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Nascent vision of technology: seeing it in action at SLA

March 10, 2011

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of spending the day visiting the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. If you aren’t familiar with it, SLA is the amazing public charter school that hosts Educon and is led by the visionary principal Chris Lehmann (be sure to check out his TEDxNYED presentation and TEDxPhilly Presentations and subscribe to his blog, Practical Theory.)

Would you believe that the entire IT department for a school serving 500 students and 25 faculty in a 1-1 environment could be staffed by 1 sysadmin/web developer and 1 tech integrator who is also a full time art teacher?

It sounds crazy, but that is the full extent of employees on the SLA payroll whose job titles have anything to do with technology.

Well, I’m leaving a bit out. There are two transformative ideas at play at SLA that make this minimal “official” staffing work, and they are the very embodiment of the park service vision of IT that I’ve been dreaming about.

Student Tech Support

I’ve often heard people talk about how kids can just fix computer troubles, and for the most part, I don’t buy it. Digital natives don’t exist. But that doesn’t mean you can’t create them, and that’s just what SLA is doing. The sysadmin/web developer has started a program called MOUSE, which teaches students to repair computers and gives them a sophisticated understanding of software, hardware and programming. Students can participate in MOUSE by taking an elective course, or simply hanging out in the tech lab after school. The 40 students who participate in MOUSE make up the front line team responsible for keeping SLA’s impressive technology team running. The tech lab has earned certification by Apple as an official repair shop, so that they can order parts directly from Apple and make almost all repairs in house. Students who participate in MOUSE also receive training as apple repair technicians, and can pay a small fee to take a test and become officially certified. Can you imagine how awesome it would be to graduate high school certified as as a apple repair technician, an almost instantly marketable skill that one could use to work at an Apple store or almost any other computer repair shop?

All this was impressive, but I was completely blown away when I met R, a senior who is currently one of the leaders of the Tech lab. R speaks with a maturity and wisdom far beyond his years. He explained to me how he recently spent the week writing a PHP based ticketing system to track repair requests. He described how he’s going to use it to improve the current system so that when someone brings in a laptop for repair, student technicians will enter status updates as the repair progresses, and those updates will be emailed to the owner, until the repair is marked compete and the owner gets a notice to pick up the machine. “It’s all about customer service,” is what R told me. Bear in mind that the description of service that R has laid out for me vastly exceed my experience with IT support in almost all of my 12 years of experience as a teacher. And here’s the even more amazing thing—when you bring a laptop in for repair, the tech lab gives you the option of doing the repair yourself, with the help of a student technician. Students actually teaching other students (and faculty) on how to make major repairs to their computers. Amazing.

Along the way I kept trying to ask R and the tech integrator how they’re able to work with faculty, who might be a bit more picky about who messes with their machine, or not really want a student telling them what to do. R told me about all the protocols MOUSE has in place to protect user privacy, but he also seemed to imply that it’s really a non issue—after interacting with R and seeing just how seriously he takes his job, and how he’s running an repair/training operation that would put most IT departments at schools to shame, I can see why.

So this seems to be the modern day A/V club. Bring students on board and train them to become the backbone of technology support in the school. It gives them an incredible education in how technology works, instantly marketable skills, and at the same time, it helps IT professionals in your school to form stronger connections with the student body, and empowers students to serve as teachers (even to the teachers). This gives some of the people who know the classroom the best (students) the expertise, tools and respect they need to help improve learning with technology that just works.

Leveraging the talents of the whole faculty

Later, I got a chance to sit down with the principal and ask him for a bit more background on how he established the technology vision of the school. In particular, I was curious as to how he was able to bring what seems like the whole faculty on board in really embracing technology to improve instruction to nearly the greatest extent possible, and to do it with what seems like so little formal training.

Chris sort of stopped me right there and told me that when you concentrate the knowledge in the hands of one person, bad things tend to happen. This is such an excellent point, and although he was speaking about technology, I could tell that this is a metaphor that could easily extend to the classroom. If we make the assumption that IT, or the tech facilitator are the only people who “know” technology, then we instantly infantilize our faculty, and make them feel that they can only progress with the hand holding of IT. This creates tremendous problems, as invariably there won’t be enough IT staff or tech integrators to work one-on-one with everyone who seeks help, to say nothing of the potential for the IT department having a flawed vision of what teachers should be doing with technology.

So Chris’s solution is that in their small, close knit faculty, which congregates a common office right outside the principal’s office, every teacher knows the strengths of every other teacher. Teacher B is the best person for advice about how to make awesome presentations in Keynote, wile Teacher C is the person you go to to learn more about blogging, and teacher D is a wizard with Excel. And because of this, learning is democratized—every teacher has some strength, and every teacher knows many people that he or she can turn to in order to learn new things. And the tech integrator gets to focus on bigger picture things, as well as strategic just in time help to move everyone forward.

How easy would it be to implement something like this at a school with a larger faculty? Could it be as easy as putting together a google doc and asking faculty to list what applications they’d be willing to serve as lead learners on? I think it might be.

Later in the day, when I was observing a physics class, a senior, M came up and introduced herself to me as the class TA. She told me about how much she enjoyed physics last year, and how this year, she decided to use her lunch period to be a TA. She comes to every class, does the homework and works out the lesson in advance and then serves as a second facilitator in the room, helping students on projects, offering suggestions for how to solve problems, etc. She was super enthusiastic, and getting ready to basically run the class on her own on the next two days when her teacher would be away at NSTA and the students would be working on a project to analyze video from a mock car crash, and she would be the primary person guiding the class with the assistance of a sub.

