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Stanart’s workshop

Our County Clerk has been doing some tinkering.

The Harris County Clerk has spent hundreds of hours and millions of dollars to build, from the ground up, an electronic voter check-in system at the polls, Channel 2 Investigates has learned.

“It’s taken more than two-and-a-half years. There’s been investments of more than $2 million, and we don’t really have anything to show for it yet,” said Adrian Shelley, Texas Director of Public Citizen, a citizen advocacy group.

Based on receipts provided by his office, Stan Stanart, an elected official in his second term, has spent $2.75 million of public funds, so far, inventing what he calls an “electronic poll book.”

It is unclear how much more Stanart plans to spend to bring the project to fruition or how much the system will cost in annual maintenance.

Stanart has said his project could ultimately offer substantial savings to Harris County versus an “off-the-shelf system” which by Stanart’s estimates would cost between $3.99 million and $6.12 million. (View document)

Stanart’s project principally consists of an iPad, custom software and a customized stand to hold the iPad. The finished product will alleviate long lines at voting locations by making the check-in process more efficient, Stanart has said.

The clerk procured hundreds of individual parts for the project, including thousands of dollars of washers, magnets and foam.

The purchase of 2,400 iPads was made in July 2015. The vast majority of those iPads stayed in a warehouse, unopened and unused for more than two years.

Stanart has said he is now in the process of mating the iPads to his custom-built stands. He rolled out less than 100 of them in November for a test run. The county clerk has not publicized the results of that initial foray, but has said he plans the full implementation of his system in March’s primaries.

“I think most reasonable would say you probably shouldn’t have spent $1 million on iPads if you weren’t going to use them sometime soon,” Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said.

Both Ellis and Shelley said the idea of automating the voter check-in process is a worthy pursuit, but questioned why the project has not had more transparency.

I’ll cut right to the chase and say that I agree with Ellis and Shelley. It’s entirely possible that this was a worthwhile project for the County Clerk to take on, but:

1) Are we sure there wasn’t a commercial or open source solution out there? Even if it was more expensive, being able to deploy it in earlier elections would have mitigated the extra cost.

2) What oversight did this project have? I’ve been involved in some big projects in the corporate world. We have timelines, signoffs, approvals, all sorts of things to ensure that the people who need to know about it do know about it and know where it stands. How much has Commissioners Court been looped in on this?

3) Are there any design documents, or other technical descriptions of what this is, what it is intended to do, what the requirements are, etc etc etc? In other words, is it written down anywhere what to expect when this thing finally debuts? And if so, where is that?

4) Finally, not to put too fine a point on it, but what was the original budget for this, and how does that compare with what has actually been spent?

Maybe this thing will be great, and maybe it will be a dud. The idea is a good one, but that means nothing if the execution isn’t there. It’s way past time for these questions to be answered.

More on the Fort Bend ISD iPad failure

The Observer presents a good overview of the disastrous iPad experiment at the Fort Bend Independent School District.

An audit of Fort Bend ISD’s iAchieve program released last month, details the ways the effort was cursed. (You can read the report below.) In short, Fort Bend ISD expected too much from its program too soon. It rushed ahead without enough tech infrastructure, without the right people, and without enough control over where its money was going. It hired a contractor the district knew well, but that had little experience developing iPad learning platforms.

“I felt they were rushing it—they only did a one-month pilot,” says [Jenny] Bailey, a school trustee elected during the iAchieve backlash. “Everyone knows you can’t really measure anything in a month. I felt like it was being pushed out for some odd reason.”

Bailey says the district seemed determined to take a particularly hard road, building its own platform with all new lessons.


Naturally, the district would need a highly skilled contractors to handle the technical side of this monstrous undertaking, and in February 2012 they made their pick: a Louisiana-based company called Curriculum Ventures that, as the auditors note, first registered with the state on the same day it bid on the iAchieve contract.

Curriculum Ventures had two employees, one of whom boasts that his experience includes having “(so far) built 5 businesses that were failures, 1 that was semi-successful, and 1 more that is mostly successful.”

If anything, the audit downplays what a strange decision this was. Bonnie Louque, the company’s director, was well known to [former FBISD Superintendent] Timothy Jenney and Fort Bend ISD as the seller of a curriculum called Character Links, a set of classroom handouts about positive traits like acceptance and respect. (Louque did not reply to phone or email messages from the Observer.)

A 2007 Houston Chronicle story credits Jenney with “discover[ing] the program,” and since then Fort Bend ISD has been named a national “School of Character” thanks in part to its use of Character Links. How Louque parlayed that relationship into a key role developing technology for Texas’ seventh-largest school district is a little less clear.

