Tag Archives: technology

Moving Forward without a Backward Glance: MOOCs and Technological Innovations

In a recent commentary on the rock star Sting’s dipping back into his childhood to revitalize his song writing, David Brooks said: “how important it is to ground future vision in historical consciousness.” I agree with Brooks when it comes to the half-life  of technological innovations. The experience of Massive  Open Online Courses (MOOCs) over the past few years is an unexpected example of what Brooks meant.

Much has been written about MOOCs  since they went viral in the past three years (see here, here, here, and here). This vision of creating platforms for college-level courses that would give anyone with an Internet connection access to college courses while reducing ever-escalating costs of higher education has turned some professors into academic entrepreneurs. Here is a two-for-one innovation (increased efficiency and equity) that has married new technologies with global access to higher education. MOOCs spread rapidly among elite institutions (e.g., Harvard, MIT, Stanford) and some second- and third-tier universities. For those familiar with the Gartner hype cycle–which many acolytes of MOOCs somehow either missed or ignored–the first two phases of the cycle were textbook examples:

“Technology Trigger: A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.

Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories—often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.”

Recent articles (see here and here) express disappointment mixed with hope over how MOOCs have fared since the first blush of the academic love affair with the innovation. The evidence thus far is ample: high dropout rates, little knowledge of what students who completed a MOOC actually learned, lack of faculty enthusiasm, and the real sticking point for universities–how to make money from offering MOOCs? No surprise, then, that the birth rate of new MOOCs has plummeted. We are now in the “Trough of Disillusionment” phase of the cycle.






The high hopes and inspired rhetoric pushing MOOCs have collapsed. Looking back, the creators were pained–one of them, Sebastian Thrun, has departed from the MOOC scene–and I must add, terribly innocent about earlier technological innovations in education.

Of course, I do not know how (or whether) the next phase (“Slope of Enlightenment”) will unfold. No one does. It is a work in progress. But how does all of this current disappointment with MOOCs connect to the point I raised in the first paragraph: “how important it is to ground future vision in historical consciousness?”

Would knowing the checkered history of technological innovations in K-12 schools and higher education–including the Hype Cycle–help high-tech innovators “ground their future vision?” Yes, it would but I doubt if lessons drawn from earlier innovations would help them alter what they will do anyway. While innovators are creative and hopeful about the future they may be, in David Brooks’ words, “necessarily naive.”

And it is that phrase “necessarily naive” that creates the paradox previous high-tech innovators and school reformers have faced and do so now.

The paradox works like this: If I know well what has occurred with past technological innovations seeking to reshape K-12 and higher education, that is, most fail in the first few years, I would not even try. However, if I don’t care about those past efforts  but still forge ahead because I have faith that what I propose will work regardless of the odds, then I can succeed.

The paradox of forging ahead without a backward glance is 100 percent  American.  Consider often described characteristics of being American: highly individualistic, competitive, optimistic, believes in change, especially technological, as an unvarnished good and that anyone with grit who works hard can overcome any obstacle. There are other characteristics associated with being American including beliefs in equality, a strong work ethic, and fairness.

Running like a red thread in the white fabric of being American, however, is the pervasive belief that if you know the past well, it can be a drag–a disincentive, economists would say–for action, invention, and making progress. To avoid looking backward in order to innovate, one has to be “necessarily naive” in the face of past failures in new technologies. Hence, with “naive” entrepreneurs ignoring the past, there has been a swift rise in and decline of MOOCs.

A skeptic might say: Really, Larry, what would you have to know about past technological innovations that might have helped the founders of MOOCs avoid the “trough of disillusionment?”

My answer is:

1. Technological innovations aimed primarily at increasing productivity and efficiency in schooling have largely ignored teacher knowledge and expertise.

2. High-tech innovators seldom ask the questions teachers ask about a new classroom technology.

3. Innovators have cared little about whether their new technology can be integrated into teachers’ routines because their priorities are to transform teaching and learning, increase student productivity, and keep costs low.

A backward glance to lessons drawn from previous technological innovations, then, might help start-up entrepreneurs from being “necessarily naive” about MOOCs or the next new thing for K-12 classrooms. Will that happen? I doubt it.



Filed under school reform policies, technology use

On Using And Not Using ClassDojo*: Ideological Differences?

In a recent guest post, two British Columbia (Canada) primary grade teachers took opposite sides in discussing their use and non-use of the free behavioral management tool called ClassDojo. As described by the reporter in the above article, ClassDojo is software that “allows teachers to give students points to reinforce positive behaviors, assign negative points for undesirable behaviors and allows teachers to track behavior data over time, sharing with parents and administrators through reports.”

I was struck by what appeared to be strong differences between the two teachers over how (or whether) the high-tech tool should be used. Here I will summarize each teacher’s points, offer other teachers’ first-hand experiences, and then add what I learned based on my reading and an interview I had with a first-grade teacher using ClassDojo. There is an underlying issue over teacher beliefs in how children best learn that weaves in and out of the teachers’ comments, an issue I address at the end of the post.

Karen, the first grade teacher said that the tool was too point-focused and undercut her goals of getting six year-olds to manage their impulses. She admits that she  has not used ClassDojo in her classroom. Her reasons against using the software tool are clearly stated:

1. Class Dojo reinforces external rewards. They may work in the short run but fail over time to get students to regulate their behavior.

2. One-click assessments of children’s behavior miss the complexity of individual students and why they do what they do.

3. It is “humiliating” to display publicly those students who get minus points; shame doesn’t help students learn.

Erin, another primary grade teacher, felt initially that ClassDojo would undermine her belief that students learn best through intrinsic rewards since the tool depended on points, rewards and punishments. Yet she decided to use the software and discovered that ClassDojo reinforced a child’s responsibility for being in class. In the reading and writing workshop she does annually, ClassDojo helped students state and track their expectations in reading and writing. In addition, the software tool collected and displayed information that helped the teaching assistant monitor special needs students’ behavior in the class as well as the overall group’s behavior. In short, Erin used the tool to “go beyond extrinsic rewards.”

