To e[Text] or not to e[Text]…is that the question?

DURING THE ADVENT AND IMPLEMENTATION OF HACKLEY School’s 9th grade iPad program, a popular discussion about student use of iPads has centered around e-textbooks. At first glance, the idea of e-textbooks sounds great. Students need textbooks and e-textbooks are cheaper, remove weight from those back-breaking book bags, and save trees.

Until the implementation of the 9th grade iPad program, however, e-textbooks were not a viable option for academic departments. Even with the optional “bring your own device” program the Upper School approved in recent years, which gave Upper School students access to the school’s wireless network, teachers choosing textbooks did not have a guarantee that all their students would have a device to read e-textbooks — let alone the same device, which presents a further challenge since many e-textbooks are designed for specific digital devices. The launch of the iPad program removed these barriers to pursuing the option of e-textbooks.

If only it were that simple. While the e-textbook version of the print textbook may address certain issues, many Hackley courses, especially the humanities, no longer use textbooks. On Upper School Parents Day, history teacher Michael Bass’ History 9 presentation highlighted the fact that many of our instructors have veered away from “a textbook” in favor of a conglomeration of primary sources and a variety of different scholarly historical works. Textbooks, they find, offer one perspective and set a lock step linear approach through the material and often attempt to dictate curriculum.
Over the years, I have heard many complaints from teachers about textbooks:

• they do not match the curriculum
• they carry the bias of the author and publisher
• they are out of date as soon as they are printed
• they are designed for use in Texas and California
• the reading level does not match course reading level
• the teacher only needed it for one part of the course
• they are backordered with the distributor

Frequently, the e-textbook is simply a scanned version of the paper text. It does not set out to address the concerns identified above regarding appropriateness for the curriculum, bias, dated content or availability from distributors. It’s just a lighter weight version of the same dissatisfying text. Further, while an e-textbook saves on backpack weight, some are over 10GB, consuming storage on the digital device, leaving less room for software, or necessitating purchase of expensive additional storage. And, frustratingly, because print textbook publishers are still trying to maintain their market in the digital sphere, the e-textbook landscape is littered with proprietary e-readers and non-standard formats.
Still, e-text in the learning environment offers some tremendous advantages. When diving in to academic texts, students have always highlighted, underlined and jammed written notes in the margins. Digital equivalents are powerful learning tools, as highlighted and underlined e-text can easily be pulled out and organized with the student notes. When referring back to e-text, all the text and the reader’s markups are easily searchable by entering key words. Readers notes also no longer need to be crammed into the available space in the margins but can simply be attached in the background.

English teacher Nicole Butterfield recently relayed an experience where she demonstrated these tools to one of her students and he immediately abandoned his print version. e-Text and the tools associated with e-readers can free up the analytic reading process in the same way that word processing can free up the tedious aspects of revision in the writing process.

The reality of the digital world that has brought e-textbooks also brings us transformative alternatives to e-textbooks. As we consider the opportunities presented by technology, it’s important to not to force analog models into their digital equivalents — instead, we need to seek technology tools that allow faculty to transform their teaching.
As a digital medium e-text also has the possibility to marry with other digital formats including images, audio and video. Many e-textbook producers have taken advantage of this fact by replacing the traditional textbook illustration with video of science experiment demonstration or audio of a historic song. Such integration can also promote improved learning of a topic.

In the case of Hackley’s Physics 9 course, teacher Bill McLay took the path of self-publishing. What started as an e-text has, as the digital publishing tools have improved, evolved to include digital video and provide in multiple formats making it both accessible and up to date.

Each teacher’s HOL page can, in its own way, come to replace the old “textbook” model. Many Hackley faculty have taken to heavily populating their HOL class pages. By using the flexibility of a website, Faculty can post information for students as they create it or as they find useful resources on the Internet. Teachers delivering “Flipped Classrooms” publish their videos here as they move through lessons. Providing links to useful content on the Internet also avoids the need to photocopy and distribute recently discovered valuable resources. This practice has the added benefit of avoiding issues of copyright and gives the teachers opportunities for discussion about what comprises an appropriate internet resource. The website also provides a platform for sharing student-generated content and classroom records. Photos and videos of student projects as well as classroom notes generated from Smart Boards can all be posted, providing enriching and timely resources. Students and teachers can continue reflective discussions outside the class through blogging.

Our new version of HOL also allows for teachers to organize this material into “Topics.” As the material gathered on their websites grow, instructors can place the various digital forms and resources together under one idea paralleling the arrangement of the curriculum. Curating content for students on a website allows a teacher to vet the resources they present and organize the content in ways that best support the curriculum they deliver.

