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Schools, technology, test scores, and the New York Times

[cross-posted at The Huffington Post]

HollyvictoriaEarlier this week the New York Times wondered whether investments in educational technology were worth it since most schools don’t see any concurrent improvement in students’ standardized test scores. That’s not exactly a new issue but it’s worth examining again. After all, we are talking about large sums of money here. I’ll start with some broad categories of pushback against the article…

1. Striving for different, higher-level learning outcomes

It’s hard to get at critical thinking, problem solving, effective communication and collaboration, complex synthesis and analysis, and other higher-order thinking skills with a bubble test. Many schools aren’t aiming at low-level factual recall and procedural knowledge with their technology initiatives.

2. An appalling lack of support

Most school districts ask their technology coordinator(s) to support computers and/or people at ratios that would absolutely horrify folks in the business world. Support ratios that are 3 to 10 times higher than in other sectors don’t result in meaningful, reliable technology usage. Also, many (most?) school districts still don’t have technology integration personnel on hand to work with teachers; they just have IT support folks.

3. An appalling lack of training

We shouldn’t expect test score gains when few teachers have been trained well to use digital technologies to improve learning outcomes. Instead, teachers usually are just given various technology tools and, if they’re lucky, some minimal training in how to access the various features. Deep, rich technology integration training that has the potential to change educators’ pedagogy is rare.

4. We need more technology

There’s not enough technology in schools to adequately judge the claim that they don’t impact test scores. The average student still uses digital technologies pretty infrequently. Ask the children in your extended family / circle of friends how many minutes per week they get to use technology to further their learning in school. Most likely will say very little…

5. Technology at the periphery leads to replicative use

Digital technologies have yet to significantly impact the day-to-day core work of learners and teachers. Instead, we have seen mainstream adoption and growth of replicative technologies (i.e., those that allow teachers to mirror traditional educational practices only with more bells and whistles). We still primarily see learning environments where teachers push out basic information to student recipients and then assess them on the kind of stuff that you can find on Google in 3 seconds. Also, when digital technologies are used, it’s primarily teachers using them, not students. Schools still mainly buy teacher-centric tools, not student-centric tools. We’re not actually seeing technology uses that would ‘change the game’ and thus maybe ‘change the scores.’

6. It’s the future [actually, it’s the present]

In case we haven’t noticed, it’s a digital world out there (and will be even more so in the future). What’s the alternative to putting learning technologies in the hands of students? Is there one? Knowledge workers in the real world (i.e., outside of school) use computers to do their work. Can educators really claim to be relevant to life outside of schools while simultaneously ignoring the technological transformations that surround them, as if digital technologies were a fad that were going to go away?

So, let’s sum up…

We have schools and classrooms that are still doing what they’ve always done, but with some additional infrequent and marginal uses of new learning tools. We have educators who don’t really know how to use the tools very well and who also have little access to those tools, reliable IT support, and/or regular integration assistance. For some reason we expect changes in certain learning outcomes to occur anyway, despite these environmental factors and despite the fact that those outcomes may not be what the schools were striving for in the first place. And, if we don’t see those outcomes, we’re going to claim it’s the fault of the technologies themselves rather than human and system factors and then we’re going to claim that traditional analog learning environments are just fine in a digital, global world.

Does this make sense to anybody? Apparently it does, because plenty of people chimed in to support the slant of the New York Times article…


This has been a long post so I’ll close with three thoughts:

A. I think that George Siemens has it right:

If it changes how information is created…
If it changes how information is shared…
If it changes how information is evaluated…
If it changes how people connect…
If it changes how people communicate…
If it changes what people can do for themselves…
Then it will change education, teaching, and learning.

Digital technologies and the Web WILL change education, teaching, and learning. Maybe not yet, at least not in the ways that we hope (and definitely not in the ways that we think). Maybe not until we get our collective act together and actually get serious about these technologies and start recognizing their learning potential and begin doing the things we should be doing to realize their affordances. Maybe right now we’re still in that place where corporations were in the 1980s and 1990s when pundits bemoaned that productivity gains were yet to be realized from technology investments, the place where we have yet to change the human and system factors sufficiently to realize the desired goals. But change is coming (and for many of us it already has).

B. I also think that Virginia Heffernan has it right (look, also at the New York Times!):

we can’t keep preparing students for a world that doesn’t exist. We can’t keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills [that students] are developing on their own. And above all, we must stop disparaging digital prowess just because some of us over 40 don’t happen to possess it. 

These I didn’t have technology when I was a kid and I turned out okay or technology makes kids dumber attitudes to which Heffernan refers are both rampant and unhelpful. Again, what are we supposed to do, go back to the quill or slate? I struggle particularly with folks like Larry Cuban, who somehow can internally reconcile his statements that digital technologies have no place in P-12 learning environments (“There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period, period, period. There is no body of evidence that shows a trend line.”) with his own admission that he has learned greatly from using the very tools he criticizes (“Learning also has come from the surprises I have found in the 1300-plus comments readers have posted. From those comments, I have received ideas I had not considered, sources sending me off to explore other topics, and counter-arguments I had overlooked.”).

C. And, as usual, David Warlick has it right:

There are many barriers that prevent us from retooling our classrooms for 21st century teaching and learning. But at the core is the story of education that resides in our minds. Most adults base their knowledge of schooling on their education experiences from 20, 30, or 40 years ago. It is a story that is etched almost indelibly by years of being taught in isolated, assembly-line fashioned classrooms.

How do we retell the story of education and fashion a new image of the classroom as a rich and comprehensive environment where students learn by asking questions, experimenting with a rich and diverse information environments, and interact with people around the world — in order to discover and build knowledge?

