4 Million Reasons to Go Digital

Monitoring results – and costs – might be important but how often are the questions about a program’s effectiveness really an excuse for avoiding change?

I’ve been blessed to help lead two separate 1:1 initiatives for school districts in Texas. During the formative days for those initiatives, I spent quite a lot of time meeting and talking with parents, school district staff, and peer school districts. Of course, we talked to students as well, but for now, the focus is on these adult stakeholders. After literally hundreds of public and private meetings, one consistent question stands out from the rest: “How will you measure the success of the initiative?”

It’s a great question. For anyone who has been involved in this type of initiative, I’m sure you can relate. Typically, that question gets answered in one of three ways: “We’ll raise test scores,” or a more nuanced, “We’ll measure it in multiple ways…” (and all of the measures are anecdotal, qualitative, or purely based on correlation), or a more bold, “You can’t measure it,” which might be nestled in a belief that it’s a moral imperative or something that is simply not optional.

I believe that all three of these answers miss the point. They are awkward responses to a question that at first glance seems glaringly simple. First of all, learning doesn’t happen in a laboratory environment where we can isolate the cause of rising/declining test scores to a single variable. Second, if the measurement shows only correlation or cherry-picked statistics, it will not hold up to any serious scrutiny. The third response comes closer because it implies an understanding that learning (or engagement) is a construct that is not really subject to measurement. If broken down into smaller components (attendance, memorization rates, test scores, etc.) we lose the overall identity of the thing we set out to measure in the first place.

From all of those conversations, I’ve learned that people aren’t really asking the question they appear to be asking. After fielding it many times in front of a gallery of hundreds of concerned parents, I began to wonder why they would be asking for proof of the effectiveness of this particular program when I hadn’t heard the same question about other learning investments that school districts propose- many of which are substantially more costly. Do we challenge the value of libraries, stadiums, or playgrounds in the same way?

As a lifelong technologist, this bothered me. At first, I thought it was fluke. Both districts are home to exceptionally bright people who are engineers and entrepreneurs. I thought people were bringing their professional skills to bear on the problem. I tried very hard to see it from their side. I heard, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” more times than I care to recall, but I also thought, “Here is a device (a computer) which has the singular capability of doing repetitive tasks faster and more accurately and which has a cost that continues to plunge to unprecedented lows, yet this is where the debate is centered? Questioning the wisdom of an investment in a device that is shown every day to revolutionize industries, transform governments, and (with the absolute measure of free market economics) be one of the single best investments a company can make -- really?”

Eventually, it dawned on me that the question was being posed because those asking it were putting up a smokescreen. Often, it was unconsciously, but I don’t recall many cases where it wasn’t posed as a way to avoid dealing with CHANGE. We have been proposing a transformation of school learning environments, and that creates a great deal of discomfort for people. It places an unfamiliar, new learning environment for their children in place of their own comfortable memories of childhood and then asks them to open up their wallets and purses to pay for it. In hindsight, I can’t think of many other decisions more emotionally loaded. Of course, people naturally avoid these types of situations and asking an impossible question gets them off the hook and makes them feel very wise, indeed. It’s all about FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. It turns out the same thing can exist in administrators and teachers and I even find it in myself from time to time. Change is hard. If your vision includes transformational changes in learning, you have to remember that other people who do not yet share that vision will need help dealing with FUD.

Armed with this understanding, those tricky conversations began to get a lot easier. In fact, I rarely even get the question any more. At the earliest point that I can, I turn the conversation around and ask the parent/teacher/administrator, “What do we want for our kids?” and then we look for the resources to build that future for them. Invariably, it requires access to digital resources and a personalized learning approach. For Clear Creek, the Dell Latitude and Venue tablet computers have been the ideal choice.

When I do get the question at Clear Creek ISD, I also have a great way to answer it and then to redirect the conversation. We just finished our purchases for Instructional Materials (textbooks, etc.), and we found something very easy to measure. Because we have tablet computers for every kid and because we worked our tails off to build a digital textbook portal for them that consolidates all of the wide-ranging publisher resources, we were able to shift the bulk of our purchases of textbooks to digital format. In doing that, we saved four million dollars. When I share this quantitative measure with others, I let it sink in for effect for a moment. Then I tell them even though that is wonderful, we need to talk more about the real purpose behind the initiative- student learning. That’s where the magic is.

Kevin Schwartz currently serves as the Chief Technology Officer for Clear Creek ISD, home of 40,000 students, NASA, and the Latitude 2 Learn 1:1 tablet computer initiative and he brings 20 years of experience in K-12. He is also Chair-elect of Texas of the Texas K-12 CTO Council and actively serves on the CoSN SEND and SmartIT committees. Kevin is a frequent presenter on a broad range of education technology topics and is a consultant to school districts that seek transformational changes in learning through technology.

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