with Dr. Irving Hamer, Jr., Board of Education Member
and Chair of Technology Task Force
Pola Rosen, Ed.D. and Mitchell Levine
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?
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.
Can you give an example of a district that works, in your opinion?
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.
What do you see as the value of that?
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
Are these tools for the children themselves, or the teachers?
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
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.
What is the Technology Task Force’s role in the technology adoption
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.
Who will pay for this?
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.
Who now has to pass these resolutions to make it go?
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.
Who else are you having conversations with about this initiative?
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.
What else is on the drawing board?
Hamer: Providing a laptop to every 4th grader in NYC.
Would you let the children take the laptops home? If so, what
would the loss factor be?
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
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.
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.
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
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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