Karen and Erin are two examples of teachers using ClassDojo. There are others (see here, here, and here) that use the tool differently and express their support and reservations.

I wanted to learn more about the software tool so I contacted Sam Chaudhary at ClassDojo to find a teacher near where I live to interview. He found Mayrin Bunyagidj, a first-grade teacher at Sacred Heart in Menlo Park (CA). She agreed to an interview.

I spent over an hour with Mayrin, an experienced public elementary and secondary school teacher who has been at Sacred Heart, a private school, for four years. Her classroom has tables sitting four students each with four centers (teacher center for math and language arts, workbook center, project or game center, and computer center with five machines) that students rotate through over the course of a school day. She described how she began using ClassDojo and how she concentrates on the “positives” with her class of 16. Because the school focuses on building character–the “Code of the Heart” (e.g., being caring, ready to work, respectful, and responsible) she showed me on her Smart Board how she uses the software to reinforce “positive” student behaviors daily and connect those behaviors to “Code of the Heart.” With this tool, she no longer “nags students.”

When I asked her whether using rewards (e.g., sitting at the teacher’s desk, winning tickets for a weekly lottery to get bracelets and other school gifts) kills intrinsic motivation, she quickly replied that it has the “opposite effect.”  Children want to improve, she said. They work hard to do better, not for the rewards but because they want to. Mayrin suggested that ClassDojo helped her bridge the ideological differences between using extrinsic and intrinsic rewards in motivating students.

After the interview, I began reading in the psychological literature on motivating children in school. Intrinsic motivation, it turns out, is highest among young children and as they went from grade to grade in school, it faded considerably.  Older secondary school students seldom showed any intrinsic motivation and only worked for whatever point system was in play. That was the pattern that both teachers and psychologists found. But it was not either-or, a few developmental psychologists found. There were “in-between” examples that bridged the boiler-plated extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards debate that has occurred for decades among educators and experts.

Some developmental psychologists have concluded: “we come to learn to do things not only because they are fun or likely to lead to some immediate payoff but because we have come to believe that we ‘ought’ to do them … to facilitate our own long-term goals (e.g., because it would be ‘good for us’). See: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation PDF

Here is the bridge that Mayrin suggested in her description of using ClassDojo and other teachers who see the age-old debate over extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards less in black and white and more in how  teachers can use points and rewards to help children internalize what they “ought to do.” These “bridges,” these “in-between” examples, helped me get past the tired arguments pro-and-con for how teachers ought to best motivate students.

I see these “bridges,” be they built with ClassDojo or names on the chalkboard, as primary ways that schools, past and present, socialize children and youth to live in a market-driven democracy where the values of private and public goods and cooperation and competition are highly prized. Some of us may question those “bridges” as working beneficially or for ill but I have yet to find anyone who can ignore this primary function of tax-supported public schools.


Dojo is originally a Japanese word for space devoted to physical training from wrestling to martial arts–the do arts. Thanks to Janice Cuban for suggesting I define Dojo.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Avoid The Hype: Online Learning’s Transformational Potential (Michael Horn)

From time to time, posts that I write prompt responses. Especially when writing about K-12 access and use of new high-tech devices, software, and their supposed revolutionary impact. Here is such a response to one I wrote about online learning and its hype. I would like readers to look at my original post and then Michael Horn’s response.
Michael Horn is a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute and serves as the executive director of its education program. He leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres through its research. His team aims to transform monolithic, factory-model education systems into student-centric designs that educate every student successfully and enable each to realize his or her fullest potential.”  See more at: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/michael-b-horn/#sthash.k7t3TBqv.dpuf

This article appeared in Forbes on June 6, 2013 at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelhorn/2013/06/06/avoid-the-hype-online-learnings-transformational-potential/print/

 In Larry Cuban’s recent piece in the Washington Post, “Why K-12 online learning isn’t really revolutionizing teaching,” he in essence says that our research showing that online learning is a disruptive innovation that has the potential to transform K–12 education into a student-centric learning design that can allow each student to realize his or her fullest potential is unfortunate hype from academic gurus.

What’s unfortunate is Cuban’s misrepresentation of our research to hype his argument.

Cuban refers to our prediction that by 2019 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online in some form or fashion. He says that the prediction is erroneous because of the different forms in which online learning will arrive and argues that online learning will not disrupt schools.

What might shock him is that we agree with those two statements.

For the first, that’s why our prediction states that online learning will occur in different forms and fashions, and the bulk of it—at least 90 percent—will be in blended-learning environments. It is interesting that Cuban doesn’t dispute that these different forms might add up to 50 percent of high school courses by 2019.

Indeed, our research at the Clayton Christensen Institute has explored in sharp detail the different forms of online learning in K–12 education, as we have provided a definition of blended learning that is used widely in the field and have classified the different models we see emerging in schools themselves to give educators a language to talk about the different innovations they are pioneering. Perhaps Cuban should draw on some of this research before discussing blended learning.

As to the second point, we have never stated that online learning will disrupt schools; instead, our research shows that online learning will disrupt the traditional classroom environment in secondary schools over the long term. Our latest research adds another subtlety, which is that online learning is unlikely to be disruptive to the traditional classroom in elementary schools, but instead will, for the most part, take place within those traditional classrooms.

Cuban’s other main point in the piece is more complex. He says that some online learning programs are teacher-centric, whereas others are quite student-centric and high quality. He is right. Not all online learning—in blended-learning or distance-learning environments—is good. Some of it is great, and some of it is bad. This is why we’ve said that online learning has the potential—but is not guaranteed—to transform schools into student-centric learning environments.

