Tech in HSE Schools: The Feedback Cycle

Technology is tough. Securing technology is even tougher, but when the technology is used by kids, it is important for technology to not only work, but to work in a way that eliminates unnecessary risks.

One of the biggest concerns about is use of technology in schools is around the potential for kids to be exposed to bad things. The other concern that is raised centers on putting expensive technology into the hands of little kids. One of the first questions I asked when the concept of having elementary kids in our schools use computers (iPads), was related to the idea of having 5 and 6 year olds responsible for getting a device to and from school.

Four years later, when the program was ready to roll out to the elementary schools, a new set of parents stepped up and asked the same questions. Fortunately, the school administration listened and made changes that didn’t require the younger kids to bring the devices back and forth to school.

Even looking beyond the youngest kids, technology is tough. It has problems. Most people are not tech-savvy experts that can address electronic issues. Additionally, if you give a kid something, then generally speaking, you can expect at some point it will be broken. That goes for computers such as iPads as well.

So when a school puts 21,000+ devices in place, it is safe to expect there will be issues. The question becomes, how can the issues be reduced or alleviated?

Communication and Open Standards

First is to open up communication so that you get the community helping to identify issues. In our community we have numerous people representing every facet of technology. Those people have insights that can help alleviate problems before they happen as well as insights that can help resolve issues in hours instead of months. The school system has to be ready to asking for help from the community early and often. This would prevent things such as the new projection system in the high school from sitting for well over a year without being used because the technology changed before it was even used. In fact, this is a case where the community had suggested open standards be used, but the decision was made to go with a proprietary solution. (Can we say, “We told you so”?)

As a result of community push-back, one of the efforts put forth by the school administration more recently was to set up Technology Committees to help provide feedback. These committees have started meeting and will continue to meet over the coming months. The initial meetings were less about technology and more focused on teaching methods, so the jury is still out on whether these will truly help open two way communication that will lead to technology improvements. I’m a member of one of these committees, so I’ll be sharing related thoughts in  future posts.

Understanding the Individual Issues

Additionally, it is critical that with that awareness, that there is an understanding of the individual issues happening to each student. If feedback isn’t collected, then how can you know what is truly happening? While many issues are seen within the schools, because technology is being brought home, many issues are not seen. As such, it is critical for the school system to do everything they can to make sure they are aware of what is happening beyond their own walls.

There is no automated means that I’m currently aware of within the school system to report issues that people have with their student computers or the schools technology. There is, however, an independent group that has created a means for collecting feedback. You can access the form for reporting a problem at the following link:

HSE Parents Voice iPad Issue Reporting Tool

This tool has not been available for very long, but it has already started collecting data. I recently talked with the group running the collection app about the data, and am glad to see that they’ve shared the initial results. You can review their initial findings at the following link:

Parents Voice iPad Findings Initial Report

This is just their early results. Because this has been in use at the beginning of the school year, it would be expected that the issues will be higher. The initial findings are indicating that issues and concerns are spread across a variety of areas, so it will be interesting to see what they learn over time. As kids and parents use the devices more, will issues go down or will they increase? Only time will tell.

In Summary

Technology is a tool to be used to help with teaching. Just like a pencil can have its lead broken, technology also breaks. Just like it is better to buy a standard pencil so you know you’ll be able to find a sharper that works, it is also good to use technology that follows standards. The way you reduce the issues is by understanding what issues have happened in the past. By collecting data and feedback, hopefully our schools will evolve the technology used to what is most practical and appropriate for the learning objectives. Until then, groups like HSE Parents Voice and many of the HSE parents (including myself) will keep providing the feedback to try to make it better.

Live Streaming the HSE School Board Meetings

One of the ways I find that I differ from the other candidates is that I haven’t waited to see if I get elected before trying to address issues that are important. I have been attending board meetings, asking questions, and pushing for change well before my name was filed to run for a school board position.

Simply put, the issues don’t wait for elections.

This year alone, HSE has had a referendum discussed, a roll-out of the iPads in the elementary schools, two bonds approved (totally around $15.5 million above and beyond the referendum and state money), issues with technology, changes to school policies and handbooks, continued loss of good teachers, and a multitude of other topics. In the case of the ten million dollar bond passed earlier this year, I was one of the few people to stand and ask a question about its purpose. Similarly, in this last school board meeting, I was the only candidate that was not an incumbent to raise a question about the spending. I’ve asked the administrators, school tech lead, and board members questions on other topics as well. These range from discussions on why open standard tech wasn’t used to why there was a push to eliminate paper magazine subscriptions in the elementary schools.