With these new tools at their disposal, our teachers are exploring the many opportunities they present. As with anything, each of the solutions presented here is not all bad or all good. As we learned with the power outages during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, websites (and internet access) can, on occasion, have their limitations as well, and we continue to evaluate the tools on which we rely. e-Texts are not necessarily better that print text, dynamic electronic resources not always better than e-textbooks. All these tools have appropriate uses especially when you consider students learning styles, different learning experiences, and means of access. The iPad program this year is one step further ahead in providing the proper blend of those resources.

Mindful of Technology

One aspect of Hackley School’s Health, Wellness and Well-Being Initiative is Mindfulness Practices in Schools. Very recently, Hackley held a professional development day on its new initiative which included a workshop on Mindfulness by Arthur Zajonc and Grace Bullock.  Mr. Zajonc is Director of Mind & Life Institute, which has “pioneered the field of contemplative science.” According to Psychology Today, Mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present… Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”  This past fall, at another Hackley professional development day about technology in education, keynote speaker, Clive Thompson (author of Smarter than You Think), mentioned the ideas in Alex Soojung-Kim Pang ’s book The Distraction Addiction as a possible counterpoint to his own fairly rosy view of the positive of the role technology in society. After reading Mr. Pang’s book, I realized that it was less about addiction to the distracting uses of technology and more about the idea of “contemplative computing” (also the name of Mr. Pang’s blog). I did not see it as a counterpoint to Mr. Thompson’s talk but a complement.

In the book, Mr. Pang lays out steps for understanding one’s relationship with technology which he calls “entanglement.” He describes our use of technology as extensions of our minds and suggests ways to become conscious of the ways we depend on technology. Recognizing the topic of multitasking, he recommends that we examine when we multitask (multiple actions toward a single purpose) versus “switch tasking” (multiple actions towards multiple purposes). He encourages technology users to take digital sabbaths and step away from technology not only to understand the place of technology in our lives, but to become more mindful overall. Mr. Pang also briefly addresses contemplating how technology can at times help us become more mindful, giving his own example of using digital photography to take time to appreciate the environment around him. Ironically, I found more mindful ways to read non-fiction, by making use of digital highlighting, note taking and searching tools, but The Distraction Addiction is not available as an ebook. By taking the time to recognize our entanglement we can better control it, he explains.

In another book recommended by Mr.Thompson, Program or be Programmed , the author, Douglas Rushkoff, examines how use of technology has affected our relationship with society and culture. Mr. Rushkoff also set up the book as guide for navigating our way in a culture now deeply affected by new communication tools and social media. He discusses the importance of our own identity and the dangers of anonymity.  Most importantly, I think, he points out the necessity for understanding what happens in the conversion of our analog world to the digital. Digital recordings are mathematical representation of an event based on measurement whereas an analog recording is a “physical impression”. He encourages the reader to be conscious of the difference of person to person communication (38%  pitch, volume and tone, 55% body movement) versus interaction through digital technology. His conclusion is the best way to understand technology’s place in life and society is by understanding how it works. This includes, from the title of the book, gaining understanding of programming. He believes that it is important for us to learn to code so that our digital world is not biased to those who can. As a long time advocate of computer science in the curriculum, I could not agree more. Even the the simple understanding of how many lines of code (over 50 million to create Facebook) it takes to implement much of the software we use on daily basis, grants us a better appreciation of the technology we use.

Last spring, I wrote about the how faculty at Hackley employ new technology to transform student learning. As we embark on an initiative to use iPad’s in the 9th grade curriculum next year, we will be taking one step further towards giving students a tool that provides them ready access to information and software to help them transform their own learning. Beyond Clive Thompson’s recommendation, one of the things that attracted me to Mr. Pang’s book was the word “distraction.” One of the constant themes that emerged throughout the planning stages was the potential for a personal device to distract students in the class room. However the element of distraction is not new to the classroom with arrival of the iPad. Ultimately, Hackley decided to launch the iPad initiative because of the transformative possibilities. As they have always done, teachers will work with student to help them become more mindful of their classroom environment. Having the experience of using a mobile device in school with instructors will help them understand the role of the device in their lives. Since it also will not always be needed for the classroom, students can learn balance of use. I am looking forward to the possibilities technology will bring to classroom. I also continue to look forward to working with students to understand how to become mindful of technology in their lives.