Cuban has long done some of the best work in explaining why so many hyped learning fads and technologies have failed to transform schooling. His past work is in fact consistent with the theories of disruptive innovation, which show that the model in which a technology is implemented is often more important than the technology itself. This is in part why we relied heavily on his research in Chapter 3 of Disrupting Class. Central to his argument has been that despite all the reforms and fads, once the classroom door shuts, teachers have the domain to ignore all of the reform efforts and fall back on what they know and believe is best.

Once again, we agree. This is why, however, disruptive innovation is so powerful. In education, it can allow us to replace that classroom model with a new one that is far more conducive to personalizing learning for each student. What the theory of disruptive innovation says is that online learning—in its many forms—will disrupt the traditional classroom over the long haul in secondary schools. What disruptive innovation does not say is whether the result will be a student-centric learning design. The theory is largely silent on this normative question.

That’s where the potential enters the equation. Because online learning scales naturally, the good programs about which Cuban writes can theoretically serve millions of students and aid millions of teachers. The question at hand is how do we create the conditions for the good programs, not the mediocre or bad ones, to thrive.

Because we have the chance to reinvent the learning model as we know it—with far fewer constituencies standing in the way of protecting the “status quo” in online learning—there is currently a window in which to put in place policies that create the proper incentives. Paying providers for student outcomes; not regulating and paying for inputs so as to free up educators on the ground to make smart decisions for their students; moving to a competency-based learning system, in which students progress once they have mastered a concept, not when the calendar says it is time to move on; and having appropriate on-demand systems of assessments that allow for a bottoms-up accountability that rewards growth instead of today’s top-down accountability system together appear to be critical pieces.

If online learning continues to grow within the current regulatory environment, however, which focuses on inputs instead of outcomes and has at its core a set of assumptions that takes the factory-model classroom system that has been in place for over 100 years as a given, then we may lose that window.

We education transformers—those who do not want to just reform education but to transform it into a student-centric design—don’t have all the answers for how to do this well. We should admit that. But Cuban and others could help. Rather than simply act as naysayers who say why everything is doomed to fail, they could be part of “the solution.” Asking how we might make this unique opportunity different—or pointing out where we are erring in shaping it in a constructive fashion—would go a long way. The past is instructive, but it should help guide us forward, not hold us back.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Marketing Technologies in U.S. Public Schools*

The ways that high-tech vendors market their products just ain’t helping teachers.

Companies selling new hardware and software to  K-12 schools—over $18 billion was spent in 2013– have three serious problems:

1. Determining who is the customer.

2. Ignoring how teachers and students use devices and software in real time.

3. Marketers hype claims for achieving student outcomes that few teachers believe.

Who is the customer?

Apple, Dell, and software firms have a hard time figuring out who their customers are. They want to have students and teachers use their products but few sales representatives ever talk or listen to teachers. Instead, most companies market their products to school district IT  professionals, district office administrators, and superintendents. Why?

That is where the money is. School officers are the ones who recommend to boards of education what to buy and how to deploy devices and software. From start-ups to established companies, high-tech representatives rarely involve teachers or students in their pitches to district officers or school boards. So the paradox is that the end-users (teachers and students) have little to do with purchasing decisions.

There are two exceptions, however. First, most parents want their infants and toddlers to read early even before they set foot into kindergarten, much less first grade, the traditional gateway to reading for nearly a century. Ads claim that their software will give their children an edge in learning over other kids. And, second, marketers have targeted children because as one advertising exec said: “We’re relying on the kid to pester the mom to buy the product rather than going straight to the mom.”

Ignoring how teachers and students use devices and software in real time.

Market researchers in high-tech companies selling to schools seldom, if at all, look into actual classrooms to determine use. Instead, they depend upon the usual array of soft, quick, and dirty findings reaped from focus groups and teacher, student, and administrator surveys. These surveys are cheap, easy, and fast to do. But no direct observation of students working with tablets and software.

Without knowing how students actually use the equipment, it is all guesswork piled atop those unreliable results from surveys and focus groups. Of course, to do so is quite expensive and intensive labor on the part of marketers. There are academic researchers, however, who do such investigations, (see here) and even ones that work for for-profit firms who ask the right questions (see here). Seldom are their studies used.

Marketers hype claims for achieving student outcomes that few teachers believe.

Look at ads for software for schools and you will see words that promise student engagement and improved academic achievement (see, for example: Dell Computers: 2011-western-heights high school). Like hot dogs and mustard or Harry and Sally getting together, over-promising that software and new mobile devices will engage students, raise test scores of minority students and close the achievement gap are joined like Siamese twins. “Schools powered by (put in your favorite software company) report impressive gains in first year.”  Yet most of the evidence supporting such claims is missing in action.

Sure, there is the “novelty effect” where teachers and students in the first six months gloriously praise how iPads or Chromebooks have riveted students’ attention. But the “novelty effect” wears off and the hard work of teaching lessons every day, with and without new software or gizmos, kick in. The evidence of software and devices lifting academic achievement is, in two words, not there.

These three issues that marketers face in promoting software and hardware to public schools get at the heart of selling high-tech innovations to public schools.

What can be done?

In deciding who is the customer, the truth of the matter is that district officials, not teachers, parents, or students, are targeted customers. Admit the truth.

As for market research, please, no more Internet surveys and carefully selected focus groups. The reliability and validity of such instruments is incredibly low and untrustworthy. Randomly selected students, parents, and teachers (and paying them) make far more sense in using focus groups. Also, it is far more sensible to harvest well-done academic studies done by teachers and researchers about what actually occurs in classrooms.

Finally, no more over-the-top claims for products that promise outcomes for teachers and students that do not have a prayer of ever happening. So few people believe Hollywood PR blurbs about blockbusters coming to the local cinemas. Ditto for claims about new classroom technologies. Dialing back those over-the-top claims, reducing the hype, and even injecting a small dose of humility would be unusual. In my judgment, neither of these suggestions has much probability of materializing but it is worth saying, nonetheless.


A version of this post appeared February 23, 2014 on Janice Cuban’s marketing blog.