This encounter with M helped me to see just how much SLA’s technology vision meshes with its educational vision: Democratize learning by breaking down the walls between teacher and students. See everything (even a broken laptop) as a learning opportunity. Provide training and help just in time, with relevant and appropriate technology that will empower learning. Leverage the strengths of the entire school in learning—don’t concentrate technical knowledge and power in the hands of a single person or group.

Handeling problems

Of course, this technology Shangri-La has to have a few rough spots, right? What about kids who get so drawn into their computers and gaming that they can’t keep up with their classes? Aren’t teachers always having to shout “screens down” to keep kids on task? From the classes I saw, I’d say this is pretty much a non-issue. In physics, I watched as students used their laptops to plot data and then look up the masses of the colliding cars in their videos. Students were so accustomed to group work, that if someone got too far off task, often other students would encourage them to pull back in and focus on the task at hand. Rarely did the teacher have to do anything to guide students about the use of their computers (these were juniors and seniors). I asked M about this, and she said that some 9th graders really have problems with being distracted by their laptops, but they learn quickly and there’s lots of ways the school tries to intervene to help kids resist the endless temptations of distraction by technology and instead see the computer as a learning tool. At the most extreme, the tech shop students can set the computer to be restricted to simplefinder, which allows them access only to a few websites like Moodle, and software they need for work. But the default is to trust students and give them great power—all kids have full administrator rights on their machine. If they decide to rename their computer “badass105,” or bittorrent Simpsons episodes while at school that becomes a moment for conversation and teaching, rather than an instant swooping in of disciplinary action.

Here again you see the the guiding vision of education at SLA. Give every great freedom and power, but with that freedom and power comes responsibility.

Administrator access? Are you kidding? Who in their right mind would give kids administrator access to their machines? Think of all the harm they can do. I mentioned this to the tech integrator (who again already has a full time job as an art teacher) and she laughed. How much harm can they do really? Not much, and they need to learn how to use the computer, not be walled off from everything that might teach them something. And, by the way, they can re-image machines lightning quick when things go wrong. It takes less than one week in the summer to re-image all 500 machines.

Vision, not tools make it possible

Overall, I was deeply impressed by my visit, and it’s a shining example of what a 21st century school might look like. So what makes all this possible? I’m still not sure—SLA operates on a shoestring. They are beholden to the Philadelphia school system, whose central IT office locks down the internet and prevents access to youtube and a host of other very useful sites. Chris must find a way to raise $180,000 every year to pay for all the new computers. In a world of shrinking state education budgets, this is a monumental task. And yet it works, and it works so well that this school is known nationally as a leader, hosting dozens of visitors each week, and leading-edge Educon conference. Is SLA possible because Chris is a visionary, dynamic leader who leads an energetic, close-knit and highly motivated faculty committed to making a difference in students’ lives? I think so. It’s not about the tools, it’s about the vision and the people who work to make that vision possible. Use everything as a learning opportunity. Leverage the talents of the whole community. IT as a park service.

Finally, I want to give a huge thank you to Rosalind Echols, SLA’s terrific physics teacher, who did a wonderful job of scheduling our day to meet with so many people at her school.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2011 10:36 am

    That was the most inspiring thing I think I’ve ever read.

  2. March 10, 2011 4:52 pm

    What an incredible inspiration in ICT integration! It initially seemed like an impossible scenario, to have such a small IT department for their circumstances, but the way that they democratise the process and instill valuable skills in their students and faculty alike is mind-blowing. Thanks for sharing!

  3. March 11, 2011 3:19 pm

    SLA is a Public Magnet school. We pull students from just about every zip code. Students have to come to an interview and bring a project they did in or out of school. It can be kind of project, art, poetry, science and so on. We want to see how children present their learning from a project of their choice.

    Thank you John for spending time with us at SLA and for writing such a glowing reflection. We certainly are not a panacea, but we do want to help other schools find their niche with technology and pedagogy using our school as a “teaching hospital”.

    • Agnes Matheson permalink
      March 12, 2011 9:59 am

      The rest of us should start thinking about bringing some of your students in as consultants.

  4. March 14, 2011 11:48 am

    Amazing story! My first thoughts are how can this model be replicated? Is it even possible to make it work in a larger school? Or does it only work because of a visionary leader, a la Ron Clark, who cannot be easily reproduced? This is a true model of how tech can be integrated in the learning environment in a way that truly engages kids.

    • March 14, 2011 8:04 pm

      I think this is completely replicable. In this case, the key ingredient was the sysadmin/web developer who set out to build a strong connection with students and create the MOUSE program, and truly set up an vision of IT as a park service, as I’ve written about previously. Chris, the principal, is also obviously a key ingredient, but I think his primary role (as I saw it) was to set out a vision (which you can see on all of his TED appearances), and give his teachers the room and support to achieve it.

  5. March 17, 2011 1:05 am

    My school has a similar program. One faculty member and a student tech support team. They are the most amazing kids.

    I almost laughed out loud when I read that the team at SLA is called the MOUSE program, since our tech group also has a rodent-based name. They are called the MARMOT’s. (It’s an acronym)

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