Right now – as evidenced by the New York Times article and its many supporters - we educational technology advocates still aren’t telling ‘the story’ very well to many educators, parents, community and school board members, policymakers, and/or the news media. That’s something we all have to work on if we ever are to accomplish the goal of making our children’s learning environments relevant to the world in which they and we now live.

Image credit: Holly and Victoria download datasheets

Is this the year?

2011calendarDear principal or superintendent,

It’s a new school year, and that brings new opportunities…

  • Is this the year that you begin the task of transforming your classrooms into learning spaces that emphasize hands-on inquiry, critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving instead of teacher lecture, rote practice, and fact regurgitation?
  • Is this the year that you get powerful digital learning tools into the hands of students – whether they be laptops, netbooks, or maybe iPads – so that they can start learning how to do knowledge work the way that knowledge workers in the real world do?
  • Is this the year that you finally invest some money in better technology integration support for teachers rather than simply buying more stuff?
  • Is this the year that you decide to confront what probably are brutal truths and survey your students in detail about how engaging and interesting their classes are?
  • Is this the year that your teachers pilot a unit or two where they use no textbooks whatsoever (paper or digital) and instead use wikis or social bookmarking tools with their students to co-curate a set of online learning resources that accomplishes the same (or better) learning goals?
  • Is this the year that your school system investigates what it means to effectively communicate these days and learns about how to present information online – hyperlinked/networked writing, online video, infographics, transmedia, etc. – rather than simply writing with ink on paper?
  • Is this the year that you experiment with some online learning in-house and have each teacher design/deliver a unit so that it is done wholly online rather than face-to-face?
  • Is this the year that you go out of your way – via multiple face-to-face, print, and online information channels – to help your parents and community understand what it really means to do effective workforce preparation these days?
  • Is this the year that you allow your students to give you input into how their own technological skills and interests can be better utilized in their learning environments?
  • Is this the year that you realize that other organizations are using social media to great effect to communicate with the people that they serve and that maybe you could too?
  • And so on…

Is this the year for you? If not, who’s going to do it if you don’t?

Image credit: Make your own planner

[Feel free to add your own in the comments area!]

Proposed education reforms must address students’ day-to-day classroom work

IowaeducationsummitLinda Fandel, Special Assistant for Education to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, wrote:

Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds will make draft recommendations for how to give all Iowa students a world-class education by Oct. 1.

The draft recommendations will focus on the three key areas addressed at the Iowa Education Summit in late July: (1) getting a great teacher in every classroom, a great principal in every building, and providing the support they need to do their jobs well; (2) raising academic standards and putting in place strong matching assessments; and (3) innovation that boosts learning.

To which I commented:

‘Great’ in the sense of quality (i.e., “really good” or perhaps “better than what we have now”) or ‘great’ in the sense of ‘exceptional’ (rare, unique)? Because the former is much more achievable than the latter. ‘Exceptional’ is exceptional for a reason; this is not Lake Wobegon (where every educator is above average). In every profession, there will be a continuum and there’s a natural curve under which only a certain percentage can ever be deemed to be ‘great.’ Unless we are going to have fewer educators overall (allowing us to dip less deep into the available talent pool), we are going to have a hard time meeting this goal without focusing heavily on talent recruitment, preservice and inservice training, and talent induction/support/retention. Education traditionally has a very poor record of doing these things because they’re quite difficult, time-consuming, and expensive.

I’ll also note that many current educators are going to be offended that the Governor doesn’t think they’re already ‘great.’ Deming noted that nearly all of the problems that we have with individuals is due to the systems in which they’re embedded. We’re going to have to decide if we are just going to focus on educators (and maybe colleges of education), which will be perceived by many as blaming and shaming, or we also going to recognize (and emphasize) the far greater (and thorny) problem of the systems in which they’re embedded. I hope the latter. Question: how do we know we don’t already have ‘great’ educators who are simply trapped in dysfunctional systems?

We’re also going to have to decide just how much we care that our state ranking has declined on national tests that emphasize low-level factual recall and procedural knowledge. Personally, I’m much less concerned by this than I am the fact that the overwhelming majority of Iowa schools – even our supposedly best ones – still aren’t adequately focusing on the higher-order thinking skills, technological competencies, intra- and interpersonal competencies, and other skill sets that will make our graduates truly ‘globally competitive.’

Final thought: If our proposed reforms don’t dramatically change what kids do on a day-to-day basis in the classroom, they’re going to be political theater rather than substantive change initiatives. So we need to think and talk robustly about what we want our kids to be DOING, not just what we want them to be learning. In other words, the HOW is just as important as the WHAT.

Please come join the conversation and take the opportunity to chime in BEFORE the blueprint comes out. The Iowa Department of Education is a little slow when it comes to approving comments but yours should show up eventually!

Image credit: Iowa Department of Education

Let the kids touch the computer

TrappedEric Marcos says:

Let them touch the computer. That’s how the world changed for me, for all of us. If you give kids a little bit of trust and let them try out some stuff, they’re going to come up with fascinating things that will surprise you.

You can read more about Eric and his students’ Mathtrain.tv project. Beginning this fall (and every year afterward), start asking your child’s teachers - or, better yet, your principal, superintendent, or school board members - this oh-so-important question:

You know, it’s a digital world out there now. How much time per week does the average child in this class / school / district get to use computers as part of his or her learning experience?

If you get an answer of more than 30 to 60 minutes per week (that’s only 6 to 12 minutes per day), you’ll be lucky. And, no, that’s not enough.

Image credit: Curious