As the registrar of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, Brent LaRowe has an interesting perspective on technology and education. In this podcast, Brent talks about his role in coordinating a lot of the platforms that parents, teachers and students use to manage, view and store their academic data. We also talk about how simple platforms can provide the catalyst for needed change.
Welcome to the MBS Direct podcast, where we talk with some of our partners who are doing interesting things with content and education. I'm Carrie Watkins, the senior digital consultant with MBS Direct. Today we are talking with Brent LaRowe, registrar with the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Thank you for joining us, Brent.
Brent LaRowe: Thank you for having me.
Carrie: As the Registrar you get an interesting view of education and technology. Tell us a little bit about your role at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.
Brent: The Registrar's Office at Lab is a very typical registrar's office in that it handles a lot of the student records and student information. Also conjunctive to that, we handle a lot of parent information and records management as well. As a result of having that much contact with this core info, we also have a lot of oversight and downstream systems that teachers or administrators or parents can be using to help facilitate conversations around education.
Tangential to that and germane to our partnership with MBS Direct, my office also coordinates textbooks and materials with the teachers as it relates to their academic elements in the classroom so it all kind of ties together with a sort of central hub of student information and then these spokes that are related but can be parent information or student academic progress or student academic resources like textbooks.
Carrie: You're still involved in a lot of the technology decisions at the school so talk a little bit about what kind of technology you're looking for with all of that data and how that impacts the student and the school.
Brent: We're always looking for something of a Holy Grail when it comes to technology. We're always keenly interested in the interoperability of different systems. Often we will be in conversations with particular vendors about certain products and elements that are marketed as a feature are prominently brought forward including this kind of interoperability. Our student information system is kind of a large student information system and so there are a lot of different products that can integrate with it. From our experience, we have found that Lab does thing in a special way, just like every other school, so often these promises of integration don't really manifest themselves in the way that they were originally envisioned.
We typically then have to derive processes to achieve the same results. Often when I'm involved in technology decisions I'm looking not to hook up pipes from one to the other, I'm looking to make sure that the information that's stored in one system can reasonably be transmitted over to a different system for use for our faculty or for our students or parents in a way that is highly faithful to the original information and also timely and useful. There's an awful lot of coordination that happens between these different systems at that kind of a level that has little to do with a data import.
How long have you been in this role?
Brent: I've been the Registrar of the schools for seven years now and I had been the Assistant Registrar prior to that for four years so I've been at Lab for 11.
Carrie: A lot has changed in 11 years, especially when it comes to this type of interoperability with some of these major platforms that these schools are using. How have you seen that change over the last 11 years at Lab School?
Brent: At first, when there was an awful lot of emphasis of network resources for these various efforts, so much pressure was put on that data pipe idea. That these two systems had to map perfectly and lots of work was put into maneuvering one system or the other to more closely align themselves. As time went on, by necessity it was impossible to keep that kind of almost like a data overlord position for all of the different systems that can come online. Teachers are engaging with different platforms constantly.
Our Director of Information Technology is a person who is very busy reviewing licenses and agreements with these various services to make sure that Lab's interests are still well met. He's constantly busy with it. A teacher finds a new product all the time and wants to engage with it. The information that that product then either demands or produces, it's difficult to capture that stuff efficiently and certainly difficult to integrate it within existing processes without a much deeper conversation and much broader thought.
Carrie: That's one of the fun things about education today is the details are what's going to change but as long as you have an idea of what the overall picture is you're going to head in the right direction regardless of what the details actually say.
How do you guys work with that constant flux of change in education and these technologies that you're using, especially around data?
Brent: We keep ourselves focused on a pretty simple mission. We call our students the youngest members of the University of Chicago community and our work is to serve them. By proxy of course, we are also serving their parents. Is this action or are these decisions going to further the ability for these students to maximize their growth within our program and have their families be satisfied with the education they receive at Lab?
There's a ton of autonomy that happens within the classroom so coordinating that effort can be pretty tricky. There's a lot of administrative overhead that can happen when you have a half-dozen home room teachers and they've got a half of different decisions that are being made with certain things. That organic quality also has a benefit in that a new idea can be discovered pretty quickly. Instead of grade level or school-wide initiatives that are endorsed by everyone and it either rises or falls collectively, we also have the ability at Lab to enjoy sort of pioneers in a lot of different areas. If one of them finds a particularly great idea or a concept or a program or a method of capturing information, they can report back to other people and say, "Hey, this tool's really great. I use it this way and it helps me in this capacity to achieve my goal from the classroom." That idea can then proliferate pretty quickly.