On topic I’ve questioned has come up a few times by other candidates. This is the topic of live streaming HSE School Board meetings.

In early July, I created a page on Facebook specifically for streaming the HSE school board meetings. While board meetings are “meetings in public”, out of consideration, I asked Dr. Bourff if I could live stream and record the meetings. I stated that I would take care of the recording, streaming, and any editing with the target media source being a live stream on a Facebook page. There would be no need for any effort by the school board or administration.

The idea of streaming the meetings is not a new one, and one that it was clear Dr. Bourff had already considered. As such, Dr. Bourff was able to provide insights toward the downside of streaming school board meetings.

By filming a meeting, there was a real concern that the level of discussion by members of the board could decrease. With a camera rolling, it would be clear that their questions and words were being caught on film. Statements that were made could be viewed differently than they intended. This could diminish discussions, and thus negatively impact results. For example, a board member might choose to avoid asking for clarification so they wouldn’t seem to lack knowledge on a topic. Because it is critical to keep the discussion free flowing among the board members, having to worry about a rolling camera could be a detriment. Having been to a large number of board meetings as an audience member, there have been a few meetings where the limited knowledge around technology was hard to watch. Had the board members been recorded, it truly could have not reflected the best on a couple of them.

Live streaming also has the potential to cause grandstanding by members of the community. While this sounds easy to control, I have facilitated a number of live online events as well as meet-ups. As such, I understand how grandstanding is actually a very serious concern.

The opposite of grandstanding is also an issue. A number of people have attended board meetings to present on topics that were sensitive, and yet very valid concerns. In a few of these cases, I do believe that the presenters might have avoided making their comments if they knew it was being recorded and streamed live.

There are other issues with streaming as well.

The reality is, school board meetings are held in public. As such, there is nothing that prevents a person from streaming the events now. Live streaming has become so simple that nearly anyone can do it with a smartphone and a Facebook account.

At this time, I have not pushed to stream the board meetings even though they are open to the public. There are two core reasons for this. First is to respect Dr. Bourff’s request to not cause the disruption in the board meetings. Second, and more importantly, not enough people have indicated they care or would watch a live stream. While streaming sounds like a great idea, when Dr. Bourff streamed an event earlier this year related to the referendum, the engagement was also extremely low. Having experience with live chats and streamed events online has often shown the same results.

While there are people that would watch the stream or an on-demand versions of the board meetings, the level of active interest just isn’t there to justify pushing against Dr. Bourff’s statements at this time. I’ve raised the topic, and over time will bring it forward again whether elected or not. I believe that recordings will eventually happen, but until there is real proactive demand by the community with a real commitment to view, I find that my own attention and time are better spent on topics such as spending, academics, and the well-being of our students.

Cats That Eat Elephants: SEO Ranking Promises

Yes, I just titled my blog post, “Cats That Eat Elephants.” What is scarier is that you are actually reading this post. That begs the question of “why?”

Not why are you reading this post, but why did I write a post with a title that seems to be talking about elephants that get eaten by cats. After all, this doesn’t seem like a technical topic, it isn’t political (that I know of), and it really just doesn’t fit with my other topics.

The answer is SEO.

SEO is Search Engine Optimization, which is a big topic for those involved with web development or putting content on sites. People who have built websites want them to be found in Google and the other search engines. The process of adjusting your site and its content to get better ranking in the search engines is called SEO. There are many companies that charge a lot of money to help you improve your site’s SEO rankings.

The goal is generally to have your content listed by the search engines in the top spot on the first page for a topic related to your site. If you can’t get to the top spot, then you want to be on the first page. Most people aren’t going to look past the first page of results when they search. One way to get to a top spot is to pay the search engines for placement. The other is to try to make sure your site follows as many SEO “rules” as they can.

SEO rules are not really rules, but rather guesses that people have made regarding what they believe the search engines are doing to determine what sites and content ranks above other content. In some cases the search engines will increase your ranking if you do certain things, and in other cases they might penalize you. For example, lots of ads on a page is bad, where as good content that really explains a topic is good.