Clive Thompson @ Hackley School

IMG_0017Today, journalist Clive Thompson spoke to Hackley Upper and Middle School faculty about conclusions he drew from his research done while preparing his book, Smarter than You Think:  How Technology is Changing our Lives. Specifically, Mr. Thompson’s talk covered the contemporary use of technology in education. His presentation broke down into four main themes: flipping the classroom, public thinking, new literacies, and critical thinking/critical “using”.

Flipping the classroom covered his observation and anecdotes from speaking with teachers around the world who employ the technique of assigning students to watch recorded lectures of content at home and engage in active learning in the classroom at school. Covering the topic of public thinking, Mr. Thompson commented on the explosion of personal writing due to use of digital text on the Internet. Additionally, he shared research on the improvement of student writing when writing for a public audience. In the new literacies section, he spoke of the trend in the teaching of computer programming and its importance to help students understand how digital technology works. Finally, Mr. Thompson took on the fallacy of students as ‘digital natives’. While students are very familiar with digital technology, they are not very critical or analytic in the use of it he explained. As a primary example, he featured student’s misuse of Google search results as authoritative sources and the need to teach students critical use of such a tool.

Throughout his talk Clive Thompson recognized that these concepts were not new ideas but were ones he found to be trending and worthy of note. Furthermore, he acknowledged the hard work being done by teachers everywhere who were experimenting in these areas.

Smarter Than You Think website

Clive Thompson’s Blog, Collision Detection

Clive Thompson’s Maker Faire talk

Resources mentioned by Clive Thompson:

Khan Academy




Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

Seymour Papert on “Mathland” excerpted from the Squeakers DVD from Gary Stager on Vimeo.




Digital Natives, by Marc Prensky


Program or Be Programmed, by Douglas Rushkoff

Sheri Turkel

Distraction Additon, by Alex Pang

Net Smart, by Howard Reingold

Demand and Supply: Hackley’s Evolving Technology Programs Respond to Classroom Reality

When I first arrived at Hackley School, as a math teacher in 1988, the computer labs were for math teachers. The two labs were maintained by the Math Department and 18 IBM (remember IBM PCs?) PC XT’s and 18 IBM PS/2 , no hard drives, and only floppy disk drives. We provided the floppy disk for the operating system and students brought their own data disks. (5 ¼” for the XT’s and 3 ½” for the PS/2). Math faculty used programs such as Green Globs and Graphing Equations and Geometric Supposer. Our three level Computer Science curriculum were also part of the mathematics department.

At the time Hackley’s stated philosophy included, “Hackley exposes its students to classic texts and traditional disciplines, maintains an informed skepticism of fads and innovations….” In the years since, we have removed those words from the philosophy statement, not because we ceased to be healthy skeptics of educational fads but because it led those reading the statement to believe that we were “educational traditionalists” and therefore change averse.

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If the past twenty five years of Hackley’s history have proven anything, it is that Hackley is not change averse, but embracing of change that improves the lives of students and their educational experience. Beyond the obvious changes to physical plant, Hackley has evolved and expanded its curriculum in numerous ways, from the 9th Grade Physics curriculum in Science to the dramatic expansion of Visual Arts to the addition of Electronic Publishing and Chinese Language studies. Beyond dramatic visual changes in technology on campus from computer labs only to the additional presence of classroom laptops/iPads, projectors and Smart Boards, the most significant change exists in the way teachers and students use technology in curriculum, often in ways not immediately visible but that have tremendous impact on the way we teach and learn. (Technology on the Hilltop: Expanding Classrooms with Digital Engagement)

However, during those 25 years, one thing has not changed: the central function of the Hackley classroom is dialogue and intellectual exchange. Hackley faculty continue to create an environment where they can teach students the critical thinking skills to tackle new challenges. While technology allows for reconsideration of method, it does not change the substance of the Hackley classroom. Most importantly, while technology has provided new forms of interaction, it has not changed the relationship between Hackley teacher and student.

We see the questions this embrace of change sometimes provokes as a welcome challenge. As more and more students and faculty make use of the available technology on campus, our current methods of technology tool delivery are maxing out. Demand for use of computer labs and laptop/iPad carts now creates some competition for these resources, which sometimes requires faculty to rework lessons plans to accommodate availability. Even when not competing for resources, teachers often lose valuable time to the effort to distribute and deploy devices from a portable cart. All in all, as we examine the thoughtful ways faculty use these resources we continue to discover the ways current tools fall short of their purpose.

