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Still Waiting on the Revolution

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While cleaning out some boxes recently, I ran across a book about educational technology that I first read almost twenty years ago, early in my time working with tech coaches to help teachers integrate computers in their classrooms.

In the book, “Oversold and Underused”, the author observed that teachers were not making effective use of all the new technology that was flooding into schools, and that most of the applications simply reproduced traditional practices. It certainly rang a bell with what I was seeing.

Flash forward to now, has anything changed?

Not really.

Schools have greatly increased spending on devices, software, and network connections in the past twenty years. But we still are not making meaningful use of all that stuff. And we seem to be trying harder than ever to wedge technology into a traditional classroom model.

Of course, the big difference from twenty years ago is that many, if not most, of our students are carrying powerful networking devices in their pockets. Devices they use to communicate, create, and learn. Acquiring knowledge and learning skills in which they are interested, but likely unrelated to the curriculum required in their formal schooling.

Beginning well before the beginning of this century, we were told that computers would revolutionize education. The technology is undoubtedly here, but we’re still waiting for the educational revolution.

More Than Delivering Content

Larry Cuban recently posted a commentary on MOOCs about three years after their introduction into the education hype machine, and offers three reasons why they will not revolutionize higher education.

All are good observations but I think number two also explains why they and other mass teaching platforms won’t revolutionize K12 schools.

The fundamental error in policymaker thinking is that teaching is solely delivering subject-matter to students. There is far more to teaching that content delivery such as creating a learning culture in the classroom, organizing lessons involving students in tasks that build understanding of what is supposed to be learned, and applying and practicing newly-learned knowledge and skills.

There aren’t many K12 MOOCs (yet) but we still have any number of highly-lauded subject-matter delivery systems promoted by billionaires and politicians, like Khan Academy, that are also neither revolutionary or effective, and do little or nothing to build a classroom learning culture.

Just my observation.

Do You Have To Lecture Me?

In a recent post, Larry Cuban offers a compact and interesting overview of two instructional mainstays, used by teachers for millennia: lecturing and questioning. And he believes both will be around for centuries more to come.

They are flexible and adaptable teaching techniques. With all of the concern for student-centered inquiry and using tougher questions based upon Bloom’s taxonomy, one enduring function of schooling is to transfer academic knowledge and skills (both technical and social) to the next generation. Social beliefs in transmitting knowledge as a primary purpose of schooling remain strong and abiding. [emphasis mine]

I would question his “one enduring function of schooling”, but that’s something to rant about another time.

When it comes to lecturing, the people who are best at it go far beyond just transmitting information.  They weave stories, entertain, and inspire. They are the people who deliver keynotes at conferences, offer motivational seminars, present TED talks, and sometimes give political stump speeches.

That Huge Lecture Theatre!

Unfortunately, far too few of the really good ones are teaching in high school and college classrooms. And, when it comes to lecturing as teaching technique, I’m not sure the technique has ever been all that effective for learning.

Although Cuban only fleetingly mentions the impact of evolving technologies over the centuries, the tools developed in just the past decade or so have dramatically decreased the necessity of using lecture for instruction, certainly in high schools.

The best presentations by those best lecturers can be easily archived and used by anyone in any class setting.

More importantly, those with something to say but with other skills can create compelling video and audio programs that convey information even more effectively, and entertaining and inspiring at the same time.

Cuban is probably right that the use of lecture as a teaching technique will probably continue long past the time we’re talking about 22nd century skills (which will probably start any day now :-).

However, with any luck, it will be increasingly confined to only those who do it well, while the rest of us develop our capacity to inform and communicate using the many and growing number of other instruments available.

Image: That Huge Lecture Theater! by teddy-rised on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Something Short of Revolutionary

What happened to the revolution that was supposed to occur when we flooded classrooms with computers?

If ICT [information/communication technology] means the use of computers in schools and classrooms and if learning means what academic content, skills, and behaviors students can perform in and out of school, then the massive investment over the past 30 years in wiring schools, buying computers and the latest hand-held device has fallen far short of being a “revolution” in students’ learning and teachers’ teaching. While not a fool’s errand—the idea that ICT would revolutionize schooling was, at worst, sloppy thinking and, at best, ardent wishfulness.

That’s the opening paragraph to a recent post by Larry Cuban, part of a larger debate under the title “Are ICT investments in schools an education revolution or fool’s errand?“, and it basically summarizes some of the thoughts on the subject I’ve had increasingly over the past few years.

Our use of technology in schools has not only fallen far short of a revolution, much of the billions we’ve spent has been wasted.

Here in our overly-large school district we’ve devoted a large chunk of change to purchasing technology over the past two decades and, although some of our administrative processes have been altered as a result, the fundamentals of instruction have not.

Walk through almost any of our schools on an average non-testing day and you’ll need to look very closely to see any evidence that technology has made an impact (or that ICT is being used at all).

Indeed, what few traces you do find are in the halls and corners where students are using their hand-held devices to connect with friends, update their Facebook pages, and do research… on whatever currently interests them, not necessarily topics assigned by their teachers.

Classrooms, especially in middle and high school, are still largely arranged in the same manner they were fifty years ago with the teacher, largely in lecture/demo mode, in complete control of the instructional process.

I said “non-testing day” above because that’s when the computers are most evident, and possibly the only time in most schools when we have a true 1-1 program.

We have a major push for computer-based testing in our schools, driven by the fact that the state wants to gather all test results electronically (cheaper and faster to report scores), and the sparkling new electronic assessment system (re: online test prep) our district is building.

The only reason why some schools are buying netbooks is because their dollars will buy more devices on which to administer “common” assessments and other standardized tests.

It’s all rather sad. We have inexpensive machines and networks that offer access to the world for our kids, and instead use them for a mundane process that does little to foster learning, and nothing to encourage curiosity, creativity, and understanding.

Instead of a revolution, we get a Leave it to Beaver classroom with electronic bubble sheets.

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