Here’s what happened at the West Seattle edition of Seattle Public Schools’ low-tech ‘tech town hall’

March 5, 2015 2:42 am
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By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Sticky notes – paper sticky notes – were the most tangible product of the last of five Seattle Public Schools “tech town halls.”

It wasn’t meant to be ironic, though SPS technology has long been less than cutting edge. Evidence of that was famously on display at the now-demolished Arbor Heights Elementary during a 2012 tour:

The wiring running along the ceiling in a rundown hallway was part of a project by now-retired teacher Mark Ahlness that included rigging Internet connectivity. Tech-ifying schools often took innovators like Ahlness, who also made AHES one of the first schools to have a website, 20+ years ago.

But we digress. Flash ahead now to 2015, and the series of “tech town halls” that SPS wrapped up with the southwest edition at West Seattle High School this past Monday night. One of the slides nodded to the low-tech past by declaring: “It’s easy to look at the technology available in our schools and ask Why? Tonight is your opportunity to dream of what we can do and ask Why Not?”

The gathering, with about two dozen people scattered around the WSHS commons, was very deliberately not about proposing, reviewing, or criticizing specific equipment/software/etc., existing or future. It was intended to gather answers to questions about what students, teachers, parents would like to see happen – outlining a “vision” – so that technology could be used/procured to meet those goals.

The district’s Chief Information Officer Carmen Rahm led the meeting; the district’s southwest region executive director of schools Israel Vela spoke too, as did West Seattle/South Park school board rep Marty McLaren:

McLaren observed, “Technology is so important these days, and it’s so important that we get it right.”

Rahm urged participants not to limit themselves via “perceived obstacles or challenges,” although he made a point that his department has about half the number of people he believes it should have to support tech endeavors around the district – 16 now, while it should be 40 or so.) In explaining the type of goals/hopes they hoped to elicit from participants, he gave a few examples of “vision” statements: “Parents/guardians should have easy online access to student records” or “Sensitive information is only accessible by authorized individuals.”

Asked by Rahm to suggest others, attendees’ ideas included information about current events, online copies of what students are learning in the classroom, assistance for multi-lingual families, keeping school libraries open later so that students without access at home can still use technology in the evenings (the person who brought this up mentioned an example in Yakima). Rahm also showed examples of drawings of the potential “classroom of the future” – featuring technology that already exists. One example was attributed to a student who said math bored her but she enjoyed soccer and thought she should be able to use soccer to explore math concepts.

The heart of the meeting splintered off into small-group discussions at the tables, each of which had classically low-tech paper and writing implements, with the mission to draw a picture of “a day in the life of a Seattle Public Schools student” and write a short script about what in the sketch benefits from technology, and/or to write more vision statements that could be added to whiteboards. Here are a few more that we photographed:

Our table included two district employees and director McLaren, and conversation ensued instead, as well as an impromptu demonstration by one of the district employees showing ways that phones or tablets could be used in classrooms even if every student didn’t have access to a device – photographing work and displaying it on the front-of-classroom projection, for example.

After the small-group discussions, Rahm opened the floor for questions:

One question he was asked – how can CITY leaders support your vision? Municipal broadband is great, said Rahm – too many students go home and don’t have access to it. He’s on the mayor’s tech advisory board, he noted, in hopes of “collaborat(ing) more on initiatives that are going on.”

Another – is there any particular voice you’re not hearing from? he was asked. He couldn’t name one. He then cited someone asking him what was the most surprising/shocking/mind-blowing thing he had been asked, saying he had replied that the most surprising thing was that there WAS no surprising thing, he said.

Yet another question acknowledged his ebullience and enthusiasm – but, they asked, does he have support at the district? He voiced confidence that he does: “I wasn’t brought in to maintain status quo … I’m as motivated as I’ll ever be.”

So what’s next? Rahm noted at one point that all this looks ahead to the next BTA (buildings and technology) levy in a year. But first, they’re taking feedback on results of the district’s recent tech summit- go here to review it – as well as more comments on the “tech vision” (even if you weren’t at this meeting, you can e-mail Summit and town-hall input will be consolidated; a video about “a day in the life of an SPS student” will be created in spring. Then “once the vision is complete and approved,” June-October, they’ll develop a technology strategic/action plan and a multiyear technology roadmap. But first – they want to hear your thoughts on the desired results, before they figure out what it’ll take to get there.

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