Sunday, March 23, 2014

iPads for Everyone, Part 2

One of the ways in which we plan to offset the cost of a 1:1 deployment of iPads to our students is by acquiring content in a different way than copyrighted textbooks.

Right now, electronic versions of many traditional textbooks cost nearly the same as the paper version. That's because the textbook industry hasn't yet been transformed in the way the music industry has (see my prior article on this subject). Few people pay $20 for a music album any more - we got very tired of albums with maybe two decent songs and a bunch of mediocre stuff. Now we expect the option to buy music by the song, with only a few artists having the market power to demand that their songs be bundled in albums any more.

Will we see something similar with textbooks?

Ask most teachers, and they'll tell you that a significant fraction of the material in their current textbooks is never used. In some cases, there just isn't time to cover every chapter. In other cases, most but not all of the contents match our evolving curriculum. So the teachers use what fits, and have to find other sources for everything else.

An evolving practice is for teachers to assemble much of their material from sources other than textbooks. It may be modules available from online sources, or material written by inhouse staff. And of course teachers have been writing some of their own lesson material for years.

With iPads in the hands of every student, we have a lot more flexibility as to how to assemble course material. What doesn't make sense is for every school district in America to write their own materials for every subject.

What I think will develop is a network of content developers, some embedded within school districts but mostly independent, each specializing on various subjects, or courses, or even particular units within courses. For example, maybe Hilliard schools becomes known as an excellent producer of American History content, and we start selling that to school districts across the country. Maybe Worthington becomes the Trigonometry experts. Maybe Bexley specializes in 17th Century French Literature. A school district in Boston becomes the go-to source for Physics curriculum.

If folks like Prentice Hall, one of the major textbook publishers, are smart, they'll start to nurture and develop these independent content producers. And they'll find a way to package and sell content in a manner like iTunes, where a school district can download a math unit for a couple bucks per student.

The competition will drive content producers to figure out more and more powerful ways to present concepts, using the full audiovisual capabilities of devices like the iPad. We already see some of this with the Khan Academy material for teaching math and science.

I think we'll also see a kind of publishing standardization develop such that a course is say American History can be assembled from modules acquired from many sources without subjecting students and teachers to jarring and distracting differences between authors. That in turn will drive the device manufacturers to build more and more capability into their devices. And drive down the price.

In the process of getting stuff organized for the upcoming move of our household (still within the school district), I came across a document from my 9th grade year explaining to our parents why our school was arranging a three day trip to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Here's an excerpt:
Today, we desperately need more effective science instruction, for international competition is ever increasing. Our scientific and technical knowledge is increasing and changing at at such an accelerating rate, that to cram more facts into the heads of our children is certainly not the answer. Professional scientists tell us that 1/3 of what we are teaching today will be obsolete five years hence, and what replaces this knowledge has not yet been discovered.
I was in the 9th grade in 1968, forty-six years ago. Yet it's remarkable how much this educator's warning sounds like what we hear today. In those days, our personal calculating device was a slide rule, and we produced term papers on manual typewriters (footnotes were a pain!!). We had to find our information by actually going to a building called a library, looking through the card catalog (title, author, subject), checking out several promising books, searching those books for relevant information, and making dozens of note cards. "White-Out" was our best friend.

One of the casualties of our move is a set of very fine encyclopedias and a dictionary that my wife and I bought soon after we were married. Today, it's not worth making shelf space for these expensive books in our new, smaller home. Truthfully, we haven't cracked open one of these volumes for decades.

What does the future look like for today's 6th graders, the first of our students to be issued iPads?  We haven't a clue. We know that they'll be expected to locate and synthesize vast amounts of information, and they won't need to be trained on the Dewey Decimal system to find it. They won't be competing with peers who are armed with facts, even though we marvel at Aaron Craft's ability to recite Pi to 60 places.

