Digital Citizenship: From Compliance to Culture

  • This article originally appeared in THE Journal. Republished with permission.
  • By Jeff Mao 
  • 10/26/17

My oldest son just started his senior year in high school. The night before his last “first day,” I was looking for the annual photo of the occasion from his kindergarten year. I scrolled back through my Facebook posts only to discover — face-palm moment — I didn’t use Facebook 13 years ago. I also I didn’t have a cell phone with a camera then either. How quickly the world is changing around us, especially the technology and its use.

According to a 2015 study from the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of teens are online daily, and 24 percent of them describe their use as “almost constantly.” In a Common Sense study, teens also report spending nine hours a day (with tweens ages 8–12 reporting six hours a day) using media and the internet — not including time spent on school work. Looking deeper at the data, we find that TV is still the dominant medium, with 58 percent of teens reporting daily viewing.

So, we know that traditional and internet media are central to the lives of our kids. Does it matter? The simple answer is yes. TV viewing can shape how children develop their sense of self. Research suggests that TV viewing can teach girls that their bodies exist to be sexualized and even that women are partially responsible for their own sexual assaults.

Additionally, kids report that they struggle to discern fact from fiction online when presented with “news.” While kids say they prefer to get their news from social media, they also reveal that they trust and get most of their news from parents, teachers and other adults. Unfortunately, according to Pew Research, the majority of adults are getting their news from social media — and mostly from a single social media site. That can be problematic, as one analysis showedthat leading into the 2016 presidential election, engagement with fake news stories outpaced real news stories on Facebook. So, are the adults actually helping kids discern fact from fiction?

While this may appear to paint a bleak picture, I see it as a call to action! As educators, our role is to help students learn to be safe, responsible and thoughtful digital citizens. Some may argue that digital citizenship instruction isn’t a priority for schools or districts without 1-to-1 computing programs. Others may acknowledge the need for digital citizenship instruction but provide only compliance-level lip service with a single school assembly or require signatures on an unread Acceptable Use Policy. However, as I’ve outlined above, our students are watching TV and interacting online daily, and it is having an impact.

It’s critical that schools recognize the importance of teaching digital citizenship and building a healthy school culture that includes responsible and thoughtful use of media and the internet among students and adults. Building a community’s culture takes more than providing instruction; it takes a systematic intentional approach that engages the entire community of students, educators and parents.

Planning and Implementing a District Digital Citizenship Program

The first step to a successful program is establishing a shared vision for digital citizenship in your school community. It’s important that this vision is understood and shared because the end result of the work is a community that absorbs and exhibits shared norms of behavior. While there are academic curricula available to aid with student instruction, this is less about completing lessons and scoring well on assessments and more about developing habits of mind and behaviors.

Once you have a shared understanding of your district’s vision for digital citizenship, the next steps, while not necessarily easy, are generally straightforward: 

  1. Select the resources and curricula you will use to support student instruction;
  2. Determine who will provide instruction and when, and then teach your students;
  3. Provide staff professional development to both support student instruction as well as to develop universal understanding of the issues; 
  4. Engage and support your families; and 
  5. Celebrate your successes.

How districts complete these steps, including all of the planning and coordination, will vary district by district. Here are three examples from districts in California that took similar but different paths.

District: Capistrano Unified School District
District Lead: John Morgan, Director of Educational Technology

With 58 schools and over 2,000 teachers, Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) modified its digital citizenship program four years ago. At that time, the district began a large-scale 1-to-1 student computing program, which served as the catalyst to make a more unified and consistent digital citizenship program.

They started with a simple goal of providing a K-12 instructional program for digital citizenship. John Morgan, director of educational technology, along with the education technology department, gathered a group of 70 teachers representing different grades and content areas to curate and select instructional resources. This group selected Common Sense Education’s curriculum. In CUSD, all K-5 teachers teach a digital citizenship lesson, while in grades 6-8, math, social science and English language arts teachers provide the digital citizenship instruction. At the high school level, along with the science teachers, the district’s college and career planning teachers provide a significant amount of instruction. You can see which lessons CUSD selected at each grade level on their website.

What’s most innovative about CUSD’s program is how they’ve engineered the coordination of the instruction. Using a Google Form, teachers can very simply log when they have completed a lesson. It took Morgan some virtual elbow grease, but Morgan was able to construct spreadsheets that used the data collected through the form to generate reports so that principals can see a simple dashboard of which teachers have completed which lessons, and when. Further, the spreadsheets create simple bar charts to display lessons completed by school. These data displays allow both district and school leaders to monitor progress, and the data can also be used later for record keeping for CIPA/E-rate compliance. Additionally, CUSD’s plans were developed around the Common Sense Education District Recognition program requirements, so Morgan can easily use this data to submit his district, school and educator recognition applications. CUSD’s teachers and schools earned Common Sense Recognition last school year, as did the district.

The automated tracking system makes the management easy for a district of 64 schools. As Morgan noted to me, “It’s not hard. We did a lot of work on the front end to make it digital, so that it would be easy on the back end.”

District: Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District
District Lead: Tim Goree, Executive Director of Administrative Services and Community Engagement

Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District (FSUSD), like so many other districts, has been working hard to improve broadband capacity and internet access for teachers and students. With 31 schools and over 21,000 students, they blocked students from using YouTube and other streaming video platforms mostly due to bandwidth constraints. Leading into 2015, Tim Goree, executive director of administrative services and community engagement, had the bandwidth ready, so they could open up some of the blocked content. However, he recognized that both educators and students would need more support with the potential digital distraction that pervasive access could bring. The district already had a baseline digital citizenship program in place to maintain CIPA compliance, but Goree recognized that this wasn’t going to be enough.