Carrie: Do you have any examples of maybe an idea that has bubbled from the top that you think went really well for your students or the school in general?
Brent: We recently became a Google Apps for Education school so we use Google for their drive space. In a relatively short amount of time, people started to recognize the value of having this information captured in a single network space that did an excellent job tracking changes and also allowed for dissemination within a controlled environment relatively easily. Just enough about it was thoughtful in how it was implemented and there was just enough creativity on our side on how to utilize this resource. We're finding the opportunity left, right and center to further the mission of the schools by better communication, better information data.
Carrie: Sometimes that's all it takes to really start opening some of those doors towards other things and not just because it's a technology platform but because there's a lot that we need to do as organizations to use a lot of this stuff and think about things a little bit differently.
What brought you to education?
Brent: I in one way or another have been involved in the education of children since I was in college. I was not an education major. I was a history major but my work-study program was in a museum. The thing I was most involved with was the Outreach Program. We would take science lessons and pack them in totes in the back of a van and go off to local schools and then parents and students would come by for a couple of hours, fiddle with the stuff, learn a concept or two and then we'd pack it up and go home. The opportunity to see young minds a work, to witness those ah-ha moments over and over again, to recognize how that learning can take place with a couple of empty soda cans and a straw. That was my introduction. Then found that I have an affinity for information management.
Walking down the halls and having excited learners in every classroom is a privilege and it is such a joy to be able to be in an environment where my work facilitates that discovery again.
Carrie: For the past 11 years, you've seen a lot of things shift but you still continue to see those magic moments where the students are really engaged. What do you think education needs right now in order to continue to have those moments for those students?
Brent: It's my opinion that all education should seek to bring a child to their maximum potential, whatever that maximum happens to be and whatever area that person happens to be superb at. The ability to individualize this type of learning is daunting. It's humongous. It's very difficult to keep track of this kind of granular stuff for so many people. I find that there tools on the market that speak to that promise. It starts to trend toward that level of understanding but that hope that this one child walks into these schools and after 15 years emerges with skills and a desire to learn more about whatever their strengths are and an appreciation for the elements that are not their strength. I think that's a fantastic success.
That sets the groundwork for that person to continue to seek out new information and to continue to expand themselves, to better themselves and the community. To better their families, to better their friends. It's just a great domino effect that happens when you are able to accomplish that. There's a lot of practical stuff that has to be considered that has nothing to do with just sitting and dreaming up great ways for students to learn. There's an awful lot of just dealing with daytoday stuff with social issues, with engagement issues that our teachers and their administrators are also having to manage. It's a daunting task.
Carrie: Have that large vision. Really focus on where you want to go but kind of keep in the back of your mind and plan for some of the other things that your students are facing in their lives but you may not see in the classroom.
Carrie: Brent, you are a connected educator. You are constantly reading and learning and going to conferences as well as seeing what's happening there in your own environment.
What do you think is the most interesting thing happening in education right now?
Brent: I think there's a couple of really amazing things that are happening. Both are sort of centered around technology. We all completely understand the sub-current that is happening where the tools that are being used within the capacity of education are changing momentously and rather quickly. There's a profound opportunity for students all over the world to have access to wonderful ways to understand concepts and to gain information that was just unavailable even five years ago; 10 years ago it was unthinkable.
There also wonderful opportunities for the collection of information that will help us understand how people learn in ways that we haven't really seen in decades. The ultimate position might be one of comprehension about how these concept interplay with each other over time rather than any one method. We have the same core tool in the form technology as it relates to information collection and provision that is serving both individuals who would never have the opportunity to understand concepts that are life-changing. Also to allow for people who want to try and make this process better to gain incredible insights that can really move the industry forward and really turn classroom situation into just fantastic situations time and time and time again.
Carrie: Thank you very much for your time, Brent. I appreciate you giving us your thoughts and spending some time with us this morning and thank you very much for your partnership.
Brent: Absolutely. It's been a fantastic time with MBS Direct and we are very, very pleased.