 14 more teachers joined the cohort and the carts increased to five. Typical of the laptop computer carts, they were put up for sign-up among the now 30 teachers. At the same time, APS introduced Chromebooks making them readily and cheaply available. Poof! Interest in the iPads dried up. I transferred all my iPads to elementary schools who requested them. 

Information Services (IS) did not take into consideration my reports on usage, apps, and best practices which covered three years of working directly with teachers when they embarked on the iPad 1:1 in both ES and MS. In fact, they made no accommodations for teacher training. There has never been a real evaluation of their effectiveness against a specific learning outcome. But they could be used for testing. 

There is no sustained professional development for the iPads and no focus on best practices or integration. There are tech enthusiasts who love the availability. There are spot efforts that show good things happening. Like everything in Arlington, each school does its own thing. Without a consistent approach we have no idea whether these iPads are a learning tool or just a distraction. There are so many initiatives going on that the teachers’ heads are spinning. To which one do they give the most attention? 

And now we are here, in semi-quarantine. Most kids have devices 3-12. Most kids have some kind of connectivity. But not all. The School Board, the former  Superintendent and IS are all patting themselves on the back for their foresightedness. 

Here is the short answer you wanted. I do not think iPads 1:1 are necessary in Elementary School. I think they are the wrong tool in Middle School. However, a laptop in High School is now an essential tool as we go forward, because I seriously doubt we will be face-to-face in the fall.

I am a certified online facilitator. (Note that in the online world, one is not a teacher, but a facilitator.) I certified through ETLO, a twelve week course, and a second certification through an art museum initiative originating in Oklahoma. I created and facilitated multiple NorthTier courses. I created and facilitated the teacher advancement online course for APS.

I say all that to make clear that we aren’t going to turn 2564 instructional staffers into effective course developers overnight while we pivot to distance learning. The APS budget ending June 30 has no money to provide stipends to teachers for summer development work – although many, many of our teachers will do so anyway. Closeout funds aren’t available until late summer when the County Board and the School Board divvy up the leftovers.

Here’s your other short answer: there is no optimal approach for distance learning. We have tools at our disposal to do distance learning in APS:  Microsoft Teams and Canvas, Google Classroom, all of which can be utilized for synchronistic opportunities. However some high school students are reporting that asynchronous is working to help them balance their workload. 

We also have students with little or no parental involvement for myriad reasons. We have disaffected students who don’t understand what is going on in this new world of ours, and are not attending to the work that is being given. This is crossing socio-economic lines.  We saw high rates of depression in our students prior to the COVID crisis – nothing has changed that. We have special needs students whose ability to focus, to use, and interact with technology will be challenging. These multiple domains – personality, home support, technology aptitude, academic readiness will impact the learner outcomes. If you think about a single course for a 6th grade class, social studies for instance, each child will have a different experience resulting in different learning outcomes.  

So bring it on. Asynchronous, Synchronous. Each approach will help some and not the other. We need the County Board to ensure that internet access is available to all members in our community. Currently, some families are being denied access because of payment histories or identification issues. The County Board needs to remedy this. APS cannot influence this directly.

Stand by a fire, you get warm. But standing by some piece of technology won’t make you smarter. These are tools --- we must know what they do and how they can help. Application of technology is not the same across the grade levels or curriculum. Whatever strategy we take, we must insist on an implementation plan and an assessment plan. If we can’t define and measure success, then we shouldn’t be investing. This is both smart instructional and fiscal policy.