Goree and his team developed a Digital Citizenship Checklist that includes tasks that a school needs to complete annually, including a digital citizenship instructional scope and sequencethat has “Must Do,” “Should Do” and “Can Do” lessons for each grade level. Schools that complete the “Must Do” lessons along with the rest of the checklist maintain CIPA compliance. However, most of FSUSD’s schools complete lessons outlined in the Should Do category and earn not only Common Sense School Recognition, but also access YouTube and other streaming services.

Goree’s IT team worked with developers to create a method that allows them a simple way to easily set different levels of internet content access for students and staff. At the heart of it is an automatic account provisioning system that Goree describes in this FSUSD document. Goree further explained to me that his real goal is to help connect what happens in school to what his students encounter outside of school. He poses a good question, “If what we do in school doesn’t connect to what happens outside of school, then why would we do it?” Goree recognizes the need for schools to prepare students for their lives outside of the school, which includes social media and unfettered access to the internet.

District: Corona-Norco Unified School District
District Lead: Luis Carillo, TSA Ed Tech

Corona-Norco Unified School District is the nation’s leading issuer of digital badges. Its over 50,000 students and nearly 2,000 teachers earn digital badges to document their learning — a true expression of life-long learning. In 2015, the district began to build a culture of positive digital citizenship on the heels of increasing use of education technology in the classroom. Luis Carillo, a teacher on special assignment for education technology, explained that the district was very focused on making sure that digital citizenship wasn’t going to be a “one and done” but instead “a cultural change.”

A committee that included teachers, administrators and parents explored resources and discussed goals for creating a culture of digital citizenship. They adopted Common Sense’s Digital Citizenship Curriculum, and then the district took the time to create easy-to-use versions of the lessons in their online learning management system. Carillo noted that some teachers teach the lessons using the paper versions, but they wanted to ensure that if a teacher wants to leverage digital tools that they remove as many barriers as possible to doing so. This provides teachers choice and flexibility. Teachers provide three digital citizenship lessons for their students each year.

When students complete the lessons and successfully demonstrate their learning via an electronic assessment, Corona-Norco issues digital badges or micro-credentials. Corona-Norco has automated data exchange to facilitate issuing the badges as well as progress monitoring so that the district can ensure all students complete lessons and demonstrate their learning. To date, the district has issued over 1 million badges to students for digital citizenship. Teacher badges related to digital citizenship are in the works now, and the district hopes to have them available by the 2018-2019 school year.

Digital badges as a method for documenting and celebrating learning in the Corona-Norco schools is normal to its students and community. It’s simply how things are done — it’s their culture, and digital citizenship is simply a part of it.

Culture Building

It’s often said that culture is the extension of leadership. These districts are just a few examples of how district leadership with a shared vision planned and organized digital citizenship instruction for students, professional learning for teachers and outreach to parents. I encourage all districts to consider how to ensure that digital citizenship for its entire community is part of its cultural norms. Digital tools and media have tremendous influence on how we interact with each other, and it has the power to shape what we think about ourselves and the world around us. Ensuring that we control how we leverage that influence and power versus being influenced by it is, I believe, one of the greatest challenges we face today as a global society. We will not overcome this challenge by simply complying with regulations, but only by creating a culture that openly examines the issues and empowers our kids and ourselves to be safe, responsible, and thoughtful users of technology.

Evaluating the Success of Your Ed Tech Program

  • This article originally appeared in THE Journal. Republished with permission.
  • By Jeff Mao 
  • 07/12/17

I’ve been a part of the education technology crowd for a long time now. My first teaching job was with Brewster Academy, a small boarding school in New Hampshire. In the fall of 1993, Brewster launched its first 1-to-1 laptop program with its ninth-grade students. We had no internet. The laptop batteries lasted fewer than two hours if you were lucky, and our software tools were mostly limited to a productivity suite.

Despite the limitations of the technology back then, I learned a lot from my time at Brewster Academy. One of the things that we did well, that I still recommend to schools today, is to be targeted and intentional about how you use the technology. At Brewster, we measured success one skill at a time and one student at a time.

A decade later, I joined the team at the Maine Department of Education that led the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) — a much larger initiative. Whereas Brewster’s total student body was fewer than 350 students, MLTI served about 35,000 students in more than 230 schools. 

How did we measure success? At the state-level, we looked at metrics different from the ones at Brewster. We looked at data points that we believed were indicators of positive movement forward, such as the percentage of teachers who engaged kids with the technology in either instruction or a learning activity, who used the technology to conduct research for lesson plans, or who used the technology to aid with assessing student progress. Looking at this data, we saw positive indicators of success.

However, the question remained: Were student performance and learning improving? This question is hard to answer from the state-level and what I’ve learned over the years is to return to what I found at Brewster. Schools need to be targeted and intentional with their use of technology, as well as mindful of student growth at the individual skill level.

Technology’s Impact in One Classroom

In 2009, MLTI published a research brief about a single science teacher in a small coastal town. Kevin Crafts taught eighth-grade science at the Bristol Consolidated School (where he continues today). Working with our researchers from the University of Southern Maine (USM), we examined student learning on a tricky science concept: the axis angle of the Earth and its impact. Crafts had two sections of eighth-grade science, and he taught the concept to the classes. He used the MLTI laptops with one group to create animated podcasts while the other group completed a more traditional poster assignment to demonstrate what they’d learned. 

All students completed pre- and post-assessments, as well as a retention assessment about a month later to compare growth and learning between the groups over time. The results showed that the group that used the technology to create animated podcasts outperformed their peers and a month later they showed very good retention of the concepts as compared to the other group.

Reading through the research brief, you find other interesting details the researchers captured through their observations. They also conducted interviews that uncovered more insight into why the podcast assignment led to better student learning. I know that almost all schools and teachers will not be able to go into this much depth and, in particular, may only be able to conclude anecdotal and intuitive understanding of the “why.” But with some preparation and planning, teachers can measure whether one method or another works better. Kevin Crafts no longer assigns the poster project and that’s really what matters. He’s found a better way.