In September 2011, Louque & Associates got a $135,000 contract to develop a prototype of the interactive science platform, awarded without a competitive bid process.

One month later, now known as Curriculum Ventures, they bid for the million-dollar iAchieve contract. Fort Bend administrators gave them the high score out of four bidders, with 4.5 out of a possible 5 in “demonstrated competence and qualification.”

With Curriculum Ventures on board—and already billing for project maintenance beginning on day one—the district piloted iAchieve in 4th, 5th and 8th grade classrooms in spring and fall of 2012.

See here and here for the background. Clearly, the lesson here is that this sort of project should not be undertaken without a well-thought out plan and a contractor capable of executing it. The Fort Bend experience can serve as a good example of what not to do for any other school district that’s thinking about going down this path. The good news for FBISD is that this isn’t a total loss. As the story notes, they do still have all the equipment, a more robust WiFi infrastructure, and some new tech experts on staff. They can regroup from here and still get value out of their investment. I wish them good luck with that.

Fort Bend ISD halts iPad program

This is a surprise.

Widespread problems found by a consultant have prompted Fort Bend school district officials to shelve a $16 million initiative to integrate thousands of iPads into the classroom experience at 14 schools.

A review commissioned by the Fort Bend Independent School District found that the program, known as iAchieve, was rolled out last year with unrealistic goals. The review also concluded use of the devices was limited, managers had inadequate skills and the vendor hired to develop the learning platform was a startup with no relevant experience.

Officials hoped to improve lagging science scores by delivering an interactive curriculum for second through eighth grades using 6,300 iPads. Pilot efforts were conducted in fourth and eighth grades at three schools in spring 2012, and the initiative was expanded to 14 schools.

The superintendent, Timothy Jenney, and chief information officer who led the implementation have left the district. Current Superintendent Charles Dupre initiated the review by Gibson Consulting Group soon after he was hired in April.

“There was no clarity of why and how (the program) came to be and (was) executed, and that caused me some concern,” Dupre said.


According to the report, the district’s timetable for the program was overly aggressive. For example, the consultant noted that pilot classes were delayed because of lack of instructional content and problems with the platform and network issues.

Another issue was the district’s decision to appoint its chief information officer as the project manager. Such a major technology initiative required a full-time manager with expertise in large-scale projects, curriculum development and instructional technology, the report said.

The district created three special project coordinator positions to support implementation, but the skill requirements posted for the job were insufficient, the consultant found.

In addition, the review found the iPads were not fully used in the classrooms. On average, only two schools reported that as many as half of their students used the devices daily.

Teachers surveyed about the program following a second round of pilots in fall 2012 said the quality of the content was poor, the platform didn’t function properly and the lessons were inconsistent with district lesson plans, the report said.

Pretty brutal. I noted the pilot launch last year, but apparently there hasn’t been much public news about how the program had been going. The FBISD trustees received the report from Gibson Consulting on September 9. The Fort Bend Star was the only other place where I saw any reporting on this when I googled “iAchieve”. From their story:

The report showed a series of problems with iAchieve starting with an unrealistic timeline that overly stressed teachers charged with writing the science curriculum. Constant changes to the iAchieve’s software program, or platform, and inconsistencies in curriculum standards meant “the goal lines were always being moved” resulting in a lackluster launch that never gave the program solid footing.

“Most of the schools show a real underutilization of the iPads in the course of a typical day,” said Lon Heuer with Gibson Consulting Group.

In addition, the report suggested that the district should have hired an iAchieve manager with skills in project management and instructional technology to take charge of the large-scale project. The report mentioned 12 special project coordinators who were hired to help teachers navigate iAchieve, did not have the right skill set to do properly do the job.

“The former CIO (Robert Calvert) served as the project manager but being a CIO is a full time job,” said Heuer “(iAchieve) was hindered by the fact that it didn’t have a dedicated project manager with skills in project management and a background in instructional technology.”

Gibson’s report also detailed a series of poor contract management practices involving Curriculum Ventures, a company hired by the district to oversee the instructional technology. Whether Curriculum Ventures had any prior experience implementing a large scale project such as iAchieve is murky, the report says. Furthermore, the district lacked documentation showing the progress and status of iAchieve and there was little or no accountability as the program progressed.

“It appeared the company was doing work but Fort Bend ISD had no idea what was being done and how the project was moving forward,” Heuer said.

I have not come across a copy of the report itself, but it’s clear that this program had issues with its design and was poorly executed. I hope HISD, which is working on a laptops for all plan, takes a close look at what happened in Fort Bend to see what it can learn from that experience.