Filed under technology use

When Classroom Culture Conflicts With EdTech (Christina Quattrocchi)

The following guest post appeared in EdSurge, February 9, 2014

 Teachers have a multitude of tools to choose from. Not every tool can exactly match every teachers’ pedagogical approach. However, for some when it doesn’t quite match up it can be the difference between trying it out or walking away.

Elementary teachers Erin Klein and Karen Lirenman share their thoughts about ClassDojo, a free tool for classroom management used by … million[s of] teachers. The tool allows teachers to give students points to reinforce positive behaviors, assign negative points for undesirable behaviors and allows teachers to track behavior data over time, sharing with parents and administrators through reports.

Here’s how these two teachers address the conflicts that arise between a tool and the culture of learning in their classrooms.

Karen Lirenman: Can’t See Eye To Eye

Before I begin I need to be perfectly honest that I have never tried ClassDojo with my grade one students. Normally I wouldn’t critique something without trying it first, however, philosophically ClassDojo just doesn’t sit right with me. I strongly believe children should be in charge of their behaviour through being taught and using self regulation skills and ClassDojo takes that away from them. Here’s why.

ClassDojo seems to enforce external rewards. And no matter how you jazz it up, external rewards don’t work in the long run. Yes, you may see results in the short term, but what happens when you remove the reward? From what I’ve seen, there is little authenticity and ownership of that said action. Using ClassDojo would make it hard for students to self regulate.

The one click assessment also bothers me too. It doesn’t allow me to differentiate and add any specific individual details as to why they are receiving, or not receiving a click. Whether it be a specific behaviour, or a learning objective, very little boils down to just one click.What that one click system is vastly missing is the information that the child brings with them surrounding their behaviour or performance of learning outcomes. I can have two children in my class who have not yet mastered a learning outcome but for two completely different reasons.That specific child-dependent information is extremely important to me, yet there is no way to differentiate that information with ClassDojo. It’s what my formative assessment is built around and it’s what guides me as their teacher. The simplicity of the one click negates all of that assessment data.

To take this even further, it is this simplified data that is shared with families. I think it’s great that parents are aware of where their children are succeeding and struggling, but the one click assessment tells them so little. It  would undermine my ability to be specific with their child’s needs, and to provide suggestions on ways to support them.

I am also bothered by the fact that the assessment is done in front of the class. For those who are successful on a consistent basis, I’m sure this isn’t really a problem, but for those who struggle I can only imagine that it would be.  Kids know when they are struggling with something and the last thing they need is to have it pointed out to them in front of their peers.  What about a child’s dignity? When has humiliation ever helped anyone?

As a teacher it’s my responsibility to build an authentic relationship with each of my students. This relationship is key to help my students overcome their area(s) of difficulty, and to push them along with their learning.  If I really want to make a difference in their lives I need to support, nurture, and guide. I need to help my students learn to self regulate, because ultimately the rewards should come from within. Because of a philosophical conflict, I won’t be using ClassDojo with my class.

Karen Lirenman is a grade one teacher in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada who loves to provide her students with choice in how they learn, show, and share their knowledge.

Erin Klein: There’s More Than Meets the Eye

I’ll admit, when I was first presented with ClassDojo, I was a bit apprehensive about using a tool that relied on extrinsic motivation. You see, building intrinsic motivation in my students is an important part of my educational philosophy and at first glance, ClassDojo didn’t quite fit. I thought there was no way I could get behind a technology tool that was based on points, or rewards and punishments.

And yet, I was excited to offer support to a new startup. So I agreed to help, reminding myself to be open-minded. I found, it’s not about the tool itself, but how the tool is used. Here’s how I used it with my second graders to go beyond extrinsic rewards:

 Attendance: My students love entering the classroom and touching their Dojo Character to mark themselves present for the day. This was a great way to track how many days of school each child had attended. They loved seeing the days of school tracked on the SMART Board using ClassDojo because it gave them ownership over their attendance. ClassDojo now has a separate attendance feature that is awesome!

 Anchor Chart Workshop Expectations: Each year, we come together and brainstorm a list of expectations for our reading and writing workshop time. We typically use chart paper and jot down our notes. Then, we hang these charts and reference them as needed.  We did the same this year, but we integrated ClassDojo to track whether students were successful in meeting their own expectations in the workshop. This also helped track what students needed to work on as well. You can click here to read more about how we used this in our workshop.

Special Needs and IEPs: Because ClassDojo is also offered as an app, teaching assistants use their smart phones to monitor student’s focus, interest level, attentiveness, and participation. The program tracks and stores all data that can be configured into brilliant graphs automatically. Each graph can be easily shared with parents, teachers, special education directors, etc. This helps the adults better understand student behavior so we can better support our students.

 Classroom Behavior: ClassDojo was designed to track student behavior and encourage positive interactions. My former school used a district-wide positive behavior system. So, ClassDojo supported exactly what my school was doing. Students could earn points for following the classroom expectations. This information was saved and could easily be shared if needed.

In closing, I’m sure you can find fault with several tools, strategies, philosophies, methods, textbooks, and apps. But I encourage you to think beyond what meets the surface. I’m glad I invested the time to think creatively about the uses for ClassDojo.  It has really made a positive difference in the way I organize important information for my students.  Start with your classroom and your students in mind. Then use the tool to fit you and your students.

Erin Klein is a teacher, author, and parent who has earned her Master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction and currently teaches second grade. She has previously taught first, sixth, and seventh grade.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, technology use

Big Educational Laptop and Tablet Projects: Looking at Ten Countries

Michael Trucano is the World Bank’s Senior ICT and Education Policy Specialist, serving as the organization’s focal point on issues at the intersection of technology use and education in middle- and low-income countries and emerging markets around the world.
At a practical working level, Mike provides policy advice, research and technical assistance to governments seeking to utilize new information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their education systems.

