For more interviews, please visit www.EdTechLive.com. To join in the
discussion on School 2.0, please visit www.School20.net. To see this
interview summary with the original links, go to
"The students, when they leave our classrooms, self-manage their own
learning, their own collaboration. As we bring those kinds of
environments within a classroom setting, how do we have that blend, if
you will, of teacher-management and student-management? That is
perhaps our greatest challenge right now: to what degree can we place
the responsibility of learning, and the management of that learning,
on the individual student? And to make that work, our parents have to
be partners, they have to have input into how that will work, and they
have to believe that that's also the environment that their children
are functioning [in] outside of school... so let's see how we can make
that work inside of school."
"These students today are very adept at working together, to find
information, and to create knowledge. What they're not adept at yet is
knowing what questions are the best ones to ask before they go looking
for that information. And yes, I firmly believe, that in my thinking
of reform, that our new collaborative tools, our web 2.0 tools, will
make the difference in making that happen in classrooms."
Jim Hirsch is the Associate Superintendent for Technology and Academic
Services at the 53,000 student Plano Independent School District. I
visited Plano ISD in November when we held a 2-day workshop on Moodle,
and I remember being struck by the superb training facilities that
they have there. I interviewed Jim last week, using an article in
eSchool News on "Education 2.0" as the starting point for the
discussion on school reform and technology.
Because much of the discussion on "School 2.0" or "Education 2.0"
usually comes from the grass-roots level of teacher-practioners who
feel that the school administration doesn't support the use of new
technologies, I thought it would be interesting to interview Jim. Jim
comes across as determined, pragmatic, organized, focused, and
methodical. He is articulate, and I felt that every answer he gave to
my questions had been thought about and spoken by him before. Jim has
been an outspoken proponent of "Open Technologies," which is not the
same thing, necessarily, as "Open Source" or "Free and Open Source"
software, so I was prepared to listen carefully as to how he discussed
* In the eSchool News article, Jim is quoted as predicting that
within five years "not a single desktop [at Plano] will carry the
image of a proprietary school software program." They are aiming to
totally move away from their dependence on proprietary client-based
software, and moving into a web-based sphere of development. They want
to extend learning outside of the school walls, including to devices
that most used by their students and their families--including cell
phones. Much of this, he believes, will be possible through Open
Source or Open Technologies.
* Usually I hear from teachers that it is hard to implement web
and collaborative tools in the classroom because the districts are
restricting their use. I asked Jim what was happening in Plano, since
the push is coming from the district side. He replied that they are
two years away from becoming a "majority minority" district, and
they've been in quick transition for the last few years, meaning that
they are coming to the realization that they can't do business as they
have done in the past to help all of their students to receive
high-quality instruction to to achieve. Their approach is very
pragmatic, as they can't afford to use technology that doesn't
accomplish that. They don't want to wait for the teacher
ground-swell--they want to figure it out now.
* How is this different than the technology promises of the last
20 years? He agrees that often technology has been placed in
classrooms with "hope" but without "planning." He thinks more and more
schools are thinking about how to truly leverage their resources to
actually make a difference. Low cost technologies with high impact are
starting to get adopted, like wireless keyboard in the classroom that
can be passed around and be used by the students to impact what's
being presented. Much less expensive than a digital chalkboard, and
* Even their low-income families have cell phones (in fact, they
more often have a cell phone than a land line, which requires more
stability). So then the challenge is to figure out how to use these
technologies that they have access to.
* To implement student-centered learning takes a lot of planning
and training. Training is a big part of changing from students being
"given knowledge" to "participating."
* Parental involvement--by and large the parents are interested in
being more informed and more involved in the student learning. Plano
have put into place a system that sends an email to parents based on
"trigger points" that they get to define. They are trying to make the
parents more of a partner in the learning process.
* They involve their teachers "intimately" in the curriculum
development process, and they provide teacher-leaders with the most
up-to-date tools and information that they can--both to get input from
their teams and to provide initial training and support. This involves
hundreds of teacher-leaders.