How to Begin Your Ed Tech Evaluation

While it may seem daunting to a classroom teacher to replicate the work that Crafts and the USM researchers performed, there is a tool that could help you. The United States Department of Education commissioned the creation of an online tool — the Ed Tech RCE Coach — that not only helps you identify what you’re really trying to measure but also will help you crunch the data and analyze it.

Using the Ed Tech RCE Coach requires some work and planning and I don’t believe it’s necessary for each and every lesson that you teach. However, if you’re considering adopting a new technology tool for your district, school, or classroom or a significant change in how you teach a skill or concept, taking the extra time to leverage the tool can help you better gauge if you’re moving in the right direction.

Regardless of whether or not you use the tool, these three simple steps embedded in it can be terrific as guideposts for your teaching:

  1. Identify your desired outcome; 
  2. Identify what success looks like; and
  3. Identify the tools and pedagogical approach that you’re using. 

By following these simple steps, even without instituting a pre- and post-assessment or control and intervention groups, you can begin to better understand success. With these in place, you can make more direct comparisons between group performance and growth. Lacking these, you can compare this year’s students to last year’s students. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a start.

3 Reasons to Think Twice Before Implementing a Required BYOD Program

Jeff Mao, who helped lead the nation’s first statewide 1-to-1 learning program, reflects on supplemental “bring your own device” (BYOD) programs vs. required BYOD programs.

  • This article originally appeared in THE Journal. Republished with permission.
  • By Jeff Mao 
  • 05/09/17

Across the country, school districts are seeking solutions to increase students’ access to computing technologies. In many cases, they are choosing to implement 1-to-1 programs, wherein every student has a personal computing device for learning. When determining the best solution, the term “bring your own device,” or BYOD, frequently enters the conversation. Schools that implement BYOD programs will choose one or both of two approaches: required BYOD and supplemental BYOD. While supplemental BYOD is a common-sense way to broaden students’ and teachers’ classroom resources, required BYOD is a problematic choice that will challenge a school district’s staff and the community as a whole. 

What Is Supplemental BYOD?

Supplemental BYOD takes advantage of the personal digital devices students already have as a way to supplement learning. When implemented, these programs have policies to provide clarity to students about how and when they can use their devices, how to connect to the school’s WiFi, their responsibilities, and the expectations of responsible use. Assignments and learning activities are not designed around the devices; rather, students are allowed to find ways their devices can aid them with their learning.

A supplemental BYOD program just makes sense. If a school has invested to build a WiFi infrastructure, shouldn’t we make it as easy as possible for students and teachers to leverage it for learning? Take the time to develop the policies, practices, and expectations of appropriate and responsible use for a supplemental BYOD program and allow students to leverage the computing power of their smartphones, tablets or other devices for learning. It may take a couple years to develop these policies and build the culture necessary to support it, but the sooner you start, the sooner you arrive. If you think this is too hard, consider that New York City schools began this process in March of 2015. And if the nation’s largest district can do it, any district can.

What Is Required BYOD?

Required BYOD anticipates that students may have personal digital devices and integrates them into the teaching and learning environment. The program requires that students bring a personally owned device to school to fully participate. Most of these programs anticipate that some students won’t be able to purchase a device. Typically, they include a budget for purchasing devices for students who can’t. Usually they use eligibility for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program as a proxy for a student’s eligibility to receive a district-owned device.

The supporters of required BYOD programs will tell you that it relieves the district from bearing the cost of the equipment. Additionally, the supporters will tell you that most of the kids already have devices and that to ignore those devices would be a waste of available resources. When challenged about the family that cannot afford to purchase a required device, they will tell you that the district has set aside funds to purchase a device for that family.

Unfortunately, implementing a required BYOD program as a way to increase students’ access to computing power is actually going to cause more problems than it solves. Here are my three primary arguments against required BYOD as a school- or district-wide solution.

The Cost of Required BYOD

Let’s start with the argument that a required BYOD program saves money. A simplistic look at the district budget will show that it is indeed a savings. If you compare the cost of devices for a district that purchased a device for every student to a district that purchased a device for none (or a small percentage) of its students, of course, the former will show a higher expense.

While the math works out to show a savings, it lacks a systems-thinking approach. Rather than fixating on the district budget, let’s consider the community’s total budget. When a district places the responsibility of purchasing devices on families, it gives up the discounts available to districts (educational discounts and potentially volume discounts) on device purchases. A required BYOD program is more expensive for the community as a whole since more dollars leave the community to pay for equipment.

Additionally, you are now essentially double-taxing part of your community: those families with students who do not qualify for the district’s assistance. School systems have enough of a challenge communicating the value of public education to the community (in which voters with no students outnumber voters with students), let alone potentially disaffecting a large portion of your direct constituents.

Device Capabilities and Technical Management

When considered from a teaching and learning perspective, BYOD becomes even murkier. The introduction of personal digital devices into classrooms is not simple. We have all seen years and years of efforts by many to effectively integrate technology into the learning process with varying degrees of success. While there is no one simple and straightforward strategy for success, consistency, ease of use, supportability and equitable access all are factors that contribute to success. The introduction of varying technologies with varying functional capacities only complicates the challenge for teachers and students alike.

In addition, a lack of technical management capacity and consistency across student devices will likely bring an already busy IT staff to its knees. Supporting a high-access computing environment is already challenging for school IT departments that are generally understaffed to begin with. Adding a multitude of devices that are not in the direct control of the IT department exacerbates the problem. With the addition of online assessments in many states, this variability and lack of management capacity will challenge even the best-staffed and -skilled IT departments.

