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New York City
May 2002

Interview with Dr. Irving Hamer, Jr., Board of Education Member
and Chair of Technology Task Force

By Pola Rosen, Ed.D. and Mitchell Levine


Education Update (EU): For readers that might not be familiar with it, could you explain the Technology Task Force? What mission do you find yourself chartered with?

Dr. Irving Hamer: We have to go back 4 years to 1998. The NYC school system, not unlike most other urban school systems, had no conception of how it was going to place instructional technology in every teacher’s classroom. In 1998, the city had some amazing cutting -edge boutique schools – one school here, one district there, one grade level there – but the city had no vision nor concept of how it was going to make technology available to every single child regardless of their race, gender, jurisdiction, or financial station in society. When that became clear, the question then became “how do you make the new technology available?”

Very early on, a stumbling block– and to some extent a continuing one – was financing. And, of course, instructional technology is an emerging field in education. The people who know most about it are very often outside the education system.

What I was able to do in 1998 was persuade my colleagues to put together a task force of experts; people outside the system who really understood the importance of technology to education, and could help us make it generally available. We called business executives at Sisco, IBM and Toshiba; we called NYU and Columbia; we called on the unions, all to send us their best and their brightest. The task force met for almost two years, exploring every possible strategy. We realized we would have to do all kinds of professional development, so we immediately figured out that we could not do this from the current funding streams available.

Could we go to the federal government? The answer was no. Could we go to the state legislature or the governor? Did the mayor and city council have dedication to this purpose? We actually had conversations with folks at the Gardner Foundation and the Ford Foundation, and they too could not imagine how they could participate in such an expensive enterprise.

That’s how we entered the field, and it required that the task force begin thinking about new and innovative ways of making sure that the technology was available. We had to struggle against the idea that only people who can access [some kind of] technology can be entrepreneurs in leadership.

EU: Can you give an example of a district that works, in your opinion?

Dr. Hamer: District 6 is an example of a wonderful boutique. There are 6,000 children who go to the school everyday with laptops. There are 29,000 children in District 6 and 6,000 of them have access to this technology.

EU: What do you see as the value of that?

Dr. Hamer: To provide access to the extraordinary body of educational content that’s now being transmitted on the Internet. There’s content in mathematics, science, and various international languages. There’s contextual teaching of English; there’s neuroscience on the Internet for elementary-age children, so they can understand what their little minds are doing and why they’re doing it.

The point here is that this entire initiative is being driven by a pedagogy that we think is essential: You are not going to be an educated person, unless you can navigate the electronic space that is (the) information (superhighway). It’s an unbelievable revolution. And the real challenge that we have as an educational system and as a city is to make sure that we democratize access to this content.

Every single child that comes to the New York City Board of Education should have an email address and access to a computing device connected to the internet for their entire educational experience. It is the new book, it is the new chalkboard, it is the new pencil and it is the new notebook. You cannot imagine future generations of children in the public education system not having this essential tool.

EU: Are these tools for the children themselves, or the teachers?

Dr. Hamer: Both for the children and for teachers. The teacher’s story is hugely important because it was really clear to the task force that in addition to making the content available to children, we needed to change the experience from the teacher’s perspective.

We imagined that the Board of Education would create a portal and this portal would be like a Yahoo! portal or America Online portal, but it would be dedicated to education. And on this portal there would be essentially two zones: the education zone and the partner zone.

We’ll talk about the education zone first. It would be restricted to children, their parents, teachers, and other Board employees. No external person would have direct business with the Board of Education’s education program. [Only] that child and the school can have access to the education zone. There would be library content and content in math and science.

There would be a website on the education zone dedicated solely to teachers. If you go to GE (General Electric), if you go to the military, if you go to any major organization in the United States, people have been trained to do their work on the internet. Therefore, we have proposed the creation of a website just for professional development. In fact, the website for professional development is being built as we speak. In August this year, the website will become active [and] available. After the RFPs went out, Classroom Connect was chosen to do the professional development.

