By Michael Frank

The Second Annual SUNY Smart Schools Summit at SUNY New Paltz Highlights Everything from 3D Printing to Virtual Reality, but also Raises Thorny Privacy Concerns

For the second year in a row, the School of Education at the State University of New York at New Paltz, has convened an Ed Tech Summit on campus. It was led by Michael Rosenberg, Dean of the School of Education at SUNY New Paltz, Amy Perry-DelCorvo, CEO/Executive Director, The New York State Association for Computers and Technologies in Education (NYSCATE), and Kiersten Greene, Assistant Professor of Literacy at SUNY New Paltz, who teaches pre- and in-service K-12 educators how to teach reading, writing, and multi-modal text production.

But what exactly is “Ed Tech”? And why did SUNY New Paltz need to create a summit around it?  

Greene explains that after New Yorkers passed the 2014 Smart Schools Bond Act (SSBA) $2 billion was allocated for technology funding in K-12 schools throughout New York. Superintendents and technology integration specialists learned that to receive the funding, districts have to complete a Smart Schools Investment Plan (SSIP) that would explain how they’d use the money. But here’s the catch: the funds can only be used for technology equipment and capital expenses. None of the money can be used to train teachers to use the new technology.

Greene fears that this puts a great deal of power in the hands of big technology firms and leaves educators with little choice to challenge the efficacy of the tools they’re told to use. So while the SUNY Smart Schools Summit shared best practices in using everything from robotics to 3D printing to VR, to specific company tools from Apple, LEGO, and others, it also addressed challenges of implementation, and offered spaces to critically debate and discuss, so that attendees could understand the pros and potential pitfalls of “smartening” their schools.

We sat down with Greene recently to address some of what was discussed at the summit, and why it should matter to specialists as well as parents and all taxpayers.

You’ve raised the issue of “big tech” controlling the conversation. This isn’t just Apple or Google providing hardware and software, from tablets to operating systems, it’s also forcing schools into their respective ecosystems, so that only their products can be used, correct?

The first issue is that this legislation, though well intentioned, is by many measures flooding the field with technology in a tech-for-tech’s sake way. To many educators, it feels like the mandate is to build the ship and sail it simultaneously. Teachers feel what I’ve been calling digital whiplash, or the feeling of being bombarded by new tech expectations all the time.

I’ve been working closely with some local districts, and can say first-hand that many are doing their due diligence to research best ed tech practices and products, and making the best of the funding policy as it’s legislated. But we cannot deny this is all a moving target. I wonder if we can pull back just a little as a whole system, so that we can reorient and ensure that we’re always doing what’s best for children.

You’ve also said that student privacy has barely been addressed; the presumption is that we should just trust the retailers of these education products, but the risk here is massive.

Because the funding doesn’t provide training, educators have little time to ask or think about privacy protections. While many security measures are being taken through SSBA to ensure that servers and systems are encrypted and as impenetrable to hackers as possible, I’ve heard very few conversations about what happens when kids and teachers sign up for a new app. Where does that data go? If you step back and think about it, the state of digital surveillance in schools [that tracks everything from a student’s attendance record to their every move on a school-provided Chromebook] could all be leaked inadvertently. It would be Equifax, but instead of financial data it would be incredibly personal data about your child.

The situation today is that school districts are paying companies for technology, the companies collect data on our students and they tell us how to use it. Is there a reason we cannot build these systems ourselves? Why isn’t control of the data always part of the conversation? What do we do if a parent says, ‘I don’t want you collecting any data on my child.’ Don’t they have that right?

Is there an urban vs. rural component to this, where there are technological deserts that need different solutions, and how did the summit address making less cookie cutter fits for these districts?

Yes, and that’s true nationally. We’ve seen efforts to provide wireless Internet in schools so that the school becomes the place the entire community can use the Web, and Wi-Fi on school buses if students are taking long rides to/from school. And one way we must discuss solutions is to rethink some historical ways that districts end up in silos, disconnected from one another when they’re trying to do the same thing. In other words, what if districts worked in concert with each other more frequently for SSBA funding? Not every school needs a 3D printer, and the equipment changes and becomes obsolete quickly, but sharing machines across districts could be logistically feasible. In fact, we have a lending program for 3D printers right here at SUNY New Paltz, through the Center for Innovation in Education at New Paltz (CIE@NP).

The same thing goes for teacher training, where a teacher can attend a training in another district and vice-versa. There’s this problematic egg-crate theory of schooling where we share walls but not knowledge. To generalize a bit, everyone is doing the same thing together, but alone. That’s completely contrary to what’s possible technologically.

We also need to understand more about how SSBA is playing out in large cities, and more affluent districts versus those that are struggling financially. I’m still looking at the data, but my sense is that large, urban school districts that often serve historically marginalized students are being forced to make SSBA dollars spread farther than more affluent districts. One provision of the policy is that it will improve opportunity for all students through technology. I don’t know if this goal will be fully realized through SSBA, especially if training for teachers is not funded.

What’s an example of technological liberation, a tool that opens the eyes of students and teachers alike?

WordPress [software that many websites use to create new posts and pages]. It’s versatile, but what’s more important is it gives students an understanding of how a web page is constructed, how it works, how you can be creative and change it. It’s a way into understanding coding, how to embed video, and manipulate digital elements. It’s eye opening for both educators and students, and like so many of these tools, it’s also really empowering if we use an open approach to implementation.

Structurally, what did the summit do to get administrators and ed tech experts and district leaders to, riffing from Apple, “Think Different”?

Our sessions have both horizontal and vertical structural elements, so that we can learn about the resources and possibilities together, but in different ways than we normally might. For instance, it’s a rarity to get most tech directors, superintendents, or tech integration specialists in a region together in the same place. By building in multiple opportunities to learn with and from colleagues playing various roles, we begin to understand how our teaching and learning needs both differ and overlap. Just like we expect teachers to do for their students—it’s an intentional form of differentiated instruction.

It’s an exciting time to be an educator! Whether you call it 21st century learning, digital pedagogy, instructional technology, or something else, change is happening in our classrooms at a rapid pace. It’s simply undeniable. By getting people together across the entire system—from PreK to graduate school—we arrive at a clearer picture of how this is all playing out, and can begin to revise our approach and attempt to fix what’s not working. And I contend that if we don’t, we’ll end up spinning our wheels.

SSBA opened the door in New York State for technology integration in K-12 classrooms. But I would argue that tech companies are driving the conversation more than anyone. As I said earlier, I’m in absolute awe of the amount of networking and research that local leaders and educators have done about the tools and products they use; however, the scholarship world needs to catch up and play a larger role in the conversation. There remain many questions on the table about where data goes. We don’t yet know the long-term health effects of screens and related tech. We are still figuring out how to prepare teachers for technological change that hasn’t even been invented yet. There is much more to discuss, and leaders, educators, policymakers, and teacher educators need more opportunities to put their heads together! The summit provided one such space.