Legal Concerns

Finally, there is a simple question of legality. Public education is defined by each state, but one theme is consistent: Public education is supposed to be free and universal. In the 1984 case Hartzell v. Connell, the California Supreme Court addressed the concept of “pay to play” when one school system implemented fees for participation in band and drama. The courts were clear that this violated the law and the spirit of free and universal public education. This was clarified in 2012, when California legislators further defined and clarified what the 1984 ruling meant by “fees” that were considered the problem:

(b) “Pupil fee” means a fee, deposit, or other charge imposed on pupils, or a pupil’s parents or guardians …

The law also stipulates that public school students “shall not be charged fees for participation in educational activities including cost[s] related to supplies, materials, and equipment.” Finally, the law states that “[a] fee waiver policy shall not make a pupil fee permissible.” In other words, a school that intends to provide a district-purchased device for certain families does not justify nor make legal the fee to the other students.

Additionally, I would point out what I see most commonly in schools with required BYOD programs — that students who qualify for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program are the students who are provided the district-purchased devices. This, in my opinion, is a clear and egregious violation of student privacy. By providing the school-purchased device, the district has effectively labeled every student who qualifies for free and reduced lunch by assigning a specific device that most assuredly has conspicuous labels identifying it as a district-owned device.

Think Outside the Box and Find a Better Solution

The devices are the boxes, and we need to look outside those boxes — look more deeply at where students need support, seek to understand which changes in instructional practices and student activities are most effective, and spend less time thinking about the actual devices. Start by implementing a supplemental BYOD program; it can help provide a greater hands-on opportunity for your educators and students to experiment with leveraging technologies in the classroom. Doing so also will require you to develop the necessary policies, habits of mind, and culture that support appropriate and intentional use of technology. With a more concrete plan of how the technology will enhance and change instruction and learning, you are in a much better position to determine the costs and direction of a district-funded program.

Since costs are often one of the driving factors that bring BYOD to the table, I would also suggest considering:

  1. how open educational resources (OERs) can be leveraged and potentially allow the district to reallocate funds toward devices and teacher professional development;
  2. in a world where all your students have devices, what can go? (Will you need as many labs, classroom/library workstations, or interactive white boards?);
  3. and how you could change your use of time in ways that could save you expense and ease logistics.

Required BYOD is not a solution, and its introduction is likely to create more challenges than its supporters claim it will solve. The community will not save money, the teachers will have a harder time integrating the technology, and the IT department will be significantly challenged to provide adequate support. Policies related to online assessment and management are far more complicated, and the legal issues with required BYOD will only distract the school administration and the community from the core mission: learning.

It’s About the Learning, Not the Technology – Until it Breaks

Providing technical support for a large fleet of devices that travel between school and home is no simple task. Jeff Mao, who helped lead the nation’s first statewide 1-to-1 learning program, discusses the importance of updating support models and other ways to stay dynamic and prepared.

  • This article originally appeared in THE Journal. Republished with permission.
  • By Jeff Mao 
  • 11/10/16

Managing and supporting technology is a lot like managing and caring for people. When people get sick, for example, a doctor can see symptoms but only extrapolate from those symptoms the cause. Technology is much the same. We can’t always say why things won’t work, but we know the symptoms. We can troubleshoot (poke, prod, run some tests, even ask our computers questions out loud) to try to extrapolate the cause, but usually we treat the symptoms. 

So, how do we deal with the challenge of managing the “health” of our school or district’s technology? We often attempt to control as many variables as we can to reduce the likelihood of encountering problems. But is this the wisest approach? We could lock up kids in hermetically sealed, sterile, and padded environments to ensure they grow up safe and healthy. But I think most of us would agree this won’t lead to a child growing up to be a happy and healthy adult. 

Also, it takes time, energy and money to provide such an environment. Sometimes, we focus too strongly on our efforts to provide a stable, secure and safe computing platform and lose sight of our primary goal: providing a computing platform to enrich, empower and facilitate teaching and learning.

As technologies have evolved and improved, it is critical that technology support models also evolve. For example, in a traditional 1-to-1 computing program, a common baseline position for a deployment is that individual users can’t install new software or update existing software. One of the root rationales is that doing so makes it too easy for the user to render the computer inoperable and compromise the system’s stability. While this remains true in some instances, modern mobile platforms increasingly have core operating systems that isolate individual applications from each other, thereby reducing or eliminating the software conflicts that were so common on earlier platforms. 

Additionally, we are seeing mobile and cloud-based platforms that reduce the strain on data storage and backup. Data is automatically written to servers that are physically locked away in a protected network operations center and is in the hands of very skilled and well-staffed companies. It also is typically offered to schools at no cost. So with that in mind, does the device and who controls it really matter anymore? 

Yes, it matters. There are other concerns, like privacy, and how we manage those concerns can change.

For instance, in my previous role, I oversaw Maine’s statewide 1-to-1 program. We worked with our vendor partner to create a singular safe and secure software configuration for the program. Users could not alter primary system configurations or software, and that provided us with a stable, consistent platform for the entire state. 

This afforded us many advantages, but with it also came challenges. Operating system updates were impossible to do midyear. It took months and a multitude of staff hours to develop the master software configuration to ensure stability. Application versions had to be locked down months prior to the school year. 

In 2013, for the 11th year of the program, we introduced a new fleet of devices that included a mobile device management (MDM) solution. For the first time, we were able to empower every student and teacher to be the administrative user of their own devices. That fall, new versions of the operating system were released. In the past, we couldn’t install those updates – nor updated software that required the update – until the following school year. With all users as administrators, the overwhelming majority of the approximately 80,000 laptops and tablets were upgraded by their individual users within a couple weeks. Techs who initially feared the loss of control realized they would no longer need to spend days, if not weeks, of their summers installing new software on each individual device. 

Providing a technology platform that enriches, empowers and facilitates teaching and learning is not simple. There is no single answer. Focus on that goal, and try not to get overwhelmed by the tangible objectives necessary to achieve it. Ask questions and challenge assumptions, because the technology world is dynamic and always changing. How we manage and support the technology should be dynamic and always changing as well. 