LA goes big on iPads in schools

I feel like we’re still on the tip of the iceberg, but that a lot more of this is coming soon.

Students in the Los Angeles Unified School District will receive 31,000 free iPads this school year under a new $30 million program launched by the district. The goal is to improve education and get them ready for the workforce with new technology skills they are not getting at home.

The first 31,000 iPads are only the initial phase of the program, which plans to buy and distribute iPads to all 640,000 students in the nation’s second-largest school district by late 2014, Mark Hovatter, the chief facilities executive for the LAUSD, told CITEworld.

“The most important thing is to try to prepare the kids for the technology they are going to face when they are going to graduate,” said Hovatter. “This is phase one, a mix of high school, middle school, and elementary students. We’re targeting kids who most likely don’t have their own computers or laptops or iPads. Their only exposure to computers now is going to be in their schools.”

The first deployment phase is underway now in 49 of the district’s 1,124 K-12 schools. Each student is receiving an iPad pre-loaded with educational applications and other programs that will be used by the students in their studies. By the official beginning of the new school year in August, all of the students in the first phase of the project will have their iPads and won’t have to share them, said Hovatter.

The project came about because educators realized that workers today in every field, including construction and automotive education, require skills with computers and related technologies, said Hovatter. “We are making sure that everyone is able to take a test electronically. Even in construction, you can’t do those jobs now without having some familiarity with computers. Whatever jobs kids want to have, technology is likely involved. You’re just not going to be able to do well in society if you don’t have some experience.”

It’s an interesting point about how even students in a “vocational” path instead of a college-bound path need to be comfortable and familiar with computers. With all the fuss over HB5 and the legitimate concerns that graduation requirements were made too loose, perhaps a commitment to ensuring that all students get a sufficient exposure to current technology would be in order. Some school districts here already have plans for iPads or laptops for their students. I hope that this becomes standard issue for all in the near future. If nothing else, there are now enough school districts experimenting with these tools that we should begin to have a pretty good idea of how best to use them going forward.

HISD to begin laptops for all program

Starting small, and presumably growing from there.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Houston ISD officials announced Thursday that they are prepared to give students at up to 18 high schools their own laptops next school year, becoming among the first big-city districts to launch a one-to-one computing program.

“This is a way of transforming what and how we teach,” HISD Superintendent Terry Grier told the school board.

Grier first pitched his laptop idea to the public during his State of the Schools speech in February. His chief technology officer, Lenny Schad, confirmed to the school board Thursday that the district is ready to proceed with the first batch of high schools next school year, doling out the laptops to teachers first semester and giving them to students in January. Schad’s team is finishing up an analysis of the high schools to see exactly how many are technologically ready to get the laptops next year. The number won’t be more than 18, he said, emphasizing that the district doesn’t want to rush the roll-out.

See here for the background. Starting with this pilot program would address one of the concerns raised in February by board President Anna Eastman, who was concerned about rolling out a program like this all at once. It’s not clear yet where the money will come from for this – the story estimates the price tag at $10 million – but I’m confident there will be grant money and/or partnership opportunities out there for it. HISD is not the first school district to propose something like this, so there will be examples to follow if need be. I look forward to seeing the results of this experiment.

Laptops for all

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier would like to bridge the digital divide in HISD.

Terry Grier

Superintendent Terry Grier said his goal is to equip all 130,000 students in grades three through 12 with a laptop and hopes to start with at least some high schools next year. He will try to rally community support for the concept during his State of the Schools speech on Friday and plans to submit a formal proposal to the school board in coming months.

Details, including the price tag, are still being worked out, though one estimate puts the first-year cost for leasing hardware and software for high school students at roughly $10 million. Students would return the laptops when they graduated or left for some other reason.

“Technology is not something of the future. It’s here,” Grier said in an interview this week. “It’s not about teaching kids how to use computers. They already know. It’s about how we teach. It’s about how we engage students.”


HISD’s recently approved bond measure includes $100 million for technology infrastructure such as wiring. Grier suggested at a recent school board retreat that some funding could be diverted from textbooks. The HISD Foundation also is willing to try to raise money to offset some costs, said executive director Krista Moser.


HISD board president Anna Eastman said she wants to see a plan that would phase in the technology or start with a pilot program.

“At face value, giving every kid a laptop is potentially really exciting – the thought of a kid not having to lug around a lot of textbooks, teachers being able to access open-source,” she said. “That said, it’s really expensive and it would be an ongoing cost.”

Such technology efforts fail when schools don’t plan enough and don’t focus on the lessons they want students to learn, said Howard Pitler, a technology expert at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

“At its worst, (districts) bring in a laptop or an iPad for every student, just using it to take notes. Don’t spend $600 on a spiral notebook,” Pitler said. “At its best, the computer changes the focus of learning from teacher-directed to student-centered.”