Such dilemmas beg the question “What if all students had their own technology”? Now that upper school students are able to connect their own computers, smartphones and/or tablets to our wireless network, faculty often ask students to make use of their personal devices in the classroom. However, inconsistent student ownership and a large variety of student owned tools, makes this approach impractical. This naturally leads to the question, “What if everyone was asked to bring a specific technology device to school?”

Over the past several months Erich Tusch, our Director of Instructional Technology, and I have been discussing this question with our student/faculty Technology Advisory Committee, our Academic Committee and through a series of working upper school faculty lunches. Many of the this summer’s professional development workshops Mr. Tusch organized dealt with using a device in the classroom our November professional development day will include more investigation of this idea. We plan to introduce the topic and report on our discussions at the October 16 HPA Coffee. Please join us to participate in the conversation and/or comment on this Perspectives story.

Technology on the Hilltop: Expanding Classrooms with Digital Engagement

Buzz, buzz, buzz … MOOC, STEM, STEAM, flipping, blending, gamification, streaming, BYOD, 1:1, PLNs, Big Data, the Cloud…. The buzz words swarming around technology in education are mind boggling. Clearly, the opportunities presented by technology in the classroom are tremendous, perhaps limitless, but at Hackley, we have learned that the topic is far from monolithic. Rather than adopt a singular approach – beyond certain basics such as use of email and SMART Boards, Hackley has chosen to make a wide array of resources available to students and faculty, providing the professional development and coaching to help teachers implement the right tools to support their curricular needs. Students and faculty at Hackley have easy access to a wide variety of technological tools and platforms, but curriculum always drives the integration of technology in the classroom.  It is never technology for technology’s sake.

As the world changes in the information age, so does the classroom.  In our own lives there is a spectrum of integration and Hackley classrooms are no different.  With an expansion of academic technology support including dedicated hours from the computer teachers, technicians, and technology administrators classroom use of technology continues to thrive. Beyond the higher enrollment of students in computer science classes and the addition of courses like robotics, technology integration in all classes is on the rise. In many cases the digital is simply a replacement for the analog–writing on a SMART Board instead of a blackboard, digital text instead of typing, digital recording in Foreign Language–and such changes make our lives easier and have value.  Our faculty also implement technology in deeper ways, sharing SMART Board notes, delivering multimedia classroom presentations, using digital probes to gather data in science labs, creating lower school learning centers, and more. Laptop cart, iPad cart and computer lab use is at an all time high. In the Lower School, expansion of iPad use in the classroom necessitated adding a second cart to the building. Highlighting all the creative ways faculty use technology would fill a book. The exciting changes are those developing towards the high end of the spectrum, allowing teachers to accomplish instruction in ways they could not before. Here faculty are using tech tools which can transform the way they teach and as a result engage our digital generation (“digital natives” to use a buzz word) in compelling ways.

“Flipped” teaching describes a style of instruction where, in the basic model, students view the traditional lecture portion class as an online video for homework and then, during class time, work on reinforcing exercises with the teacher available for guidance and question answering. Another buzz word associated with this approach is “blended” learning where the teacher “blends” traditional classroom instruction with “flipping” techniques.

Use of this idea takes many forms at Hackley. At its most basic level it has been used for years by teachers who assign reading for homework and then lead discussion based inquiry into the text during class. Now, instead of using class time to show educational movies, many teachers assign video watching for homework on resources like YouTube and Discovery Education. Others create their own online materials. Using electronic whiteboard apps  such as Explain Everything, and ShowMe on their iPads, Latin teacher Rowena Fenstermacher and Spanish Teacher Emily DeMarchena record some of their lessons and post them online.  Rowena found herself flipping her own professional development recently. In an effort to transition her famous analog Jeopardy style buzzers to a digital tool, she implemented a tool called Socrative, that displays aggregate results of a quiz where students submit their answers to questions using a mobile device. Wishing to fully understand the tool, Rowena watched online videos on how to use it and loves the ease of which she has integrated into her teaching. “I feel like I have arrived in the 21st century,” states Ms Fenstermacher.

In 8th Grade Science, instructor Dan Lipin does not care what you call it but he is sold. Dan has taken his classroom lecture Power Point slides and digitally filmed himself giving his lectures using screencasting software, Camtasia.  He then posts those videos on class website created with Google Sites and assigns the students to view them for homework. How does he know they have watched the video? Dan also assigns students to complete on online quiz through to demonstrate their understanding of the material covered in the lecture. Simple, right? “It’s like being a first year teacher again” states Dan Lipin. The aggregate time to create the videos and online quizzes is the same as creating a traditional classroom lecture and homework assignments. He now prepares additional material for the new time he has left in the classroom. Previously he may have only had time for one lab per unit; now almost every class is an engaging “hands on” science experience. Throughout this new approach Dan sought feedback from students and families.  All of it informed and helped him shape this new instructional approach. While there has been a learning curve for both instructor and students, when asked if it was worth it, Dan replied “Next year, 7th grade!”