Examine your device-management assumptions. Look at how these assumptions affect technical support routines and your time. Are your assumptions fundamentally the same as they were three, five, or seven years ago? If so, it’s time to make new ones. If you don’t routinely get home on time for dinner because you’re overwhelmed with work, stop and take a step back (and a critical look) at your device-management assumptions. You may discover that you can improve productivity by leveraging new MDM solutions and, at the same time, distribute some of the work and responsibility to the users.

For more information about how to balancing support and manageability, please see the webinar, “It’s About the Learning, not the Technology… Until it Breaks

Curriculum and Instruction: Brewing a Better Vocabulary

  • This article originally appeared in THE Journal. Republished with permission.
  • By Jeff Mao 
  • 09/21/16

One of the challenges of the education profession is the lack of a standardized professional vocabulary. Doctors, lawyers, car mechanics, barbers and IT workers have them — if I say “mullet,” “French braid” or “flat top,” I bet you have pictures in your head that are the same as the next person. However, get a room full of educators and ask them about digital learning, blended learning, hybrid learning, personalized learning or individualized learning, and you’ll likely end up with more definitions than people in the room.

This lack of a standard vocabulary is particularly noticeable, and particularly important, in the ongoing conversation about technology use. When and how is using technology in learning a good idea? If your district adopts a model that gives you a common vocabulary, that conversation is much easier.

There are a number of popular models to choose from: TPCKSAMR or TIM for example. I’d like to focus on SAMR because I like its simplicity and how easily it can be used to generate conversations and reflection among educators. 

There are many interpretations of SAMR, so let me add my thoughts, based on many conversations I’ve been fortunate enough to have with Dr. Ruben Puentedura, the creator of the model. If you are not familiar with SAMR, it describes four ways educators use technology for teaching and learning: (S)ubstitution, (A)ugmentation, (M)odification, and (R)edefinition.

There is a popular graphic that connects SAMR to coffee as a way to illustrate it. I’d like to provide my own coffee-based analogy and focus on the making of the coffee rather than the coffee itself. 

Substitution: Tech acts as a direct tool substitute, with no functional change

In the earliest days, coffee was made by boiling water and ground beans together. A simple strainer may have been used to reduce the number of grinds that made it to your cup. Sometime in the 1800s, Europeans began to develop a coffee pot with a built-in strainer that was pressed down to capture the grinds before serving. 

Today, we call this the device the French press, and I offer it as a substitution of the earliest ways to make coffee. It allows the hot water to steep with the grinds, and has a built in-strainer.

Augmentation: Tech acts as a direct tool substitute, with functional improvement

In 1865 the coffee percolator was invented and augmented the coffee brewing method. The percolator raises the coffee grinds above the hot water, allowing it bubble up and through the grinds and pre-straining them from the liquid.

Modification: Tech allows for significant task redesign

The problem with the percolator was that it tended to over-extract flavor from the grind. If the water was allowed to reach a full boil, overly bitter coffee resulted. Fortunately, in 1954 the automatic drip coffee maker was invented. This modification further redesigned the process by regulating the water at optimal temperature — boiling water was too hot. The drip coffee machine also made coffee-making a hands-free process.

Redefinition: Tech allows for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable

With the rise of coffee shop culture across the U.S., coffee drinkers increasingly seek personalization. The automatic drip machine in the faculty lounge was OK, but it made coffee in large quantities, and everyone knows that if the coffee has been sitting too long, oxidation occurs and again you are left with a bitter cup. The Keurig-style one cup brewing machines redefines the coffee making process. Coffee is brewed one cup at a time, and it allows you to individualize what type of coffee you want. The same machine can also make other hot drinks like tea and cocoa.

This examination of coffee making history should help you understand SAMR better. Note that it’s open for debate if the percolator was an augmentation or actually a modification, given that the grounds were no longer mixed in the water. It is this squishiness that is, in my opinion, the greatest value of SAMR. 

As we examine a practice that involves technology, SAMR calls upon us to compare the new method with what was previously done, allowing for different teachers to view these changes from their own perspective. It is evolutionary. In a few years, single-cup brewing will be so common that when a new invention comes along, people will compare it to the Keurig-style machine.

In fact, this type of debate is the most valuable aspect of this process. It isn’t important (or I would argue, even possible) to arrive at definitive classifications using the SAMR model when you have a group of educators, because perspective matters. The debate allows educators to challenge their thinking and offers the opportunity to reflect upon what others say. 

The SAMR model does not define one way as better than another (i.e. Modification is not necessarily better than Augmentation), but research and common sense will tell you that if you do not actually change a process through Modification or Redefinition, then expecting a different outcome is unreasonable.

The examination of teaching and learning practice is key to understanding how we can improve. As part of the Future Ready Schools Summits, we have facilitated conversations focused on how to use SAMR to challenge thinking and to examine practices. You can download the supporting packet we developed that includes a dozen scenarios designed to spur conversation and create cognitive dissonance. 

These scenarios should not be considered exemplars! In a group of your peers, read through a scenario, and then take a stand on where you think the new use of technology could be classified in the SAMR model. Compare your thoughts with the group, defend your position, and listen to each other. Then consider what you think is necessary to change or add to the practice in order for you to classify it differently (i.e. modification versus augmentation).

I hope that SAMR provides you and your peers a common vocabulary to structure and guide your discussions and explorations. I hope you will find that it aids you to better  understand when you are really changing a process. Because then and only then is the expectation of a different outcome reasonable.

The Art of Procurement: Balancing Price and Performance

  • This article originally appeared in THE Journal. Republished with permission.
  • By Jeff Mao 
  • 07/14/16

The learning environment is changing in our schools, and technology is playing a big role. How schools are acquiring their resources can be as affecting as the changes in instructional practices used by teachers. Better prices mean savings, and those dollars can be used to support a school’s other needs. But price isn’t the only factor to consider. 

