By now, many educators understand that technology has the potential of transforming teaching and learning. But the term “technology” covers vast territory, and there are many different layers of tech and ways of integrating it from school to school. At times, where one kind of technology is appropriate and helpful in one school, the same tech can cause big problems for another.
Take Elmhurst Community Prep, a Title I middle school in East Oakland. It’s a tough neighborhood where kids walk by police busts on their way to school, all kids receive free and reduced lunch and 15 percent of entering sixth graders can’t read. Second-year principal Kilian Betlach hoped that bringing a student data system and learning software into Elmhurst classrooms would help boost student achievement.
“I wanted classroom instruction to be better; I wanted kids to learn more; I wanted teachers to have their time freed up to do better work,” Betlach said. With money from the Rogers Family Foundation, Betlach contracted with a start-up consulting company called Junyo to help guide him as he launched a school wide blended learning program.
Junyo also promised to build a system that could bring student data from various places together in one dashboard. So, for example, a student’s attendance record could be compared to his homework completion rate. Betlach was hoping to learn a lot more about when and why students start disengaging with school. With the dashboard, he could have more information coming from learning software programs that would ideally help pinpoint where teachers should intervene.
“I don’t know if the time a kid spends on one of these online providers is the thing that makes the difference,” Betlach said. “But when I think about an instructional model where kids are spending time getting differentiated practice, so practice right where they need it, and simultaneously their teacher is able to pull a small group…it’s almost like one of those two things is going to have a big effect.”
Elmhurst’s special education teachers were some of the first to embrace the idea of using such a system.
“In the beginning it was great,” said Cori Schneider, one of Elmhurst’s special education teachers, who has a case load of 28 students who need extra help for reasons ranging from specific learning disabilities to emotional disturbances. “We had a great culture in the classroom of the kids coming in and getting straight to work. The kids were into it and they were seeing their success that was then translating into a higher SRI [Scholastic Reading Inventory] reading score.”
But when more classrooms and other teachers began using the online programs simultaneously, the network failed them. The wireless signal wasn’t strong enough.
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“So, here they’re bought into something that’s meeting their needs and then they can’t use it,” Schneider said. “Then everything that I had planned had to get scrapped. We had to recreate entire units on how to meet students’ needs without the technology.”
Betlach calls that first year of implementing blended learning “the great lost year of technological development at Elmhurst.” The troubles hurt teacher morale, leaving many wary of trying again. And it was expensive.
“We threw a lot of money down the drain,” Betlach said. “And it’s embarrassing and it’s sad and it feels gross.” He bemoans not just the money, but the time that teachers could have been working one-on-one with students instead of trying to figure out the technology.
Betlach blames Junyo. “Their advice turned out to be pretty poor,” he said. “Their analysis of our network was wrong. We didn’t have anywhere near the network capacity we needed.” They also didn’t build the dashboards Betlach had been so excited about.
Steve Schoettler, CEO of Junyo, says the company quickly realized that its school partners were constantly tweaking their technology plans and the company couldn’t keep up with each school’s changes. They needed a much bigger staff to work closely with schools and meet their individual needs.
“[The company] wasn’t going to grow quickly enough in the path we had,” said Schoettler. “And ultimately what that would mean for our schools is we wouldn’t be as good at doing what we wanted to be doing.” When Schoettler and his team realized their business model wasn’t working six months into the partnership, they pulled out. In an effort to be fair to schools, they did offer continued technical support through the academic year.
Betlach felt he was left alone to figure out his problems.
“I made a mistake in going with someone who made some promises,” he said. “As a school we can’t invest in promises. We have to invest in people with a track record of delivering. A school can’t be an angel investor for a start-up. It’s a bad relationship. It’s a bad way to go.”
Ultimately, Betlach feels the company that claimed to offer expert advice pushed him into expensive programs that his students didn’t need. He’s now approaching blended learning much more cautiously and slowly, using free web 2.0 tools and starting out with just the eighth grade.
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The relationship between schools and ed-tech companies can be fraught. More schools across the country are using technology to help measure student learning in real time, so teachers can target individual knowledge gaps. And tech companies are eager to help them, constantly pitching their products to schools.
But some schools are learning from the process of working with tech companies — even if it’s a rocky path. Less than two miles from Elmhurst, an Oakland elementary school called Encompass Academy also worked with Junyo.
Many of Encompass’ students and families are English language learners, a factor Principal Minh-Tram Nguyen is always considering, especially as she invests in technology. She loved working with Junyo.
“I guess I was just so grateful by the tremendous learning and partnership that I had,” Nguyen said. “And part of what was compelling was that they were a start-up so they were hungry.”
Nguyen says Junyo helped her make crucial decisions about how to roll out technology school-wide and what kind of professional development to offer teachers. The company also alerted her to programs that didn’t require English skills to improve learning. When Junyo terminated their contract, Encompass went ahead and blended computer time with traditional instruction as planned.
Nguyen says their math software, ST Math, has helped students think about concepts, not just computation, a big part of the Common Core State Standards.
“Through the year we saw our children who were using ST Math doing better and feeling more confident in the problem solving approach,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen is still tweaking her blended learning strategy, but she’s got a running start. She says schools have to choose tech partners carefully. She’s looking for companies that respect the difficult work teachers do.
“Businesses designing programs should listen to school, to have an ethos of being responsive to school,” Nguyen said. “You want to have technical expertise, but you should have some openness to believing in the capacity of teachers and educators.”
Nguyen knows it’s not easy for start-ups. Every school is different, making it hard for a company to perfect one product for all. But she says it’s the job of the principal to weather the inevitable changes brought by each new reform and to have a clear vision of the school’s mission and purpose.
Listen to the KQED Radio story.