News Flash: Congress Discovers Technology is Not Improving Education!

Evidently in between campaigning for re-election, our Congress-critters have voted to bring American education into the 21st century.

According to the BBC (and why do I have to go to England to learn this?), a recently-passed bill will create The National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies to “explore ways advanced computer and communications technologies can improve learning”.

Of course the motivation comes from all those mean countries who are taking our jobs.

“American businesses know that they need a well-educated workforce to face growing competition from China, India and Europe.”

The Federation of American Scientists said, “The creativity that developed extraordinary new information technologies has not focused on finding ways to make learning more compelling, more personal and more productive in our nation’s schools.

“People assumed that the explosion of innovation in information tools in business and service industries would automatically move into classrooms.”

That, the Federation said, has simply not happened.

It hasn’t? We’re shocked! Shocked!

The centre will support a ‘first of its kind’ comprehensive research and development programme aimed at improving all levels of learning from kindergarten to university and from government training to college.

One of the goals of the center involves “taking technology that works well in an industry setting to the classroom and measuring its effectiveness”.

Very nice.

However, I wonder if the Center’s plans will involve actually changing curriculum, classroom practice, and school culture to take advantage of the power of the information and communications tools.

Or will this be another case of trying to graft technology onto the antiquated 20th century agrarian structure of teaching and learning that has been at the heart of American education for half a century or more?

My optimistic side hopes for the former. Experience (and not a small amount of cynicism) expects it will be the later.

Tell Me Something We Don’t Know

According to the headline from a new study funded jointly by the two largest teachers’ unions, technology is not being used effectively in schools.

Well, I’m not sure we needed another high priced study to arrive at that conclusion but this little bit from the executive summary is worth repeating.

Yet, despite these significant investments of resources and time, the debate on education technology is still largely unresolved. Mounting evidence shows that technology improves efficiency among educators and increases motivation in students. However, the effect of technology on student achievement is not well documented.

That’s certainly true, but I’m not even sure we’ve documented improvements in staff efficiency and student motivation.

Anyway, moving on to the researcher’s conclusions, most of which will also be unsurprising to anyone who’s been involved in education over the past decade.

Results show that the training educators receive on using technology has been more effective for administrative tasks than for instruction and that training has been more accessible to educators in certain demographic groups.

Findings for technology access and support indicate that although schools had accumulated technology hardware for students’ use, it was not adequate in most schools to meet the demands of classroom instruction. Further, many teachers still believed that their access to instructional software and technical support was not adequate.

Both educators’ and students’ use of technology for instruction has been limited in scope and infrequent.

So, how do we make things better? The authors of this study come up with four general recommendations, all of which we’ve heard many times before.

  1. Improve technology access
  2. Increase internet access, software, and technical support
  3. Expand professional development in technology and integrate use of technology as a learning tool in classrooms
  4. Encourage union or education association support for states’ and districts’ plans to fund and provide technology

Very nice. However, once again they miss a huge piece of this puzzle.

People in the real world are making major changes in the way they gather, process, manage, and use information, largely due to the web and mobile technologies.

Schools, on the other hand, are still locked in the model where a teacher is responsible for dispensing data at a fixed rate from a standardized curriculum of compartmentalized knowledge.

Technology offers the potential to make learning far more flexible, in terms of content, student learning styles, teaching styles, location and so much more.

Until we incorporate that fact into our education systems, any increases in funding, tech support and training are not going to make much difference.

Right Words, But Something Doesn’t Fit

I’m glad someone I respect is having questions and doubts about the latest education-needs-to-change-in-the-21st-century video now making the email/blog circuit.

Learning to Change features a series of statements by education big wigs (familiar names, if not faces) about how our current idea of “education” doesn’t fit with the world that kids will be living in.

Lots of talk about communication, collaboration, 21st century skills, connectivity, creativity, which is all good.

However, it all feels artificial, flowing out of the video more as a laundry list of concepts and cliches than a cohesive point of view.