Here are eight recommendations for school technology procurement:

1. Remember that purchasing and procurement are not the same.
Procurement is the process that leads to the acquisition of goods and services, which typically ends with purchasing — simply the exchange of money for those good and services. It’s important to focus on the procurement process first and not fixate on purchasing too soon. Doing so can sometimes make the purchase price too great a factor in decision-making.

2. Seek solutions, not equipment or software.
Understand the difference between commodity purchasing and solutions procurement. If you need 100 USB flash drives, one brand is probably as good as another, and a commodity purchase would be fine for almost any occasion. But procuring a literacy-intervention software suite or a device to support a 1-to-1 learning program can’t be easily distilled into a simple list of specifications. That is a solutions procurement, and you’re likely going to need to do a lot of research and potentially make a competitive bid.

3. Be descriptive, not prescriptive.
When issuing a request for proposal or information (an “RFP” or an “RFI”), use descriptive language to frame the challenge you’re attempting to solve. Use prescriptive language to establish the hard limits and requirements. Avoid setting minimum technical requirements when possible; instead, consider describing the successful outcome. 

For example, if you know you want students to be able to create and edit video, you know you want a device with enough storage capacity and processing power to store the content and manipulate it. While you may think you know how much storage space you need or how fast a processor your device should have, in today’s world of tablets, laptops, and Chromebooks, the ways in which these platforms solve for this task are very different. 

Instead, use descriptive language to explain the types of video creation and editing that you want students to be able to do, and allow the providers to propose a solution that meets the need you describe. Don’t solve the problem for the provider.

4. Language matters — a lot.
It’s important to use language that clearly lets bidders know what’s a requirement (e.g., “Provider must …”). But avoid ambitious language such as “Provider should….” Additionally, when describing the challenges you want your bidders to solve, include qualitative language and instruct them to be descriptive. Consider the difference between “The Bidder must include the capacity for student to ___ ” and “The Bidder must describe how it will provide the capacity for students to ___.”

In some instances, particularly for services such as repair or replacement of equipment, include quantitative language. It isn’t enough to ask for an easy process to get repairs completed. When time is critical, you will likely find that prescriptive language is better. For example, “The Bidder must describe how it will provide warranty repairs at no additional cost in no more than two school days. The process must be easy for school technicians to initiate and complete.”

Lacking qualitative and quantitative measures in your requirements may lead a bidder to respond, “We understand and will comply with this requirement” — a perfectly adequate response if you don’t ask for more.

5. Flexibility can allow for innovation.
Directing bidders to provide descriptions of their solutions and setting clear requirements is important. But it’s also important to include a way for bidders to propose innovative solutions that may not fit the expected description. When I issued RFPs for the state of Maine, part of our template included:

“If a Bidder cannot provide something as described in the Scope of Services section of this RFP, then that Bidder may propose something that is functionally equivalent, and provide an explanation of that equivalency. Functional equivalency will ultimately be determined by the Evaluation Team.”

This allowed a bidder to propose an out-of-the-box solution that didn’t strictly fit the requirements established, while clearly stating that the Evaluation Team maintained the final word on determining whether that solution was sufficient.

6. Data privacy trumps performance.
It’s critical that we consider data privacy. So much of the promise and potential of ed tech is the capacity to better understand what our learners know and need. With that knowledge comes great responsibility to ensure your solutions providers are good stewards of your learners’ data. 

Require that your providers disclose in plain language what they are and are not doing with student data. You can learn more about student data privacy and review in-depth privacy and security evalutaions at

7. Give structure to your price quotes to allow for easier comparison.
How you structure a pricing proposal and how you actually purchase can have a big impact on your overall procurement. If you don’t provide clear and explicit guidance to your bidders on how to provide you pricing information, comparing pricing between bids may be difficult. You want to ensure your price proposals allow you to do an apples-to-apples evaluation. If you intend to lease equipment, and you intend to buy the equipment at the end of the lease, then you need to know the lease buyout cost as well. Don’t forget the good work CoSN has done on Total Cost of Ownership.

8. Involve your users in the process.
Finally, gather information and feedback from the primary users of whatever it is you’re procuring — that usually means your teachers and your students. Without their input to help you determine the real needs, the day-to-day usage concerns, or the training and professional development needs for implementation, your RFP or RFI will be incomplete. It’s also advisable to include at least one teacher on your proposal evaluation team.

Procurement for the classroom has become increasingly complex because the solutions we seek for our learners are no longer limited to static finished products. Edtech solutions require the support of a multitude of departments in a school system. Take the time to involve your community in determining the needs. 

The crafting of procurement documents such as RFPs and RFIs are an opportunity to deeply consider how your teaching and institutional practices affect learners and teachers. They are also a way to express to the providers your best thinking on what’s needed to support learning. If no products or services fit your needs exactly, by issuing the RFP or RFI you let providers create and innovate to meet your needs. It establishes a dialog and a two-way street. In the long run, this is beneficial to all.

For more information about how to balance price and performance, please see the webinar, “The Art of Procurement: Balancing Price and Performance.”

Tough Tech Choices: Laptops, Tablets, Chromebooks, BYOD?

Practical Advice to Help You Find Your School’s Solution

  • This article originally appeared in THE Journal. Republished with permission.
  • By Jeff Mao 
  • 05/24/16

I began my education career right out of college in the fall of 1992. My first teaching job was at Brewster Academy, a small boarding school in central New Hampshire. That year, the school began planning efforts that led to one of the nation’s first 1-to-1 learning programs. Little did I know that, only a decade later, I’d be working in a small gray office cubicle in the Maine Department of Education, helping lead the nation’s first statewide 1-to-1 learning program: the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI). 

