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Scott McLeod

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Schools, Technology, Test Scores, and the New York Times

Posted: 09/08/11 01:03 PM ET

Earlier 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 isssue 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 three 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…

Wrap-up

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.

 

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