We will have ten learning modules up and running, and we’re negotiating with places like the Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bronx Zoo, and the Aquarium, to put their professional development content on our website so that teachers have access to it. Imagine being a teacher in the Flatlands of Brooklyn with no bus to the Museum of Natural History. You can’t access that content from there!

The challenge in NYC is so interesting. We have more resources, assets than any other local jurisdiction in the United States. We think that creating this portal will give us the opportunity to be the educational center of the world.

EU: What is the Technology Task Force’s role in the technology adoption process?

Dr. Hamer: The task force has no official governance role. They were appointed as volunteers. They made a series of recommendations. We have been studying these recommendations in our technology committee, which is an official entity of the NYC BOE. The task force’s role is advisory in nature.

Now I am converting the recommendations into policy proposals.

EU: Who will pay for this?

Dr. Hamer: Imagine a portal with a firewall between the educational zone and a “partner zone” targeted only to adults. The population of the NYC education community (K-12) is not 1.1 million children, but 3.5 million, which includes parents, administrators, teachers, BOE employees, museum educators, librarians and children. This community has intrinsic value. We went to AOL, Amex, Hertz, Nike, and every one of them would like to be in direct contact with the education community.

These companies would share the money they make from every transaction with the BOE. The “partner zone” will have an array of services only for adults. We are not selling anything to any child. A password gives adults access that children don’t have. Anyone who has a credit card can help fund the technology imperative. This is a new model and a new way of thinking about how to fund education, beyond tax dollars and grants from foundations.

EU: Who now has to pass these resolutions to make it go?

Dr. Hamer: First we have to get the seven member Board to pass the resolution. We think that the actual vote will take place on May 15. With respect to implementation, the Chancellor has to see this as a direct requirement. I am very hopeful that soon we will have an affirmative from the Mayor’s office. We actually briefed the five Regents on this initiative and they were breathless after we went through it. They said “we have to do this for the whole state of NY.” We got a green flag from the US Dept. of Education, and encouragement to apply for grants so that it could be used as a prototype to then be available to other jurisdictions.

The Board makes the final decision about the vendor, but the Chancellor has to make a recommendation to them. Then the Board authorizes the Chancellor to make a contract with one of the vendors. That vendor will then build the portal.

EU: Who else are you having conversations with about this initiative?

Dr. Hamer: We will be talking to the Laptop Foundation of America, which has one purpose: to see that every teacher in America has access to an Internet-connected computer. We have asked them to give us 15,000 units for middle school teachers.

EU: What else is on the drawing board?

Dr. Hamer: Providing a laptop to every 4th grader in NYC.

EU: Would you let the children take the laptops home? If so, what would the loss factor be?

Dr. Hamer: In District 6 in Washington Heights, which has high poverty and a high immigrant population, 6,000 laptops go back and forth every day. They only lost four. Two of the four were lost by adults. To make this successful, you need parent involvement and a safety plan

EU: If I were the Laptop Foundation of America, I might provide the laptops at cost initially, but I would hope to make a profit on the thousands more in future sales.

Dr. Hamer: Discount at the front end is a loss leader. But we are creating lifetime users who will need additional services, e.g. upgrading with more memory, changing the hard drive, etc. This will happen once the children become real users.

EU: There is a battle over the budget proceeding now. Among the programs that will be affected will be music and art. How will your initiative be affected?

Dr. Hamer: It is precisely at a moment like this that we need a bold initiative to keep the system moving forward. Every business in the history of the country has had its downturns. The most important thing is to reinvent what you do as a business. Here’s an opportunity to stimulate and indeed revolutionize the character of education, and to do it permanently. This should be our priority. We need new models, in fact, because there is a budget crunch. We need NYC to leapfrog into the future. Not since the Gutenberg Press has there been such a revolution. Every child should have email. That would be a true democracy. #


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