I remember a physics professor once saying that in our working lives, we wouldn't be expected to pull the differential equations of thermodynamics from our heads, but we'll need to have internalized that there has been a method developed for addressing such problems, so that when we encounter one we'll know it can be solved, and what resources to use to proceed.

That's the kind of knowledge we need to impart to our kids, whether we're talking about science and math, or philosophy and history. They need to be able to call on the great thinkers who came before them and add their own insight (a function of knowledge) and creativity to help solve problems that we today don't know exist. And as much as many like to poo-poo the value of a liberal arts education, teaching kids how to think and reason is just as important as teaching them a trade.

These iPads are both a instructional learning devices, and a portal for access to the incomprehensible amount of information out there. Will they hold up as state-of-the-art for long?  No, of course not. The slide rule I mastered in high school was out of date and relegated to a drawer in my first couple of years of college. No one in my workplace used a slide rule - everyone had pocket calculators, expensive as they were.

But that doesn't mean my high school physics teacher shouldn't have taught us how to use a slide rule. In fact, I was at an advantage when I started engineering school at Ohio State - many of my classmates had never used one before.

Likewise, I have no doubt that the students of Hilliard City Schools will be advantaged by the incorporation of these devices into our methods for delivering instruction. Isn't that why most of us moved to Hilliard and continue to financially support our schools - so our kids will have a great start in life?

Monday, March 17, 2014

iPads for Everyone

At the School Board meeting held March 10, 2013, Superintendent Marschhausen introduced to the public a plan to begin equipping our students with tablet computers. Much of what he said was captured in a story in This Week Hilliard.

One of the most important statements he made was that this program would not result in any new taxes. That detail was noted in the This Week story, as well as in the story in The Columbus Dispatch. In his March 11 blog post, Dr. Marschhausen goes on to say, "We will pay for this initiative mostly through a reallocation of district and parent resources with only a small amount of additional dollars being spent on the entire program."

That's a big deal to me.

Readers of this blog know that I've written at length about the economics of our school district, and that our costs are driven primarily and appropriately by the compensation and benefits of our team of teachers, support staff and administrators. Indeed, compensation and benefits represents 86% of our operating budget. But did you know that after compensation and benefits, one of our greatest costs is textbooks and educational materials?

Textbooks are crazy expensive, especially for the upper grade levels. It's not unusual for textbooks to go for over $100 each, and for them to last only seven years. That replacement cycle is due in part to wear on the books, but also because of changes to curriculum and content. It's the reason virtually every school district in America is looking for an alternative to the printed-on-paper textbook.

The textbook industry is about to go through the same kind of radical evolutionary process as the music industry already has. I read an excellent story about the music industry a few years ago in which the author made the claim - accurately I believe - that the record companies had once maintained power in that ecosystem because they had built the scale necessary to manufacture, distribute and retail plastic discs: first vinyl records, then CDs.  Yes, the record labels did manage to lock up artists and exert creative influence, but the artists signed with the labels because that was the only way to get millions of records pressed and distributed. And that's how everyone made money (except the Grateful Dead, the ultimate touring band).

Then came the internet. It became possible for artists to record their music and distribute directly to consumers. Some did exactly that and made a few bucks. Then outfits like Napster showed up and nearly succeeded in making the going price for music essentially zero through their implicit support of music piracy (aka copyright infringement). The music industry had a period of chaos when it looked like no one was going to be able to make money.

Then along came Apple Computer, who changed everything when they released the iPod and iTunes. Concurrently, Napster was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for copyright infringement and won (which I think was the correct outcome), and music piracy came pretty much to an end. A reasonable price point for music was found, and consumers went back to spending $billions, but the wealth was now being distributed differently than before. No one would have predicted 20 years ago that a computer company would be one of the biggest players in the music industry and that the traditional record labels would become almost invisible. But that's what happened.

No longer did the record labels rule the roost, but they managed to survive by finding a viable niche in the new music ecosystem: they could still help find, produce and promote emerging artists. I suspect that the music industry is bigger than it ever was, and more artists are making a decent buck.

