To begin, I feel that I am in an excellent position to delineate tech must-have, because last Spring I was a prospective employee, checking out my current high school, the Urban School of San Francisco. Beyond the many hours spent researching online, I was on campus for three full days of interviews, class visits, and panel discussions with students and faculty to see if this was a place I wanted to be. When I made my decision to uproot and move to California, Urban's strength in the six technology facets I flesh out below helped make my choice an easy one. The six characteristics break down into two broad categories: the first three speak to how technology affects the school culture and the final three on how technology integrates with the curriculum.
So here's my guide for would-be parents, students, and yes, even prospective faculty to assess a school through its use of technology. This list is designed to help form spot judgements during shadow visits, campus tours, and short open houses. First impressions should be backed up with further research!
- Are students on their devices (be it laptops or tablets) only in classrooms or in all spaces available to them?
- Do you see a robust anytime, anywhere learning environment?
What you are secretly looking for is twofold. Top tech schools must have a powerful and reliable wireless infrastructure to support mobile learning. If you see students tucked into corners of the library or sunning themselves on the grass all while accessing course materials and web resources, you'll know that the school you're looking at has the backbone to sustain heavy technological demands now and in the future.
Second, the beauty of a tech-enabled curriculum (see Blended Learning below) is that the physical confines of a classroom are becoming obsolete. Many schools are taking the first steps in transforming their physical spaces to embrace and enable hybrid forms of learning. The best evidence that these innovative discussions are happening is if the confines of the classroom are routinely being transcended by both students and faculty and that learning is encouraged to take place in every available nook and cranny.
2. Support for Diverse learners
- Does the school you're looking at have the assistive technology in place to help struggling students or those with learning difficulties achieve their potential?
- Does the school you're looking at leverage technology to keep top students challenged and stimulated with access to advanced materials?
Technology has the potential to be the great enabler: enabling students at the bottom to become more efficient and supported, and enabling the ones at the top to break through barriers and reach new heights. If a school is leveraging technology to help its struggling students or those with dyslexia, processing issues, or other learning differences, you can be assured that this school takes their commitment to equity seriously. You can infer that this attention will translate into efforts to create an inclusive community around other issues of diversity, such as race, class, economic background, and sexual orientation. In today's multicultural and increasingly global world, an independent school that comes across as an all-white bastion of upper-class privilege needs a serious attitude adjustment.
On the other end of the spectrum, take notice if a school makes the effort to accommodate its accelerated students by offering blended or online versions of high-level courses where low enrollment does not justify the costs, such as advanced math or language. If accelerated students are encouraged to enroll in independent consortium classes, such as those offered through the Online School for Girls, online college courses, or even MOOCs, the chances are greater that your student will benefit from individualized attention no matter where they fall on the spectrum.
3. Active Digital Community
- Is there evidence of a vibrant community where students participate in and even have ownership of a digital space?
- Is this digital community a natural extension of the physical one or are the connections between them forced, controlled, or contrived?
- Do you see efforts to create a safe, positive, and respectful digital community?
During campus visits, prospectives rarely see beyond the smiling faces of student ambassadors and the rosy picture painted by the Admissions Office. To get a real understanding of the nature of the school community, check out the virtual campus. If there is a good relationship and built-up trust between administration and the student body, you will see lots of student ownership of the space. Websites and social media feeds that feature students as contributors and managers of content are empowering students to be active members of the community.
Prospective families should explicitly inquire about digital citizenship initiatives at school. Whether through formal programs or embedded into larger character development measures, all independent schools need to address acceptable behavior in online spaces. Parent should be able to see visible evidence of those initiatives in the digital space.
4. Blended Learning
- Is there an easy to use learning management system or supported portal through which students can access individual class websites?
- Is there an expectation that all teachers have course materials online for students to access at anytime?
- Are there experiments going on where teachers are implementing innovative pedagogy, such as the flipped classroom model, to allow for more engaging face-to-face class time?