* How do you figure out what new technologies to focus and train
on? Until the technology gets out into the hands of the teachers, they
don't know how they will be used or how successful they will be. I was
very impressed with this mind-set from Jim. They have to be agile
enough, and open to input from the teachers, to figure out what tools
and training actually work. He uses the word "trust" here--that the
teachers have to trust that their input will make a difference, so
that they are willing to give it.
* The technologies getting most quickly adopted are those that
allow the students to participate and collaborate, like "large group
viewing" from a projector. Both teachers and students have said the
same thing--the students get a chance to deliver their creation in
front of the classroom.
* They are trying not to draw a distinction between Open Source /
Open Technology and proprietary software based on cost, but rather on
use and the strength the application brings to learning.
* Open Office: are using in a limited number of classrooms. It is
part of the goal to move away from proprietary desktop software, but
Microsoft Office-built parts of their curriculum make that hard to do
immediately, particularly PowerPoint presentations that don't play
well in Open Office. They don't want any unknown holes in their
curriculum, so have to identify those resources and then determine
what they are going to do.
* Much easier to implement has been the Free and Open Source
program GIMP, the graphical image program. They can roll out GIMP very
quickly and very easily in a mass implementation, because the
dependencies on previously-built training materials aren't there.
* I asked Jim if it was appropriate to link the new web
technologies and school reform. He does believe that the classroom
environment and teaching strategies do need to be reformed. Our
students of today, because of access to media, the internet, and
instant messaging "no longer rely on a historical perspective to make
decisions." The rely much more on their friends and what they can find
on a search engine. They are good at getting information, but don't
know what questions to ask before looking for the information (and
maybe in evaluating that information). He does think the Web 2.0 tools
will really help in the classroom.
* Blogs and wikis: they are at the infancy stage in using these.
When commercial-free sites became available, teachers asked to use
them. Rather than have the teachers go out and use different services,
they have committed to providing the resources internally. This means
that they have moved more slowly than some of the early adopters might
have liked, but they have actively involved those teachers who are
most interested in helping to make the decisions about how to bring
blogs and wikis into the curriculum. And once they are in the
curriculum, they will become systemic. Producing their own resources
for blogs and wikis will also give them the ability to manage them "in
the way that is most appropriate" for their community and make
decisions about student safety. Currently, all blogs being used are
being kept internal and not available to the outside world. (They use
Wordpress as their blogging platform.)
* Moodle--all their new development on on-line courses are now
being done on Moodle. They have been doing online courses since
February of 2000. They want to move all their existing content to
Moodle and wish they had a utility to do that (heads-up, Moodle
* How are their proprietary vendors responding to these
initiatives? They all ask the same first question: have we done
something wrong? He tells them no, but that they need to consider how
their product and service might work in the new environment. Removing
proprietary desktop software doesn't mean that Plano won't have
products and services that are needed from vendors--it just changes
the model of what is paid for.
* It's not just about instructional technology, but also involves
administrative systems: they are working on the development of their
own ERP system, looking for something totally web-based.
* The big concern about web-based applications for students is
what happens if the network goes down. We also talked about data
privacy and the ownership of data, as well as the local hosting of
* They don't use Linux on the desktop "at this point in time."
They do use it on their server farms. They have 120 units of
ultra-mobile units on order that will run Linux. It is a direction
that they are "definitely having as a requirement."
* They have 31,000 desktop computers, one computer for every 2.2
students. But they are not pushing for a 1:1 environment. Every
student needs teacher interaction every day, and collaboration doesn't
require computing. You can overdo the technology on occasion, but the
reverse is worse. He tells the touching story of one of their
8-year-old students guide a parent through the process of helping her
parent fill out an online job application at a kiosk. "It's incumbent
upon us in public education to provide our students with experiences
that allow them to function in their natural world--and that includes
* He's noticed that many of their students are moving from MySpace
* Jim doesn't blog, but he does track them and tries to contribute.
Interviewing Jim was quite interesting. Please comment and let me know
what you think. Is Jim as proactive an administrator as I think?
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