Similarly, one could argue that the book publishing industry has maintained its power because of its investment in and control of the printing and distribution of bound collections of ink on paper. When Amazon came along, it first began to disrupt the distribution end of books on paper, and life became pretty tough for the brick-and-mortar retail bookstores. The next assault on the book publishing industry came when Amazon released the Kindle, and did to book publishing what the iPod did to music publishing.

Except in the case of  K-12 school textbooks.

While it seems like an obvious move to start buying all textbooks in Kindle format, it's not that easy. A basic Kindle may not cost any more than many textbooks (Kindles are $69 today), it seems like it would be shortsighted to get a basic e-reader when the potential is so much greater with a tablet device like the iPad or the Android devices.

As has been done before with big-deal decisions like this, a task force of community members, teachers and administrators was formed to make recommendations on this matter. With their input, the Administration decided that we'd start with the Apple iPad mini, to be first issued to next year's 6th graders. The 6th grade teachers will get their iPads this spring, along with professional development to help them integrate these devices into their instructional routine. Then during the summer they'll have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the devices and applications they'll use in the classroom.

Not everyone will agree with this decision. The choice of computing platforms has long been like a religious discussion, especially along the lines of PC vs Mac. Recently the Android operating system has become a viable third alternative, and Amazon is still in there as a player with the new models of the Kindle. I've long been a PC bigot, scorning the Mac world in the same way Fox News regards MSNBC (and vice versa).

Then one of my kids gave me her first generation iPod Touch as a hand-me-down when she got her first iPhone (with her own money, yeah!). I used it mostly as a PDA, storing my calendar and contacts, and giving me wireless email access (I've been a PDA user since the first Palm Pilots were introduced in 1997). But I still carried a cheap cell phone - because I'm cheap.

When we shifted to Consumer Cellular, I used the radical reduction in our cell phone bill to fund the cost of an iPhone 5C. Love it. Meanwhile my wife started using an iPad mini, and she rarely gets on our PC anymore. The camel had gotten its nose under the Lambert tent.

After getting zapped by one more virus, or registry corruption, or memory leak, or whatever it is that's making my office PC run like a slug, I finally made the leap to a Mac Mini for my primary office use. I still use Microsoft Office for my productivity software, but otherwise I've fully converted to the Dark Side. Sorry Bill.

The Apple folks have very aggressively attacked the K-12 education segment, and have developed sophisticated products and efficient management platforms. We've long had a few iMacs in elementary classrooms for shared use, and recently starting making shared carts of Macbooks available for checkout when a teacher wants to teach a module which makes use of online resources. For the number of buildings and computers we have in our school district, it takes a remarkably small number of administrators to keep everything update and functioning. That's partly due to the choice of a Mac environment, and partly because of the wise choices made by our Technology Department, long led by Gary Orr (who retired a couple of years ago), and now by Rich Boettner.

So continuing our evolution to the so-called 1:1 device environment (one device permanently assigned to each student) with Apple technology makes sense to me. Starting with the 6th grade students, using the iPad mini as their device, makes sense as well.

But my support is equally due to the commitment our Administration made to pull this off with no increase to our budget. It's easy to spend a ton of money on all kinds of stuff in a school district, and we already spend plenty. Without a doubt, the time would come when it would be a no-brainer to shift to a 1:1 device environment. We're on the leading edge of that curve, and will have to work hard and be smart to make our fiscal commitments come true.

I'm asking Dr. Marschhausen to develop a way to assure the School Board and the voters that the promise of "no new taxes" is honored. At a minimum, it should show up as a permanent downward inflection in our textbook spending. At a macro level, the spending side of our Five Year Forecast needs to remain on substantially the same trajectory as was last approved in October 2013.

Meanwhile, I'm proud to be associated with a school district who is among the first to take this step. Many are watching us.