By Cynthia Liu, K12 News Network
Cynthia Liu is CEO/Founder of K12NewsNetwork.com, an education news and civic engagement platform for students, parents, and educators based in Los Angeles.In sixth through eighth grade classrooms in Pasadena Unified School District, elective Robotics classes hum with activity as teams of excited kids use laptops to build robots during the school day. Students show off the robots’ abilities in a fun end-of-year “final exam” Expo open to the entire community, and those meeting a basic academic requirement will create and code video game and other apps in the just-launched App Academy at Pasadena High School. There are no admissions tests, no magnet school attendance restrictions, and no GATE requirements to take the elective Robotics class; interested students simply choose the elective. For the past three years, Pasadena Unified has offered real technological literacy and computer programming classes for public school children in two out of four high schools (with plans for all) in the district — and yet its big, slow-moving neighbor to the west, Los Angeles Unified, isn’t paying attention. Neither is the rest of California, to its detriment.
Under the direction of a visionary team housed in the Pasadena Education Foundation’s STEM initiative, children in Pasadena Unified’s majority-minority, 68% free-and-reduced lunch schools with many English language learners figure out how to code in hands-on, engaging ways. These students apply math, design, engineering, marketing, and even arts learning to their creations. The goal is to offer programming and App Academy high school classes across the entire district, and with support from faculty at CalTech, rocket scientists at NASA/JPL, and Pasadena’s burgeoning tech incubator community, they appear on track to achieve this. There’s no reason Silicon Beach on Los Angeles’ westside or Silicon Valley up north can’t help with in-kind assistance — and crucial funding via revenue to the state — to scale this highly effective model to every single school district in California, not just the ones lucky to have a high-tech hub in their backyard.
Simply buying a device doesn’t make you a whiz: in Los Angeles Unified School District, a months-long unraveling of the district’s plan to put 600,000-plus iPads into the hands of students and teachers in the second largest school district in the nation has captured city, state, and even national headlines for its rank incompetence.
LAUSD’s iPad plan is unraveling for good reason. Many excellent questions have been raised about the process of acquiring the iPads, from using bond money meant for facilities like computer labs instead of tablets to additional, unanticipated yet unavoidable costs such as $38 million for keyboards, $60 million to renew the software license, the still-lingering question of the timeline for school broadband upgrades, and whether teachers have requested or received any special training to meaningfully incorporate iPad apps into lessons. Yet it looks as if the LAUSD School Board may unwisely override the objections of the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee pointing to these and many other concerns and authorize the continued $1 billion-plus rollout of iPads in the district instead of the vastly scaled-back pilot suggested by the Bond Oversight Committee.
Voters are mad (rightly so) that they’ve been sold a bait and switch on the use of bond funds. Parents still aren’t sure if financially they’ll be on the hook for a lost, stolen, or damaged iPad since there doesn’t seem to be a consolidated district-wide family/student user agreement policy. No programmer worth her salt would choose to code on what’s basically an overgrown iPhone. And no one has adequately addressed the social and emotional learning component of tech literacy, which means using social media responsibly and with an awareness of the consequences for sharing images, words, and videos.
Superintendent John Deasy says his reason for the big iPad push is that he feels great urgency to bridge the digital divide so that children growing up without access to technology at home can become familiar with it in the schools. Critics say he’s more interested in making sure kids are able to take computer-based Common Core State Standards tests than learning skills that increase their programming ability.
That argument about bridging the technological literacy divide is also the mantra of Code.org. Unlike the iPad rollout, Code.org highlights the legitimate need to arm students with coding skills that will help them land lucrative jobs in the future. Proposed collaborations between school districts and tech companies would have teachers undertake no-cost online professional development to then teach children in “blended learning” scenarios (online classes).
But lost in the excitement over these collaborations is that as part of the deal, school districts would make available children’s testing and other personal data to those same tech companies in exchange for free coding instruction (pdf, Section 1, Item 3). School districts and parents aren’t reading the fine print on Code.org collaborations. What protections will there be under the Family Education Records Privacy Act, if any? Will this automatically subject students to future data mining and sale of their important private information with no way to opt out?
Objections to invasions of student information privacy have derailed the inBloom project set up to collect student data clouds in NY. Eight other states which had agreed, like NY, to automatically aggregate student data gathered from Common Core State Standards tests have now backed out or revised the terms of data gathering from compulsory to voluntary due to mass outrage from parents at the attempt to profit off kids. We in California would do well to heed the negative examples from NY and LAUSD, and instead focus on replicating a successful model that puts kids learning skills and knowledge first.
When you compare the Pasadena Unified model, LAUSD’s iPad deal, and Code.org’s “free as long as you agree to be the product” model for teaching tech literacy in the classroom side by side, it’s clear to see which one prioritizes quality education for kids and was crafted with key program details culled from best practices around the nation. Only Pasadena Unified’s program gives kids true benefits and a no-strings chance at learning to code while leaving their private student information intact – arming them to compete when there’s a world of difference between authoring software that fast food restaurants use to process orders, and simply using a tablet to take those fast food orders.