As we know, the McAllen and Fort Bend ISDs have been distributing iPads to their students. It’s too early to know how well that’s going, I think the potential of such a program is clear. Eastman’s concerns are valid, and Pitler’s caution should be heeded, so we’ll want to have a plan before proceeding. But I think this is a good vision for Grier to have, and I’d like to see it happen.

Fort Bend ISD goes BYOD

Students in the Fort Bend Independent School District may now bring their own mobile device to class to connect to the school’s WiFi and be part of the curriculum.

Fort Bend ISD’s policy allows students to use electronic devices to access the WiFi network in the classroom.

Before this year, the district forbade cellphone use on campus, and any technology use required permission from administrators. The policy follows a similar Katy ISD program, begun last school year. And Spring ISD has launched a pilot project this year at a high school and two middle schools.

Teachers have incorporated smartphones into math lessons by replacing flash cards with game apps and creating class blogs for language arts classes, where students question each other about their assigned reading. Students can also use smartphones in class to take pictures of concepts on the chalk board or to take part in class polls.

Jarret Reid Whitaker, the executive director of the Center for Digital Learning and Scholarship at Rice University, said the “bring your own device” trend is catching on around the state.

“This is an area that every district will have to face,” Whitaker said. “I think right now the only issue of concern raised is making sure students use it appropriately.”

Critics have pointed to insufficient evidence of a link between more access to technology and student success. Others note the potential for more cheating and the temptation to use the devices for non-academic purposes.

The Aldine Independent School District altered its strict cellphone policy this year to allow devices at school, although they must be turned off at all times. The Houston Independent School District still forbids cellphone use in its classrooms.

FBISD had a pilot iPad program last year, so this is presumably an extension of that; McAllen ISD is also using iPads in a big way. I think this is a good idea, assuming that every teacher still has the right to set their own policies in their classrooms. There’s a debate that the story touches on about the devices being a distraction and an enabler of cheating, and that there’s no evidence as yet that the use of such devices improves test scores. I get that, and again I believe no teacher should be required to use technology they don’t like or don’t believe makes their jobs easier, but I think not taking advantage of mobile devices where possible is like what ignoring would have been like 20 years ago. Smartphones, iPads, and the like are part of kids’ worlds these days, and they’re where all of the innovation is happening in computing. If we’re serious about wanting to graduate students who are ready for the challenges of the job market they’ll be facing, I don’t see how we can ignore such a key component to that market. As for the point about not improving test scores, all I can say is that even if there’s a sufficient body of research to make firm conclusions for technology that’s only been in existence for a couple of years, if this is our excuse for not integrating new technology into the classroom then we really are putting too much emphasis on standardized tests. I think school districts need to figure this out and get on with it, and I think it’s only a matter of time before the Lege makes them do it whether they want to or not. Better to get started on it now, if you ask me.

Apps for apes

This new program at the Houston Zoo sounds great, but we all know how it ends, right?

A digital revolution is sweeping the ape house, and now its denizens, formerly preoccupied with classic chimpish activities, are turning their attention to computer offerings originally developed for human toddlers.

“Chimps and orangutans and other apes are very intelligent,” said chimp keeper Helen Boostrom. “In the wild, the problems they must solve are finding food and shelter. They don’t have to do that at the zoo. This is enrichment. It helps them use their minds.”

Children and apes exhibit similar responses to the miracles on the screen, said zoo spokesman Brian Hill.

“You see the same reaction on their faces when they solve a problem and get something right,” he said.

Houston is the first Texas zoo to participate in “Apps for Apes,” a program developed by the New York-based primate advocacy group Orangutan Outreach. The effort was pioneered at zoos in Milwaukee and Toronto.

Orangutan Outreach’s executive director, Richard Zimmerman, said the program soon will be expanded to an additional 12 zoos.

“Really, with the iPad, we’re moving into new territory,” he said. “Chimpanzees and orangutans are very curious. They love new things.”

Okay, I’m not saying that it has to end in a dystopian future where apes dominate the planet and humans are subservient. I’m just saying that Dr. Zaius had to start somewhere, and I’ll bet he’d have gotten a lot farther faster if he’d had an iPad. But maybe we’ll still be okay if we contain this experiment and ensure that the apes have no way to communicate among themselves.

In coming months, Boostrom said, the Houston park will explore establishing connections with other zoos to allow local primates to visit face-to-face online with their cross-continent peers via Skype.

Never mind.

(I’m just kidding. Seriously, this is very cool.)