 This post appeared at: http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/big-educational-laptop-and-tablet-projects-ten-countries on July 31, 2013

 Big educational laptop and tablet projects: Ten countries to learn from

1. USA
Reflexively, many countries look to, and hope to compare themselves against, the United States when considering educational technology initiatives. (Whether or not this is a good or useful practice, especially for many less affluent countries, or for countries with decidedly different educational contexts and socio-economic circumstances, is perhaps fodder for another discussion.) The United States is of course a very big and diverse place, with a very decentralized education system (some might say it is actually a collection of education systems). Technology purchasing decisions are not made at the national level, but at the state or, more often, the district level (the country has over 14,000 school districts in total), which tends to complicate other countries’ attempts to ‘benchmark’ their level of use of educational laptops and tablets against ‘the U.S. experience’. Focusing one’s gaze at the state or local level can be more useful. While some elements of its program may change going forward, the U.S. state of Maine has been, and continues to be, a global pioneer in the use of laptops in schools, and lessons from the Maine experience have influenced policymakers in scores of other places. The recent decisions of the Los Angeles Unified School District to purchase iPads for its students (here are some thoughts from Larry Cuban on this announcement) and that of education officials in Miami Dade (Florida) to ensure access to digital devices to all students are worth noting, as these are two places likely to receive a great deal of media and research attention in the coming years. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that many school districts the U.S. are increasingly promoting ‘bring your own technology‘ (or ‘BYOT‘) initiatives (also known as BYOD, or ‘bring your own device’) as a way to increase the access to laptops and tablets within schools, which raises sets of additional questions worth considering related to things like (among others) equity, costs, maintenance and digital safety.

2. Uruguay
The first country in the world to provide all primary school students with free laptops (in public schools), Uruguay’s pioneering Plan Ceibal now finds itself at a crossroads. While the project continues to enjoy wide support from citizens, the sight of young children toting and using their small green and white One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO laptops is no longer novel, but rather part of the educational and cultural landscape. How can the level of excitement and momentum engendered by Plan Ceibal be maintained and sustained, especially as the really tough work begins: helping to catalyze and enable change as part of larger efforts at  ‘whole system reform’?

3. Thailand
While most large scale efforts to introduce ’1-to-1 computing’ in education have featured laptops, Thailand is notable in that it has instead chosen to use tablets. Heralded as the largest educational tablet initiative of its kind when it was first announced (although this title is now claimed by another country, see below), Thailand’s efforts are just beginning, but, as with similar initiatives in many other countries, have already serve as lightning rods for criticism and optimism.

4. Peru
Close to one million OLPC XO laptops have been distributed to students in Peru, a process which began in 2008, focusing initially on small schools in poor (and often rather remote) communities. Examining the Peruvian experience, colleagues at the Inter-american Development Bank (IDB) has been engaged in the first large-scale randomized evaluation of the impact of the OLPC program. The results so far should provide much food for thought for educational reformers and technology proponents in other countries who feel that large scale introductions of new technologies will, in and of themselves (and perhaps magically), bring about a variety of promised positive changes in educational systems. Reality can be a little more complicated — and messy.

5. Kenya (and Rwanda)
While it has not yet even begun, the bold three-phase plan in Kenya to begin rolling out laptops in its education system in January 2014 has already attracted much international attention. Starting with 400,000 free laptops delivered to new first graders, this project, if it proceeds as announced, would quickly become the largest effort of its kind on the continent. While Kenya has been home to a number of encouraging small pilot projects, the logistical challenges of doing something this large, this quickly, will be, as they like to say in Silicon Valley, ‘non trivial’. Lessons from its East African neighbor, Rwanda, which has distributed over 200,000 OLPC XO laptops so far, are no doubt being eagerly consumed and digested by policymakers and experts in Nairobi. While difficult, success in logistics is only a means to an end. Impacting the teaching and learning process inside and outside of schools in positive ways, fueling the aspirations of a new generation of Kenyan students (and their families), sustaining positive momentum and results over time — these are much more difficult goals to achieve. And then there is the question of how to pay for all of this, especially in ways that do not impede or constrain efforts to address other pressing educational and developmental priorities. In these and in other regards, the Kenyan experience with educational technologies will definitely one to watch in the coming months and years.

6. Turkey
While Thailand’s plans to introduce tablet computers into the hands (and onto the laptops) of its students immediately marked it as a potentially pioneering middle income country in the scope of its use of educational technologies, the scale of what is being rolled out in that Southeast Asian country has since been dwarfed plans and efforts at the other end of the continent, where Turkey’s FATIH (“Movement to Increase Opportunities and Technology”) project is introducing over ten million tablets (and tens of thousands of interactive whiteboards, printers and other peripherals) into Turkish schools. Large scale pilots are already underway, as is a huge tender process to award contracts to roll out and support the project. In contrast to how the tablet project was conceived in Thailand, local manufacturing is meant to play a very important role in the project in Turkey.

7. India
Before Turkey, and before Thailand, it was the Aakash project in India which excited the imagination of many proponents of putting huge numbers of tablet computers into the hands of students in a developing country. That project has moved forward in fits and starts, but is only one of numerous efforts to introduce tablets at laptops across the continent-sized South Asia country. Large efforts in Rajasthan have recently been announced, following on efforts which began earlier in states like Uttar Pradesh. Initiatives across India will be particularly interesting to monitor, given the scale at which they will be occurring, and the fact that there is already a great deal of local knowledge about various approaches that have worked, and that haven’t, based on earlier educational technology programs in the country.

8. Argentina
Building in part on lessons from early efforts in San Luis province, Argentine projects like Conectar Igualdad and Plan S@armiento BA (in the nation’s capital, Buenos Aires) will eventually be, in aggregate, larger than the one laptop per child initiatives in Peru and Uruguay combined. Given the size and variation of these projects in these three countries, policymakers in other parts of the world seriously interested in learning from the hard won lessons of others before embarking on their own 1-to-1 education computing programs could do worse than to learn some Spanish (not a terrible amount of related information is available in English, let alone other international languages) and reach out to (and perhaps visit with) their colleagues in South America.