There’s little or nothing here to suggest that these people have any idea how these pieces could be assembled to create a new vision for teaching and learning.

Chris’ has some of the same and related concerns (he just expresses them a whole lot better than I can).

I just worry a lot that our ideas are being sold as panaceas, perhaps because they are being shilled by folks with a moneyed interest in them, and that makes it much harder to have an honest conversation about them. Because nowhere in that talk — which was produced and sponsored by Pearson Learning is there much of an honest discussion of just how hard implementation of these ideas actually is.

And I don’t know… perhaps under it all, I have a sense that these folks think, “If we just change it all up, the kids will all suddenly just start learning like crazy” when that misses several points — 1) we still have an insanely anti-intellectual culture that is so much more powerful than schools. 2) Deep learning is still hard, and our culture is moving away from valuing things that are hard to do. 3) We still need teachers to teach kids thoughtfulness, wisdom, care, compassion, and there’s an anti-teacher rhetoric that, to me, undermines that video’s message.

That add-tech-and-they-will-learn attitude is one that has permeated instructional technology practically since day one. It hasn’t worked so far and there’s no reason to believe that adding web 2.0 tools will instantly make a difference.

Without fundamental alterations to our educational structure, to what we think of as “school”, not to mention the shifts in societal attitudes that Chris noted, none of this will improve learning.

And then there’s the matter of the people behind the curtain, the ones who assembled the video. Like Chris, it was another factor that bothered me.

That would be Pearson Education and CoSN, both large organizations whose existence is very much rooted in very traditional concepts of technology use in education. I wonder how much change either of them wants to see.

Especially Pearson, which over the past ten years has bought up every edtech company they could find with little or no idea of how (or whether) they fit together.

Let’s face it, their profits depend on schools buying lots and lots of the same old thing.

But I could be wrong. Maybe I missed something or got the wrong interpretation.

Go watch the video, read Chris’ thoughts and see what you think.

Sleeping Through PowerPoint

The place of technology in the classroom is a topic being debated on many college campuses, including Princeton.

The two biggest problems identified so far? PowerPoint presentations and laptops in the classroom.

Concerning laptop use, faculty members said one of their worries is that the internet’s ocean of resources makes it more difficult for students to decide what information is trustworthy. But for the most part, they said, the chief annoyance is when students use laptops in class for purposes other than academics.

The first part of that concern is really a red herring. Teaching students to evaluate information, from the web or anywhere else, should be a key part of the curriculum at every level, even an Ivy League university.

So, faculty members are mostly annoyed that students are surfing the web instead of paying attention to their lectures. Who’s fault is that?

Then there’s PowerPoint.

PowerPoint slideshows were another concern addressed during the meeting. Though they are the standard format for many Princeton lectures, doubts surfaced yesterday regarding their merit as a method of instruction.

“Princeton prides itself on its precepts and lectures,” history professor Graham Burnett said. “Those very precepts and lectures are now under siege … [PowerPoint] induces a very static and ultimately boring presentation.”

Again, who’s fault is that? PowerPoint doesn’t “induce” anything. Boring lectures are going to be boring with or without the accompanying slide show.

Beyond slide shows being the cause of poor teaching, some also blame them for truancy.

Slideshows posted on Blackboard, suspected to be a widespread excuse for truancy, are PowerPoint’s second pitfall, the panelists said.

“I post presentations online so that my students are not scribbling furiously in class,” computer science professor Brian Kernighan said, “but that can also inspire [students] to stay in bed and download all the notes.”

Other than the fact that someone is paying big bucks for them to attend Princeton, I’m not sure I blame the students for staying in bed.

If they can learn the material by viewing the slide shows online, pass the tests, and not have to sit through boring presentations, why not?

Mmmm…. laptops, PowerPoint, Blackboard. That sounds like the edtech foundation of a certain overly-large school district around here.

No connection implied, however. :-)

[Thanks to edtechNOT for the link]