Can we just skip the whole "data-driven" part if the technology is free?

I've been pushing Google Apps for a while now. I have been pushing colleagues and speaking to groups and faculties and school boards. I have written at length about it both online and on lined paper. Like a street hustler, I have been teasing out a bit of a taste to anyone who will give me the time of day, and whether they really like it or not, I now have my whole school district on board. I even write a blog about using it.  I know I am passionate about it, and if you want me to, I can tell you why–but that's not what this piece is about. This story could really be about Skype, or Moodle, WikiSpaces, or Elluminate, or SmartBoard programs. What I am talking about today is WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?


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Earlier this year, the Oregon State board of education announced that it was moving all districts in the state to Google Apps for Education. The decision, several prominent articles speculated, was part of an ever-progressive Oregon approach to technology in education, such that most public school districts might only dream of. This was all accurate, sort of.

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Likewise, in the past year, several local districts here in Minnesota also made the leap into the clouds of Google. My own district is transitioning as we speak. So what will all this cloud-visiting and Google App-ing do for students? How will schools use it to write curriculum? What are these relatively major technology shifts going to do for the test scores of the students? Probably nothing. In fact, the likelihood of these 21st-century tools to be able to actually affect change in the realm of standardized tests, authentic assessments, or just good old-fashioned quality learning is meager at best. But it doesn't have to be that way.

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The addition of collaborative software, standardized mail and electronic calendars (not to mention the auxiliary tools Google provides like Maps, Blogger, Sites), should pave the way for a new consciousness that leaps the school, district, or (in the case of Oregon) whole state firmly into the 21st century. It should open faculty and administrators to the richness and accessibility of Web 2.0 and cloud-based tools so they can build up to much more data-driven techniques that embed the desired outcomes in a wealth of industry-current technology. Google Apps has the ability to bring students from all over the planet into collaborative work that utilizes higher-order thinking and yet builds upon the benchmarks provided for in the curriculum. 

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TrappedThe problem is that even when offered the keys to a brand new shiny red sports car, it seems as if the inclination is to just let it sit in the driveway. When I have asked teachers and administrators in nearby districts who have gone to Google Apps for Education how they are using it as part of their overall mission or goals, I get blank looks. Many don't even really know what they have. There are plenty of individual teachers making great use of the Google Apps suite, and some districts are farther along than others, but the overall lack of a cohesive plan to leverage the power of these tools is generally not clear, in its infancy, or just plain absent. In my district these conversations have only just begun, and I can already see how difficult it is. While some users are in full command of interactive document creation and building document forms into formative assessments, some people just struggle with a different e-mail interface. We have a new tool, with no real plans as to how specifically it will lead us to our 21st century goals.

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The reason for the apparent leap before you look approach seems to be because of the cost. When a big change is expensive, it requires a lot of scrutiny, lots of data, rationale, test groups, and other cost/reward studies. However, many very powerful Web 2.0 or cloud-based tools are free or at minimal cost to schools. I think this creates the cure before the disease is fully understood. Do I think that schools districts should use Google Apps for Education and other online tools? Absolutely. But I also think that schools and districts need to keep asking how THEY will make these tools effective additions to how they educate a student. Without that understanding or plan, that Corvette isn't going to get on the open road at all. When I spoke to Corin Richards from the Oregon Virtual School District, a subsidiary branch of the state board of education, about Oregon's plan, he did mention there was a plan to use Google Apps as a gateway into other technology they used. I think this is a great reason. I don't think it takes much. But having a powerful educational tool without a reason to use it isn't much better than not having one at all.

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Anthony VonBank has been teaching English and Global Communication in public school for 12 years. He is currently a doctoral student at Minnesota State University in Mankato, MN. His research interests are in education with cloud computing and education reform. He maintains a regular blog about integrating Google Apps in the classroom: teachingwithgoogledocs.blogspot.com.

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