9. Portugal
The most ambitious European effort to date to provide students with laptops has been in Portugal. Given its recent history (a member of the European Union, Portugal was itself a developing country not that long ago), lessons from the eEscola project and Magellan initiative may be particular relevant and useful for middle income countries about to embark on large scale 1-to-1 educational computing programs — especially those that wish to utilize ‘public-private partnerships’ along the way.

10. ____

 As is the practice with lists of ten presented on the EduTech blog, #10 here has been left deliberately blank, as both an invitation for people to tell me what I have missed (or ignored), and as an acknowledgement that my own knowledge of such things is decidedly incomplete.

There are certainly lots of other places to look for inspiration, for best (and worst) practices, for hard-won implementation expertise and (hopefully) for hard data on costs and impacts. While Mexico recently cancelled a 240,000 unit procurement of laptops for students, this may perhaps be viewed more as a short-term hiccup in longer-term plans. A recent survey of technology use in education across Europe (One laptop per child in Europe: how near are we? [pdf]) highlights the extent to which students in countries like Denmark and Norway, as well as Latvia and Spain, already learn in environments where one laptop/tablet per learner is the norm. Netbooks on the rise [pdf] attempts to survey and distill lessons from across the Europe. Australia, the country that is often touted as having the first 1-to-1 computing initiative (at Methodist Ladies’ College way back in 1989 is nearing the end of a program that has seen almost a million laptops distributed to schools while at the same time tablets seem to be quickly gaining ground. (Side note: The Australia-based Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation (AALF) is a great resource for information on 1-to-1 computing efforts.) The EduTech blog has previously looked at educational laptop efforts in Georgia (the country in the Caucasus, not the state in the American South). A post on lessons from Quebec’s Eastern Townships has long been in the queue for publication; those who don’t want to wait are directed to related research published late last year.

Some closing remarks
Most of the large proposals for educational technology programs that come across my desk these days highlight the use of tablets (almost always Android devices, for what that’s worth, presumably for reasons of cost, and because the iPad, the market leading tablet device in OECD countries, does not currently have wide distribution in most middle and low income countries). Rarely (or more accurately: almost never) do I find a compelling reason why tablets are being chosen over laptops (or desktops … or … anything else, really). This is not to say that there aren’t potentially compelling reasons why purchasing tablets for use in schools and/or by teachers or students might make sense (although seeing hybrid devices, laptops with touchscreens, and tablets with dockable keyboards does leave me confused at times about where to draw the line between various product categories), rather that this technology choice often seems driven by assumption rather than as a result of careful deliberation. Worldwide, the general trend is clear: PCs and laptops are slowly being eclipsed by tablets in the consumer space.

I do suspect that what I am seeing in many of the education project proposals I read is in part just the latest manifestation of a long-observed trend that refuses to die: that of simply wanting to buy the latest popular gadget for use in schools. All too often, the related question being asked is not ‘what challenges are we trying to solve, and what approaches and tools might best help us solve them?’, but rather, ‘we know what our technology ‘solution’ is, can you please help us direct it at the right problems?

As in other parts of life, in education the answer you get is usually a function of the question you ask. In the process of attempting to formulate their questions related to the purchases and implementations of huge numbers of new laptops or tablets (or whatever tomorrow’s device of choice may be) to help support teaching and learning, hopefully more education policymakers and politicians will take the time and effort to try to learn from the experiences of their counterparts in other countries who have already been down similar paths. While studying lessons, both positive and negative, from some of the countries listed here may not provide them with all of the answers they seek, doing so just might help some of them re-think and re-frame some of the questions they are asking.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Is the Use of Untested Technologies in Classrooms Unethical?*

In a recent Teachers College Record commentary, M.O. Thirunarayanan, Associate Professor of Learning Technologies in the College of Education at Florida International University, argues the following:

When it comes to technology integration, no testing or research is done upfront to determine if they help students learn. Such products are typically purchased by schools and used in classrooms before educators start conducting research to determine if they are effective. This is akin to providing treatment using drugs whose effects have not yet been studied. Both are unethical. Not to mention the millions of dollars that are spent every year by schools to acquire these technologies, just so the leaders of these schools can claim that their schools are on the “cutting edge.”

Every time a new technological tool is developed, manufactured, and sold, its potential to improve learning is hyped up to a great extent. A tool that has a new or unique feature is sold as the tool that will help solve all problems in education. Such a product is overbought and underused in schools for a few years until the next best technological tool becomes the hottest product that has to be purchased and used in all schools….

He then concludes:

Those who develop technological products should be asked to spend their own funds to conduct research to find out the benefits of using their products in schools. They should be allowed to sell only those products that have been extensively researched and found to be helpful to learners and teachers. Any side effects should be noted on warning labels that are affixed to the products. 

One part of me is sympathetic to the argument that Professor Thirunarayanan makes. The hype associated with hardware and software raising academic achievement, engaging students like nothing else, and transforming instruction is well-known and seldom passes the sniff test nowadays. Moreover, many software products are (and have been) sold as beta versions to districts, meaning that they have not been fully tested. Teachers and students point out all of the glitches giving vendors very valuable data to improve the product. So I am sympathetic to points that he makes.

But, then, I think of the many instructional practices that have been used for centuries such as textbooks, worksheets, blackboards, and homework that underwent no tests then or now. Also I think about the flawed assumption that the author makes about technology, in of itself, determining academic achievement when that outcome results from many in-school and out-of-school factors. Finally, comparing clinical trials on medical treatments with the kinds of research that ought to be done on new hardware and software overlooks the very narrow questions that drive experimental/control testing and the recent questioning of the worth of the knowledge gained.

Decisions made by school boards and superintendents over buying and deploying new technologies may be unwise. But not unethical. Or even researching the worth of new technologies without capturing the complexity of the many factors determining academic achievement may be myopic.  But using untested technologies in classrooms “unethical,” I do not think so.