What families should be looking for in this category is the extent to which there is a whole-school approach to hybrid learning and innovative pedagogy. What does the school set as the ground floor for technology integration? For starters, each course needs to have a digital iteration, where, at the very least, course materials, resources and a schedule should be posted. Providing students anytime access to resources and dates for assignments and assessments is sound pedagogical practice and a must in today's world. Be aware that you will no doubt be shown a tech savvy teacher's course page, which will be impressive. To get a feeling of where the school is as a whole, ask to see course pages from a wide variety of instructors, including the tech-averse.
Likewise, prospectives should push beyond singular examples of teachers and courses using innovative pedagogy. Inquire about department or school-level initiatives and what accountability there is for teachers to be up to speed. There will be bright spots and early adopters at all schools, but what really counts is the lowest common denominator.
Lastly, a tech-savvy school needs to have a single portal through which students can access materials from all courses. A piecemeal, free-for-all system where every teacher is using their own platform with little to no integration should be a red flag. This belies an unorganized approach to tech that has severe consequences for student organization. If a student is having to go to one website to access their materials for Chemistry, then another for English, then yet another for French class, details and assignments are bound to be missed in the confusion. This does not mean that there cannot be variety in approaches to course sites. It means that the tech department should be stepping in and organizing the disorder into a learning management system or single sign-in portal through which students can keep tabs on all of their digital spaces.
5. Hands-ON Experimentation and Discovery
- In science and math classes, is technology being used to conduct more accurate experiments, to become more efficient, to model complex concepts, and to visualize content via simulations?
- Is there an engineering, computer science, or programming curriculum in place to introduce students to future tech careers? What steps are being taken to encourage girls' participation in these courses?
- Is technology being used to connect students with experts, native speakers, other students, or virtual field trips to enable exploration and discovery beyond the confines of the classroom?
Tech is often equated with a one-way transmission of information, where students are passive consumers of information. This limited definition fails to recognize the connective, creative, and exploratory potential of technology. Prospectives should be on the look out for ways that students "make" with tech: make meaning through modeling and simulations, make connections with the outside world, and make stuff!
There is a growing movement to give students the time and space to get their hands dirty and create beyond the science lab or art class. These programs, known as Maker Spaces, Tinkering, Tech Lab, etc. are the 21st century equivalent of shop class with a healthy dose of design thinking thrown in. 3D printing, design and programming software such as Scratch, and beginner's electronics, such as Arduinos or Raspberry Pis are now affordable and accessible enough that they should be integrated into independent school curricula, no questions asked.
Prospective families, especially those with daughters, should be pressing schools on the measures they take to recruit, support, and retain girls in upper-level and elective STEM courses. Curriculum and culture in these areas skew male, so concerted efforts are needed to attract and interest girls. A lack of commitment on this front would concern me.
6. Tech-enabled creativity
- Do students have access to digital tools, software, and equipment to produce creative works that show content mastery?
- Visit visual and performing arts as well as music classrooms. Has the art department pulled the proverbial short straw when it comes to allocating tech funds?
- Is tech-enabled innovation visible in the arts?
This point looks both at creativity on an individual student level and at an institutional level. The first is simple to judge. Ask a student in the hall about the last time they made a film, podcast, or other creative product for class. Does the process sound invigorating or arduous? Quick and easy or labyrinthine?
The arts department assessment is much more of a wild card. For real world professional artists, designers, musicians, filmmakers, and photographers, technology is ever-present and essential. In schools, however, the arts department can often be the last in line for tech upgrades and/or a stronghold of analog purists. Making sure tech advances have trickled down into the classroom when appropriate will assure you that the school is making an effort to connect classroom practice to real world application and that every department is held accountable to the same standards. If you see an arts department that integrates digital recording equipment and editing software, or that has incorporated modern arts such as graphic, multimedia or web design, you can be sure that there is a wide-spread culture of forward-thinking innovation.
All photos are either mine or the property of the Urban School of SF.