One of my responsibilities as Maine’s coordinator of education technology was buying the technology and associated services for the MLTI. To say that I’ve been responsible for buying a lot of computers (and tablets) is an understatement. It’s from this perspective that I share some thoughts about the selection and purchasing of students’ primary learning devices.

Choosing a Purchasing Model: BYOD vs. District-Purchased Devices
There are generally two purchasing models: The district pays, or families pay (bring your own device/BYOD). In some instances, I’ve seen a cost-sharing model. 

BYOD has its supporters and opponents. On page 72 of the 2016 National Education Technology Plan (NETP), the U.S. Department of Education shares some issues for districts to consider when looking at BYOD, including three key concerns: 

  1. Economic disparity
  2. Instructional burden, and 
  3. Privacy and security. 

Many BYOD programs have attempted to mitigate economic disparity by budgeting district funds to buy devices for families that qualify for free and reduced lunch. However, I argue that doing so can jeopardize student privacy and security. By using district funds to buy devices for these families, the district makes visible which students have means and which do not. Districts should seriously consider whether this practice violates student privacy.

Another option, a district-purchased device for all students, also has its challenges, but I believe those are outweighed by the benefits. Economically, a BYOD program means less spending by the district because spending has been shifted to the family. However, the district-purchased option can be less expensive overall to the community since districts qualify for educational discounts. Depending on the size of the district, competitive bidding and subsequent negotiations can be a significant cost saver to the community as well. 

A district-purchased program also tends to lead to a standardized device. I learned from the mission statement of my second school, the Allendale Columbia School in New York, that “structure should liberate, not confine.” While some in your community may want the personalization that BYOD affords, the device you select should be a proverbial Swiss Army Knife. Personalization shouldn’t focus on variations in design, color, brand or operating system so much as the capacity to shape how an individual interacts, creates and consumes media with the device. 

Defining the Education Goals of Your 1-to-1 Program
This leads to one of the most critical considerations: What do you envision students and teachers doing with the devices? If your conversations have been dominated by gigabytes, screen size, operating systems and cost, then you should ask yourself: “Am I choosing a device based on my education goals? Or are my goals being defined by my device?” If you believe that structure should liberate, not confine, then seek a solution that solves for your educational goals, not the other way around.

Use the SAMR model of technology integration developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura to help guide discussions about how the technology will be used — how it will change how teachers teach and students learn. You can use Common Sense Education’s quick video introduction to SAMRalong with videos and blog posts written by Dr. Puentedura; also, the MLTI iTunes U page hosts an excellent podcast series by Dr. Puentedura himself. An additional benefit to using this or another model is it will provide a common vocabulary for your school community to discuss technology use. Broad terms such as “integrating technology” are better defined, and, as a result, discussions can be more meaningful and useful.

With a model like SAMR in hand, you can define your educational vision and goals. This will help you better determine your device needs. As you go along, note who is involved. Including students and teachers is important. Remember: Your students outnumber the teachers by a large margin, and they’ll be the most common user of the device. Never assume what they want or what will be easy or hard for them, and don’t project your perspective on student-facing tools. Otherwise, you’re allowing what I like to call Adult Paradigm Paralysis Syndrome (APPS) to drive your thinking. Go ask a student. 

Additional Questions to Drive Your Planning
Finally, let’s get to the more nitty-gritty aspects. What about tablets versus laptops? Or a Chromebook versus a traditional computer? These are some questions to consider.

What age are the students? I mentioned the benefit of a standardized device, but in a real-world context, that may mean one standard for early elementary students, which differs from that for upper elementary, middle or high school students. Your students’ developmental needs are an important factor. 

Which devices do the teachers need? Whichever device you select for students you should also distribute to the teachers. That may mean teachers have two devices. Teachers’ needs are different from students’; institutional realities may mean compatibility and productivity needs that aren’t met by the student device. However, if the teacher doesn’t have a student device, how will she be able to fully understand the student experience? How can the teacher test that the resources she creates or curates are fully compatible on the student device?

What type of software is needed? The software you use is as critical as the device itself. Productivity software is still highly leveraged by students and teachers. Don’t ignore it, but also don’t fixate on it. Beyond the productivity suite are tools that facilitate communication, collaboration and creativity. Additionally, consider visualization, modeling, simulation and gaming. You may decide you don’t need all these tools, but it’s better to at least consider them than discover later that you need them.

How much storage space will we need? Increasingly, schools are leveraging rich digital content. Much of this content is accessible over the Internet but is often stored on the device itself. For storage of content and space for creativity, don’t skimp on storage capacity! Even when content is accessible online, remember that not all students will have ready access to high-quality broadband outside of school.

What can we afford? Delay looking at cost for as long as you can. Seek the solution that suits your needs, and then try to find a way to pay for it. If you quickly rule out options purely on cost, you’ll likely settle for a solution that doesn’t really meet your needs. I always prefer to justify the cost of a solution than to try to justify why students or teachers can’t do what you agree to be educationally sound and desirable. 

Though the cost of computing devices has fallen in recent years, you will still find that inexpensive devices can come with hidden or indirect costs. Those costs aren’t reason to avoid inexpensive devices, but you want to make sure you have accounted for the total cost of ownership (TCO) as best you can. What you may save in cost of the device may be spent on bandwidth. Or, more expensive devices may have a longer lifetime than less expensive alternatives.

For more on this topic, watch the webinar “Laptops, Tablets and Chromebooks? BYOD? Practical Advice to Help You Find Your School’s Solution

Is Your District Future Ready?

  • This article originally appeared in THE Journal. Republished with permission.
  • By Jeff Mao 
  • 04/19/16

In November of 2014, President Obama challenged district superintendents to sign the Future Ready Pledge. By signing it, they committed to working with teachers, families and community members to transition their districts to “personalized, digital learning.”