The “rules” can change at any time, and often do. Search engines, such as Google, have algorithms that do the ranking. These algorithms are updated regularly to try to help the better content rise to the top. As such, some things you do today might not be good tomorrow.

Why do I mention cats that eat elephants?

I oversee a number of technical web sites including SEO questions are constantly being asked on the site. This includes questions around hiring SEO experts. My general response is that there are tools and sites that will provide you with the same information that an SEO expert can provide you. In general, most SEO information is available online or via web applications if you look or ask.

I get ads from SEO experts that promise first page ranking. If you hire them, they guarantee they will get you on the first page of search results. This alone sounds like a fantastic reason to hire an SEO company. Can they get you on the first page of search results?

As I mentioned, there are no guarantees for first page, but it can easy be done. For example, my intent is to get this blog post on the first page of search results. Hopefully I succeed, or what I’m writing now about elephants that cats eat will be just silly. Am I going to rank on the first page about hiring SEO experts (something that would be valuable)?  That is very unlikely. However, I bet I end up on the first page of results for searches about “cats that eat elephants”.

SEO Ranking Can Be Meaningless

SEO ranking can be meaningless if the search team is one that people don’t actually use. Obviously, my ranking on cats that eat elephants will be of no value. Similarly, phrases that a SEO company gets you ranked on will be worthless if people aren’t actually searching for them. As mentioned before, there are tools that will tell you if people are searching on a term – free tools. I can use these tools to learn that there are a lot of searches on “elephants”, there are a lot of searches on “cats”. If my intent is to rank on those two terms, then it is going to take more than my little blog to make it happen. It would be unrealistic (I won’t say impossible) to rank on those two individual words. An SEO company would be unlikely to agree to help me rank on the first page for those two words. They would, however, be able to suggest a phrase like “cats that eat elephants.” They could even help me get a first page, if not top ranking for the phrase.

Being Fair to SEO Experts

To be fair to SEO experts, they might still be worth hiring. While information is available online, an SEO expert with (real) experience can help you understand what is likely to truly impact your ranking. They can also help you find the right tools to tweak and hone your content and site for the best chance at ranking on real keywords. They can help you determine the chances of ranking as well. If they are aware of search algorithm changes, then they can also caution you on things to avoid. Like with any activity, an expert with real experience can provide guidance that justifies the cost. Of course, if you hire an SEO expert, make sure they aren’t simply packaging up reports form software packages and selling you the ‘prettified’ results.

In Conclusion

In short, be careful what people try to sell you. If promises are made, make sure you understand how they are going to be accomplished. If a coach promises that he’ll train you to be a runner that an have top 10 finishes, then make sure you are going to be in races with more than 10 people. Similarly, if an SEO expert promises you rankings, make sure those rankings are relevant and will actually drive traffic.

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Using Cool Tech to Teach in a Fun Way…

I just saw this video from Sphero and was impressed to see that the featured teacher is Brad Lowell from Hamilton Southeastern’s Fall Creak Intermediate school. It is impressive to see how Mr. Lowell has taken what was initially a shared interest with students and turned it not only into a club, but evolved it into classroom learning.

Rather than write numerous paragraphs on what Mr. Lowell is doing and the results, let me simply post a video here where he explains it himself. The video starts with one of the best quotes as to what makes a great teacher, “The trick is that your really disguising the learning in the fun. There is so much learning that they’re getting, that they don’t even realize. The math the science…” Rather than quoting the whole vidoe, here it is:

I actually own a Sphero myself. While it is a simplistic device in what it can do, it is a great device to entertain and challenge a person into working through basic concepts around programming and such. It is also a great way to get into robotics.

If you are unfamiliar, a Sphero is a plastic computerized ball that can be controlled remotely. You can control the direction of its movement including its speed as well as control the color of the light that is shining within it. Using Bluetooth, it can be controlled by a phone or tablet such as an iPad.

As you can see in the video, the HSE class is using iPads to do their controlling of the devices. As a note, all fifth graders in the Hamilton Southeastern schools have to have an iPad. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about Spheros. You can, however, find Spheros at places like Brookstone or on Amazon. There was also a special Star Wars BB-8 version of Sphero available.

As Mr. Lowell says, it is also a way to apply some of the core topics students are learning such as math.I’ll be curious to see how Hamilton Southeastern schools applies what Mr. Lowell has done to the other intermediate schools in their district. With my kids being in one of those other schools, I hope the information is shared and replicated!