The best way for me to answer the question is to give a clear example of what I believe is (and has been) an unethical practic in the use of technology.

Readers over the age of 45 will remember Channel 1, a technological innovation where entrepreneur Chris Whittle gave hardware (TV monitors, VCRs, and satellite dishes) to schools that lacked the funds to buy equipment (mostly enrolling children from poor families) in exchange for secondary school students watching news programs that contained commercials for products that teenagers consume. Beginning in 1990, Channel 1 continues its 10-minute news broadcasts (of which two minutes are ads) in 10,000 schools across the country.

What makes this unethical (but not illegal) is that school boards and superintendents made the decision to contract with the for-profit firm of Channel 1 knowing that for two minutes a day, commercials would be shown to a captive audience. Under state law, parents are compelled to send their children to school until they are teenagers. Students must stay in their classrooms while commercials are shown. For Channel 1, public officials have abandoned their moral responsibility for children and youth’s  safety, health, and academic achievement by forcing them to watch ads.

For those who like to cite research studies, there is one field study with randomly assigned seventh and eighth graders to control and experimental groups that found those watching Channel 1 remembered the commercials more than news items and in the previous three months had bought over two items advertised on Channel 1.

For these reasons, I find requiring teenagers who are compelled to attend school to watch this program is an unethical act.


I want to thank Jane David for a conversation about the ethics of  using untested technologies in classrooms. She raised points that I had not considered. I am, of course, responsible for what is written here.


Filed under technology use

Using Technology To Nail down What We Know and Don’t Know about Effects of High-Tech on People Today

Do all the new devices around the world that we now use to get information and communicate separate or bring us together?

That either-or question has been debated since the telegraph, telephone, radio, and television became common technologies. The question pinches again with the swift spread of smart phones, social media, and dependence on the Internet.

Sherry Turkle’s recent book title, Alone Together, says it all. High-tech devices offer the fantasy of connection and companionship without personal intimacy, she says. Thus, people feel even more lonely after they “friended” someone on Facebook or texted 25 times in 10 minutes someone they just met.

What is missing from Turkle’s argument is a baseline for comparison of now and then. Has there been a “golden age” where most people felt connected to family, friends, and community? We do not know from Turkle’s book because she does not compare explicitly the present moment to an earlier time. She does implicitly compare, of course, since that it is the basis of her argument.


Rutgers sociologist Keith Hampton recently tried to answer the question of whether technology is driving people apart or bringing them together by comparing sociability of people in public places over thirty years ago and now. Here is what he did.

Hampton found time-lapse films taken in the late-1970s for an earlier study done by sociologist William Whyte in various urban public places such as New York City’s Bryant Park and the steps of the Metropolitan Art Museum.

Then Hampton and graduate students between 2008 and 2010 used cameras atop a 16-foot tripod to film both areas. They described and analyzed a total of 38 hours of film from that earlier period of Whyte’s research in public spaces and their current research. They compared the two time periods by sampling from 38 hours of film at 15-second intervals accumulating nearly 10,000 observations, coding individuals on film for sex, group size, “loitering”, and phone use (for the 2008-2010 data).

What Hampton found is that being sociable in public places has increased since the late-1970s. Of course, critics have said that Hampton filming public spots in the middle of the business day rather than other times of day, would affect results. Or as Sherry Turkle pointed out when a reporter asked her about Hampton’s findings, she said that Hampton might be right about public spaces but technology still may have, for example, “corrosive effects in the home: what it does to families at the dinner table.”

Does Hampton’s use of then-and-now film of people in public places settle the debate over technology’s effect on sociability? Hardly. But his research does compare two points in time which is sorely missing in assessing effects of technology on everything from mixing in public spaces to intimacy, to companionship, to, yes, even schooling.

I make this leap to teaching and learning and the the effects of technology on both because there have been “then and now” studies comparing teacher access to and use of technology with students.


When one considers that information electronic technologies, beginning with film, radio, television, and desktop computers, have been in schools since the 1920s, comparative data are available to determine to what degree teachers and students then had access and how those devices were used.


Until desktop computers came along, most of the earlier technologies for communicating information were infrequently available to students. Teachers were the gatekeepers and even they had limited access to film projectors, radios, and instructional television in the decades after the 1920s. For those small numbers of teachers who did use these devices, generally they were used for the entire group of students at one time. Most teachers and students might see a film or hear a radio program, or view a TV program monthly or a few times a year.

With the onset of desktops in the 1980s, laptops in the 1990s, and now hand-held devices such as smart phones and tablets, access to these tools have broadened considerably for both teachers and students. Since the early 1980s when computer labs and one computer for every classroom were the reform du jour, the swift spread of electronic devices has lowered the national ratio of computers to students from 1:125 in 1984 to 1:5 students in 2009. In many schools, across the country, that ratio is now 1:1.

It is clear, then, compared to earlier periods most teachers and students now have access to a variety of machines for gaining information and communicating with one another. There are baseline data for comparing access in different time periods.

But access is not classroom use of devices.


When it comes to teacher use of desktops, laptops and now tablets, there also have been changes over time in frequency and duration of use. It is clear that since the early 1980s and with the rapid spread of electronic devices and software, more and more teachers are using computers for classroom lessons. In a study of teacher use of machines that I did in the mid-1980s, I predicted that a minority of teachers would be using computers in their lessons decades later. I was wrong.

Where I was correct, however, in comparing then and now was that high-tech champions (and vendors as well) expected that teachers using these devices with students would shift from teacher-centered practices to student-centered ones. Comparing then and now, that shift has not occurred (see here, here, and here)

So do all the new devices around the world that we now use to get information and communicate separate or bring us together? Even with the innovative research of  Keith Hampton comparing two points in time, the question remains unanswered.