Since then, over 2,000 superintendents representing roughly three out of 10 students in America have signed. A coalition led by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the U.S. Department of Education and the LEAD Commission held 13 Future Ready regional summits across the nation to provide support for those districts and build a network of leaders. 

This led to the release of the newest National Education Technology Plan: Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education.The NETP outlines a path for all those involved in American education to “ensure equity of access to transformational learning experiences enabled by technology.”
Both the Future Ready Schools summits and the NETP offer rich guidance for districts actualizing or revisioning technology integration plans. The summits and the NETP also encourage school leaders to think deeply about the meaning of equity, the importance of agency in learning and their own leadership structures.   


The NETP no longer presents technology as simply a tool to enhance learning. Instead, it positions it as an equity solution. More importantly, digital equity isn’t defined as every student having access to technology but rather technology providing a multitude of means to both represent and express information. 

We know not all students benefit in the same way from any single representation of information. Students can also benefit when they’re empowered to express what they’ve learned in a medium that leverages their strengths. Rather than using a single representation style, learners can express themselves through a multitude of creative tools.
The NETP clearly takes a stand on bring your own device (BYOD) when that is the primary strategy for creating equity of access. It points out three important considerations: 

  1. Economic disparity: The plan warns schools that BYOD technology “is distributed disproportionately to students whose families can afford the devices” and that it “can widen the very gaps that technology is capable of closing.”
  2. Instructional burden: Challenges related to ease of use and compatibility may push “teachers to activities of the lowest common denominator that work on older and less robust devices at the expense of a more effective learning experience.” 
  3. Privacy and security: Are appropriate safeguards in place to protect personal data, and will the devices have the necessary security for use on valid digital assessments?
    The NETP also recognizes that high-quality educational opportunity relies on high-quality digital learning materials. One suggestion is for schools to take a look at openly licensed educational resources, also known as open educational resources (OER). 

Agency in Learning

Woven throughout the NETP is the notion of agency that “enables people to play a part in their self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal with changing times … [L]earners should have the opportunity to make meaningful choices about their learning, and they need practice at doing so effectively.” 

Giving learners (including teachers) more opportunities to demonstrate agency in learning also means providing them with the tools and support to do so safely and effectively. The NETP anticipates this by pointing out, “We need to guide the development of competencies to use technology in ways that are meaningful, productive, respectful, and safe,” and it recommends that schools aid learners in the development of digital citizenship. The NETP offers a range of valuable recommendations for digital citizenship resources, including Common Sense Education’s excellent Digital Citizenship Curriculum

The NETP also highlights “the importance of preparing teachers to teach effectively with technology and to select engaging and relevant digital learning content.” Teachers must also have opportunities to make choices and must be supported in making those choices. 


The inclusion of leadership is something new when comparing this latest version of the NETP to its predecessor. The entire third section, “Creating a Culture and Conditions for Innovation and Change,” focuses on the many underlying structures necessary to support effective uses of technology in schools, including infrastructure, personalized professional learning, implementation, and budgeting. All these and more are the outcomes of solid collaborative leadership that will lead to long-term sustainability. 

The NETP challenges school leaders to consider how we acquire and use our resources. Partnerships with local businesses, organizations, or local and county governments can lead to sharing costly infrastructure or expertise, as can leveraging the expertise of staff in different ways. For example, as the plan points out, “[S]ome [schools] are expanding the role of librarians to become evaluators and curators of learning technology resources.”

Lessons Learned: Future Ready Schools Summits

Leadership was the cornerstone of the Future Ready Schools summits held last year. From the more than 450 district leadership teams who participated, we learned that your school’s culture is the result of your school’s leadership. And without a positive, supportive culture, change and progress can be hard to find. 

Teachers are often challenged to try new things and change how they teach, and yet the culture around them disincentivizes and even discourages risk-taking and innovation. That does not support change and growth. Leadership must give permission to fail. It may sound counterintuitive, but without this permission, the chance of failure and its aftermath overshadow the potential for success. Future Ready leadership creates a culture of change and improvement. 

With a tight or diminishing budget, a Future Ready School leader doesn’t ask, “What should we cut first?” but instead “Where can we find the resources we need?” There are certainly many uncontrollable factors that contribute to culture, but at least you can control your leadership strategy. And never forget the adage, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”
A Future Ready School implements good bureaucracy, which has processes, checks and balances, and procedures that don’t unnecessarily impede outcomes. Also, the accountability it provides is both universally understood and produces data used for improvement. 

An examination of your procedures and processes can streamline a teacher’s work and may reveal unintended perceptions of trust and professionalism among staff. If teachers are asked their opinions on school procedures and processes, are they open and honest when responding? If not, that speaks volumes.

As you examine your bureaucracy, ask yourself, “Is this process Future Ready?” You can answer yes if you believe the process won’t require substantive alteration to be useful as new technologies and trends enter the work space. Time is a commodity for any organization, and losing it to unnecessary processes can be detrimental to your core mission. By establishing a Future Ready process, you not only help establish a culture that can change with the times, but you save yourself time later since you won’t have to rewrite the policy.

Get Involved

Leadership and how it manifests in your district and school policies are only the tip of the iceberg. What can you do to initiate these changes? First, read the National Education Technology Plan. Then, explore the Future Ready Schools website for resources from the Future Ready Coalition, including the new 5 Step Planning Process and the Hub, a place to find resources to support your school’s growth and progress. Encourage your superintendent to sign the Future Ready School Pledge and attend one of these summits with a team. Five additional Future Ready Schools summits were recently announced:

  • Austin, TX: July 18–19, 2016
  • Seattle, WA: TBD
  • Orlando, FL: June 2–3, 2016
  • Madison, WI: June 14–15, 2016
  • Boston, MA: November 14–15, 2016

Go to Future Ready Schools for more details.