Computers At the Core: CPS’ Response to “21st Century Learning”

This post was originally published on Pass the Chalk.

When I started my first teaching role, I was ecstatic to know that two of my classes would be “technology” courses. This excitement became frustration as my students and I struggled to have access to a quarter of what I freely enjoyed in high school. I had no curriculum, and the “technology” was Windows XP on some virus-ladden, ominously humming machines. These students were cheated out of experiences I (and many) expect from a K-12 education.

Technology fluency is an assumed trait most colleges have for their incoming students. That, of course, includes basic keyboarding and Internet skills, but there are also many assumptions about understanding more complex Internet database searches, MLA formatting and ability to navigate a variety of other systems of varying complexities.

It’s not shocking that technology, and the teaching of its use, doesn’t tend to keep pace in schools and districts serving low-income students. While there are investments – like the L.A. school district’s decision to spend $1 billion on iPads for all students – I believe that a strong curricular design and focus on sustainability is necessary. In the L.A. example, the iPads came pre-loaded with content from Pearson. They have had issues with the massive cost of software licenses, the cost of lost iPads, and planning for keeping up with changes in technology.

The kicker for me, though, is that the iPads don’t actually push any true technological fluency. They’re being used as an avenue to access reading, math and other subjects. This is great, but doesn’t get to the heart of the technological fluency divide between low-income students and higher-income students.

In contrast, Chicago Public Schools’ decision to include computer science at the core curriculum for high schoolers, along with an AP option at half of CPS high schools in the next five years, is truly an exciting development.

Instead of a massive dumping of money on hardware and software, an inefficient and unsustainable model, CPS is partnering computer science experts through, with it coming about $2 million in funding. What’s more, they’re using a chunk of that funding to train pre-existing district teachers to help lead the courses and other activities. This equal focus on technology fluency and staff and faculty training makes for a model where there is access for student and faculty investment and fluency. Proper implementation without both of those is really tricky.

In my experience, having a faculty that is engaged, trained and actively believes in the need for technology is what will drive its use.

It’s easy to spend a lot of money on software (believe me, I’ve seen the amount of money my school spends on just one suite of programs), but if the staff isn’t into it, the money isn’t being well spent (again, I’ve seen the usage data for this same suite of programs… One word: Sad).

I’m curious what kind of data CPS plans on gathering, along with the specific schools that will offer AP courses. As the Tribune article points out, only about 10 percent of students taking Advanced Placement computer classes are African-American or Latino. I’d love to see Chicago change this.

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