More iSTEP Craziness: The Wired Keyboard Conundrum

At the December 14th Hamilton Southeastern (HSE) School Board meeting which covers Fishers, Indiana, the topic of technology was discussed a few times. One area covered was the replacement of the equipment in the HSE school computer labs. This included replacing all of the computers, which are extremely old. While replacing old computers sounds like a great idea, it should be noted that within the HSE, all students are going to be expected to have their own computing device. In most cases, the kid are going with an iPad since the standard for kids in kindergarten through eight is an iPad 2 or higher.

The question I raised at the school board meeting was simply, why does the school system need to invest upwards of a million dollars to replace computers in a lab when every student already has a computer they are required to bring to school every day.

The responses to this question included some silly statements (in my opinion). The odd responses included “for students to be able to learn to use Windows”, “for students to learn keyboarding”, or “so students can print”. These all point to issues with having chosen the iPad as the default school device. Rather than focusing on these, I’m going to focus on the comment that was the most interesting as it related once again to the topic of ISTEP standardized testing.

It was stated that a change might be coming that will require the ISTEP to be taken on a system with a keyboard that is wired to the computer system. When asked if Bluetooth keyboards would work, the response was that the keyboard would have to be wired. My assumption is that the requirement for wired keyboards centers on the security of Bluetooth, or more appropriately, the lack of strong security. The belief is that the computers in the labs would be the only place this is possible since iPads don’t have the ability to directly connect a keyboard . While this sounds like a valid justification for refurbishing the labs, there is a huge, obvious issue raised.

The ISTEP testing is very regulated. As such, it is taken within certain time frames so that cheating is less likely to occur. Even being regulated, due to the number of kids taking the test in a short period of time at a school, additional computers beyond what are in the computer lab are used. In many schools the devices kids’ devices are used. In many of the elementary school, the additional iPads are used to supplement the computer lab’s systems.

Because the computing devices in kindergarten through eight grade are iPads, there are no wired keyboards and thus, this new requirement would force the testing into the computer lab. What happens when you take an average elementary school with 4 to 5 classrooms for each of 5 grades (kindergarten through fourth) and try to take a computerized test when you have only one computer lab? In essence, this means one class taking the test at a time. With twenty to twenty-five classes, if you assume a short 2 hour test and a 7 hour school day, this means that a single test will take well over a week. We know the ISTEP is longer than 2 hours and that transitions between classes takes time. As such, the actual time needed in the lab quickly becomes an issue.

I’m not sure of the reason for requiring a hard-wired keyboard. If a physical keyboard is going to be needed to take the ISTEP, then the solution is not to try to run every class through a lab. A better solution would be to change the default device from a tablet with a phone-level operating system to a notebook or two-in-one type system that already includes a keyboard but gives the abilities of a touch tablet system as well.

The possible change to the ISTEP is just one more reason why iPads continue to be a poor choice for a technology solution in most of the school grade levels. If the change to requiring a keyboard for the ISTEP happens, then the solution is not to spend a million dollars upgrading the computer lab, but rather to quickly get away from a student computing device that doesn’t even support the ability to use a wired keyboard.