Dialogue between teacher and student has always been a central tenet of Hackley instruction. Small classes, extensive extra help and accessible caring teachers are a part of our culture, also creating a climate of student to student intellectual exchange.  “Interactive” is another technology buzz word describing the transfer of information between computer and user through input and output. At Hackley, faculty use technology to extend human ”interactivity”, taking advantage of the opportunities we gain through flex time and space. While there are always limits on when teacher and students can connect with each other, faculty now create spaces with “Web 2.0” (an old tech buzz word) tools that are available beyond the classroom.

Google Docs (now called Google Drive) allows for the creation of a web based document where multiple users can contribute. Many teachers, mostly in the English and History departments, have adopted this as a tool in the writing process. Beyond basic collaboration, the tool allows editors to insert comments and see a time stamped history of revisions. Simply sharing a document online is nice, but a Google Doc allows for simultaneous, live collaboration. Students can see their teachers typing into their documents online. Often this leads to an impromptu “chat”. History teacher Stephen Fitzpatrick comments “I can think of no other experience that allows me as a teacher to observe the writing process unfold as students are literally putting thoughts on paper. I find, especially at the middle school level, that students crave and value the instant feedback provided through the comment function.”  Richard Robinson routinely comments on student papers on Google Drive; students who are online at the time he comments are able to see his words appear on their screen, creating the opportunity for “real time” conference. Doc Rob notes that, “Such real time conferencing during drafting and revising allows feedback where there once would have been much less opportunity for it, thereby allowing students more opportunity to refine crucial elements of their writing such as theses, topic sentences, analyses of evidence, etc.–and thus allowing students more opportunity to succeed and to develop confidence in their ability to do these things well.”  In addition, because the comments are immediately accessible, the feedback loop between student and teacher is more immediate.  No longer is there a stark separation of processes and possession in the writing timeline – in which the student wrote a paper, teacher collected the paper in class, teacher wrote comments,  teacher returned paper in class.

Google Drive also became a vital tool supporting exam preparation.   Seventh grade science teachers Melissa Boviero, Dan Lipin and Dan McElroy held an evening exam review session in a Google Doc shared with the entire grade.  Students typed in questions and other students responded with the answer. The teachers monitored the interaction and chimed in with clarifications when necessary.

The “Blog” tool is quickly gaining momentum at Hackley.  In a blog authors post writing and responders post separate comments. The result is a threaded conversation about the author’s post. Responders to the original post can have their own responses. Mostly notably implemented by the school newspaper The Dial, classes such as Literature of Social Comment and other school functions such as the recent trip Casten Trip to Barcelona also started Blogs. The new Water Ecology and Environmental Writing seminar just went public with their blog, located at  In English 11, teachers post a short writing prompt, the student writing is a responses to that post and then BOTH teachers and other students can respond to the student writing. Another time/space freedom advantage of this platform in particular has been expanded student participation. Students who may not normally contribute in a classroom setting due classroom dynamic or lack of class time can take the time to add thoughtful comments on their terms. Eleventh grade English teacher Chris Arnold noted via email that the blog tool “has  provided an appealing medium for some of my quieter, more introspective students. Not every student who is passionate about literature likes to dive into the give and take of a classroom discussion. These same students leap at the chance to articulate their ideas in writing. They respond with equal intelligence to comments from classmates, creating a vibrant dialogue without any prompting from me beyond my initial prompt.”  These examples are not the only ones and one article cannot do justice to the dedication many Hackley faculty have to enhancing their courses by integrating technology. Chinese teacher Roy Sheldon has students practice writing Chinese characters on iPads, Drama teacher Meredith Maddox provides instant feedback on student acting by digitally video recording classroom performances, Beth Retzloff records read-a-long audio tracks for her Kindergarteners to use with classroom books and English teacher Anne Siviglia recently had a homebound student attending class via Skype. This list goes on and on.

Some believe that technology will empower students to learn on their own, that they will simply go to the internet, navigate to Khan Academy or iTunes U and absorb the knowledge. The difference between knowing and understanding, however, is a good teacher. The point of transformation available to us now exists around time and space.  The ways in which tech tools allow teacher to reshape their time with students and restructure how they can interact with students in their learning is the real transformation.