Fort Bend ISD goes iPad

I’m guessing stories like this are going to be increasingly common.

[Three Fort Bend ISD campuses], all Title I schools that serve predominantly low-income students, are the launching pad for iAchieve, a school district initiative to create a tablet-based “e-curriculum.”

Instead of simply distributing iPads to students and using educational apps already on the market, Fort Bend officials are building a platform that links on-demand lesson plans, curriculum guidelines, online resources, real-time assessments, interactive simulations, and suggested teaching strategies.

There are also plans to post videos of the district’s master teachers at work in the classroom, which could help younger teachers improve their craft, said Robert Calvert, Fort Bend ISD’s chief information officer.

“All a teacher will have to do is press a button to pull up resources,” Calvert explained. “When that bell rings, the teacher can scroll through her outline of daily lessons. If the students are learning really well, she can expand on activities. If they need more time, she can slow down.”

The primary goal is to use the technology to help raise lagging science scores, increase student engagement and close the equity gap between schools, according to Olwen Herron, Fort Bend’s chief academic officer.

“It’s the perfect partnership of instruction and technology,” said Herron. “iAchieve is not about technology per se. It’s about using technology to impact achievement.”

Although the iAchieve pilot phase is limited to three schools, the program will eventually expand to other schools in the district as well as other subjects, Herron said. It will also be adapted for use on other tablet-type devices.

It’s a differet approach than what McAllen ISD is doing, but it’s the same basic concept, trying to use technology to get better results. And as with McAllen, I’ll be very interested to see how it goes. Also of interest is that FBISD is paying for the devices partly with unused bond funds. Given that HISD is talking about a bond election possibly for this year, that may be something for them to think about, perhaps as a pot-sweetener.

Anyway, as I said I figure we’ll be seeing a lot more of these stories in the coming months. In the meantime, for a more technical view of things go read Frasier Speirs, whom Michael pointed out in the comments to the last post.

The iPad classroom

I’ll be very interested to see how this goes.

A Texas school district is trying to close its digital divide by distributing thousands of Apple tablet computers in a move that could make it the largest iPads program for students in the nation.

McAllen Independent School District in the southern part of the state began distributing 6,800 devices this week — mostly the iPad tablet computers, but also hundreds of iPod Touch devices for its youngest students.

By this time next year, the district says every one of its more than 25,000 students in grades K-12 will receive an iPad or iPod Touch. The district believes it’s the largest to try for complete coverage and while Apple would not confirm that, other districts the company noted as having made large investments have not made ones as big as McAllen’s.

Educational use of the tablet computers is so new that there’s little evidence available on their impact. Superintendent James Ponce said the district wanted to change the classroom culture, making it more interactive and creative and decided Apple’s devices — even at $500 retail for an iPad2 — were the best investment.

“We’re just choosing to invest differently going forward,” Ponce said.

Like I said, I can’t wait to see how this turns out. I hope they keep good data. You would think this would help, but you never know. I suppose it’s possible it could help, but the improvement isn’t enough to justify the unit cost. Or maybe it’ll be a game-changer, and the Lege will be under pressure to figure out how to pay for these things statewide. Which would be fine by me. But we won’t know that for a couple of years at least. Let’s see how it goes.

McAllen ISD goes digital

Here’s a look at the future, coming to a school near you.

A Rio Grande Valley school district plans to equip every one of its 25,000 students with Apple iPads, rolling ahead with a digitally enhanced curriculum effort that’s among the largest of its type in the nation.

“It’s not just about a device; it’s about a device in a child’s hand,” McAllen ISD Superintendent James Ponce told school officials and local dignitaries packed into an elementary school library for the announcement Tuesday. “It puts McAllen ISD out front and center.”

The school board last month unanimously approved the first phase of the project, a $3.6 million purchase of more than 5,000 iPad 2’s and 425 iPod Touch devices.

Within a year’s time, the district plans to take things districtwide, spending millions on devices that well may become each student’s own Internet research library, project manager and academic navigator.

To equip each student with an iPad will cost about $20.5 million, district officials said. The district will buy the devices, but said they also will pursue grants and donations to help pay for them.

While McAllen ISD officials say that this is the biggest project of its type in the country, it’s conceptually nothing new. The Lege passed a law in 2009 that directed the TEA to to adopt a list of electronic textbooks and instructional materials from which schools could select electronic textbooks or instructional materials to purchase. Admittedly, it’s been slow going so far, but some more innovative districts have found ways to take advantage of smartphones to enhance the classroom experience. This is just the next logical step in the progression. I wish McAllen ISD luck in finding underwriters for this project, and I hope they keep good track of all of their data.