Debate over school tech usurps council meeting
Disagreements over technological implementation procedures of Warwick Public Schools brought a tense energy to the Warwick City Hall Council Chambers Monday night as members of the school administration appeared to answer allegations that technology had being taken out of classrooms without cause or sufficient notification – technology that some teachers claim is vital to delivering their educational curriculum.
“The lack of respect for teachers is palpable,” said Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teachers’ Union at the podium during public comments on the issue. “To have these people who are not in the classroom stand here and decide what is best for us teachers is outrageous.”
The issue came to a head, and resulted in the dialogue with the council, after teachers at Toll Gate returned to their classrooms on Jan. 22 and found their LCD projectors had been removed from their classrooms, which they claim happened without any forewarning or consultations from administrators. This happened days before the administering of midterm exams, furthering the frustrations.
Doug Alexander, technology director for Warwick Public Schools, admitted partial fault – in addition to one of the techs who physically performed the removal of equipment – for the lapse in communication, and reiterated that apology on Monday night.
“I will admit that the communication in this instance was poor,” he said. “I will admit that lapses were made, including mine in the way that that was carried out and I want that to never happen again and I have taken steps to remedy that in the future.”
Alexander said a similar removal of projectors occurred at Pilgrim High School around the same time, however proper communication did not result in any surprise among the faculty there.
However that event was simply one catalyst for the anger, as teachers reiterated complaints about certain personal property being removed over the summer. In one instance, a teacher at Toll Gate had multiple personal Macintosh computers recycled, which he had purchased and built on his own dime and own time.
Alexander said that this incident and a couple other smaller isolated incidents all occurred over the summer, and have since been remedied either through a technological replacement or financial reimbursement.
“If there are other cases that I haven’t heard about, then I would like to because I would like to remedy those as well,” Alexander said. “I completely agree that is out of bounds to take personal belongings of teachers out of classrooms.”
Another area of conflict is the removal of technology acquired through the Rhode Island Teachers and Technology Initiative (RITTI), a program through the Rhode Island Department of Education that enables teachers to request technology through written applications over the summer months.
According to Netcoh this technology, once won by a teacher, is supposed to follow that teacher throughout the school in which it is awarded regardless of whether they change classrooms or even change grade levels – so long as they remain in the school, they will be the ones who have access to the tech.
“Although technology that teachers earned through RITTI technically did not become their personal property, the district’s policy, which the administration has articulated publicly and in a number of documents over the years, has always been, ‘The technology follows the teacher,’” said Netcoh on Wednesday. “RITTI technology did belong to the teacher who earned it, and for Doug Alexander to throw it out without warning or discussion was callous, disrespectful, and arrogant.”
Underneath the physical manifestations causing teachers to outwardly express frustration is the fundamental philosophy of the district’s approach to introducing new technology. They say that there is no flexibility with utilizing older tools, such as overhead projectors, which some teachers have developed lesson plans around for many years. They say, at the very least, teachers should have a voice in whether or not a piece of equipment is “obsolete” or whether it still has value.
Some councilmen took this belief to heart as well.
“If the projector is broken, I agree with you, you throw it out and go with the new technology,” said Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla. “But if it’s a projector that the teacher considers valuable to her lesson or his lesson, I would think that you would might want to give them at least the option of whether they wanted it or didn’t.”
“It’s upsetting to me of the arrogance of some of them [school administrators and school committee members] not to be here,” said Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur. “You can apologize tonight Mr. Alexander, which is fine, because you’re in front of the City Council. But I find it particularly upsetting that you folks make these decisions all the time without consulting the people that are actually there, boots on the ground, as I refer to them.”
The administration has held firm to the stance that they are simply adhering to a strategic technology refreshing program, which aims to replace outdated or obsolete technology with new tech, such as Chromebooks and Promethean Boards.
“Warwick, as a district, from even four years ago, is light years from where it used to be,” said Superintendent Philip Thornton on Wednesday. Hearkening back to an article on this topic that ran in the Feb. 22 edition of the Beacon, Alexander noted how the district now employs 10,000 Chromebooks and about 300 Promethean Boards.
“I came in just over two years ago now, and I’m very proud of what my team has accomplished in those two years,” Alexander said to the council on Monday.
The argument about new technology versus older technology is straightforward for Alexander – the new technology can do everything the old technology could, and then some.
“I can understand why a familiar overhead projector is a preferred solution, but I don’t see any compelling reason that a Promethean can’t be used in its stead,” he said in a follow-up call on Tuesday.
Promethean Boards can project directly from the web, are fully touch-sensitive and, at their most basic, can be plugged into via an HDMI cable to project a teacher’s laptop or computer. Administrators also say that teachers have access to document cameras, which can project images similar to older overhead projectors.
Tech integrators, as described by Alexander, are the full time staff placed at each secondary school to assist teachers who may need a little help adjusting to newer technology. They are instructed to assist in setting up technology and training faculty on how to fully implement its capabilities within the classroom.
“The whole purpose of us putting tech integrators into the school is to say, ‘I understand why you want this, but here’s why we’re offering this instead,’ because it’s more adaptable,” he said. “Once you get that technology into the classroom you realize this is a powerful tool for teaching and a powerful tool for learning.”
Alexander said that utilizing these tools aren’t simply the future of better instruction, they are essential for cultivating the modern student – which encompasses the first generation of kids that have no memories of life prior to the internet, and the modern inundation of exponentially expanding technology.
“As a teacher, if you see enthusiasm like that for a tool, you can turn that into enthusiasm for the task,” he said.
This view is supported by Sheryl Rabbitt, chief academic officer for Warwick Public Schools, who said that a forum involving the student body revealed that students were excited about the potential of new technology, but also revealed their frustration at certain teachers’ unwillingness to adapt and ability to fully utilize it.
“There needs to be a balance between these two approaches,” Rabbitt said on Wednesday. “It would be unethical [to not teach with new tech tools for these students]. We need to be preparing our students for the world they are going into, not for the one we're leaving.”
Rabbitt said that making sure they are being cognizant of some teachers’ difficulty with transitioning to new technology, and that the integration specialists were specifically charged with that responsibility. However, Rabbitt also said that some responsibility lies on the teachers to not simply refuse to try to learn new methods.
“We have to be able to help them along in this transition, but they have to be willing to understand why we're making these decisions and be able to adapt to the new technology,” she said, adding that a majority of teachers, in her experience, have had no problem integrating the new technology into their lessons.
However for Netcoh, these statements are not sufficient.
“The implementation of the ‘technology integration specialist’ does not relieve Doug Alexander of his responsibility to climb down from his ivory tower at the Draper Avenue Taj Mahal and respect the professional judgment of practicing classroom teachers, who know the technology requirements of their content area and the needs of their students,” she said on Wednesday.
Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix agreed with the notion that certain elements of the teachers’ “toolbox” shouldn’t be disregarded, and should be viewed on more of a case-by-case basis in terms of the removal of certain tools.
“When I see the focus on just the Chromebooks and just the Promethean Boards and taking away certain ‘obsolete’ tools, I think that gets us to a point where it’s micromanaging the classroom,” he said. “You have teachers of different ages and teachers going into their 50s and 60s, and they’re more comfortable with certain technology and they’re going to be more effective with that technology.”
Alexander said on Tuesday that all discussion on technology in the classroom is productive, and he is happy to keep that dialogue continuing.
“It’s a healthy conversation to have,” he said. “We’re talking about the act of teaching and learning, and that’s where the conversation needs to live. We need to focus not so much on the tools themselves and more on the practice. But we’re getting somewhere.”