Not so for gauging teacher access and use to computers for the past three decades. The answers, using “then and now” comparisons, are available.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Why online teaching requires rigorous training (Mary Burns)

Mary Burns, Education Development Center


(All references appear in above link)

 December 18, 2013


I am presently working in South America—a continent of gente amable, stunning vistas, and an exploding online learning environment.  In my work with the Government of Ecuador’s National Education University (helping to conceptualize and design its online and blended programs), I have had numerous conversations with various representatives from universities, governments, and online learning programs—in Europe and North and South America—about online learning.

One impression continues to nag at me from these conversations — there seems to be a lack of concern for preparing instructors to teach online.  We know that good teaching matters in the classroom.

But if a great teacher is to the classroom what Fred Astaire was to dancing, then an online teacher must be even better because teaching online is far more challenging than teaching face-to-face.

Like Ginger Rogers, the online teacher has to do everything Astaire does—but backwards and in high heels (By the way, if you are not up on Fred and Ginger, click here).

Online learning goes global

This is no longer just a wealthy or middle-income country concern. Online learning is advancing everywhere—in so-called fragile contexts, such as refugee camps in Kenya, and in geographically remote areas of Pakistan. Online learning for adults is expanding in every emerging region on the globe—particularly in Asia and Latin America—but also in Sub-Saharan Africa. Four current trends portend continued growth in online learning in developing regions: the proliferation of mobile technologies; the desire of donors and governments to create lower-cost delivery models for tertiary and teacher education; increasing government investment in broadband; and the popularity of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) (2).

Good Teachers Matter

The single greatest factor in a student’s academic success is the presence of an effective (good) teacher. This is true in wealthy countries—and it is especially true in low-income countries (3). It is true whether the student is 8 or 18 or 28. And it is true whether the teacher is teaching face-to-face or online.

Good teachers demonstrate mastery in their content area. They know how to use content-specific pedagogical practices; they use multiple forms of assessment and offer useful feedback for student learning. They tailor types of instruction and the pace and levels of difficulty to individual learner needs. They are effective and clear communicators. They set clear learning goals and expectations, establish a positive classroom climate, possess high degrees of efficacy, and involve all students in sharing ideas and in the learning process (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005; Burns & Strategic Planning Development Team, 2012).

As anyone who has been a teacher knows, teaching well in a face-to-face environment is hard, but I would argue that teaching well online is even harder. A good online teacher must enact all of the above skills—but she must do it through technology—and she faces challenges that elude face-to-face teachers because everything is different online. Communication is different, instruction is different, assessment is different, the social dynamic is different, and learning is different.

Backwards and in High Heels

Two areas are particularly challenging for the online teacher. One is establishing a sense of emotional, cognitive, and instructional “presence.” Face-to-face teachers can do this because they are physically present with their students. Online teachers are separated from their students in space and time and must rely on technology for all interaction and communication.  Research (Akyol & Garrison, 2008) confirms that “presence”— strong and skilled facilitation of knowledge, of the learning process, and of learners, and helping learners become socially and academically integrated in the course—is one of the most important factors in the online learner’s success. Learner attrition from an online program—arguably the Achilles Heel of online learning—is often driven by learners’ negative perceptions of the instructor’s responsiveness; incomplete, unclear or ineffective instructor communication; or the lack of, or late, instructor communication with and feedback to learners (Aragon & Johnson, 2008).  My own research (Burns, 2013) on online learning in Indonesia suggests that, as in a face-to-face classroom, the presence of a caring and knowledgeable online instructor is a major retention factor for teachers taking an online course.

A second challenge the online instructor faces is blending pedagogy, technology and content.

It is far easier to lecture online; it is much harder to explicitly use cognitive teaching and learning and collaborative pedagogies online.

This is why we tend to see, especially in MOOCs, almost uniformly traditional lecture-based, direct instruction—a pedagogical model that ill-serves learning and a pedagogical model from which almost every educational system in the world is trying to move its teachers away.

Technology is not magic

So, why don’t we better prepare online instructors to teach online (4)? I might suggest two reasons. First, despite protests to the contrary, we often seem to unwittingly behave as if technology is indeed, as Arthur C. Clarke noted, “indistinguishable from magic.” And if technology is indeed magical, we certainly needn’t concern ourselves with something as mundane as teaching human beings to teach well online because the mystery of technology alone will transform teaching and learning. We already hear such incantations vis-à vis MOOCs from many technology high priests—the “new pedagogical models” and the “innovativeness” of MOOCs. I love MOOCs, but lecturing into a camera is not a new pedagogical model. It is not innovative. And it is not magical. It is old wine in new bottles.

Second, it appears that when we talk about “teaching online,” we suddenly forget about “teaching” and focus only on the “online” part—overlooking the complexity and challenging of teaching well via technology (5).   Every mode of distance education presents its own unique set of instructional challenges. The challenge in online learning is developing a paradigm of teaching and learning that moves away from passive content delivery (like so many MOOCs) to a collaborative model in which instructors and learners interact with a set of experiences and materials. In such a model online instructors encourage and facilitate active learning and inquiry and skillfully manage, support, and model effective instruction for their online learners (Burns, 2011). Doing this via technology means that online instructors will need intensive ongoing professional development and support—as much—certainly not less, than their face-to-face counterparts.


(1)  This image was obtained under Advanced Search Google Licensing agreement (Share and modify) and can also be found in Bing’s Public Domain images search. It originally appears on this web site: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/fred-astaire/

(2)  Witness the US State Department’s MOOC Camp Initiative in which it has partnered with EdX, Coursera and Open Yale to offer free MOOCs throughout the globe.

(3)  See, for example the chart on page 130 of Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models and Methods, where I encapsulate some of the data outlining differences on the impact of a good teacher in wealthy and poor countries.

(4)  EdTech Leaders Online developed by EDC was one of the earliest programs that prepared instructors in the online medium in which the instructor is supposed to teach. It is still one of the most successful online instructor programs around.

(5)  For more information on competencies and skills needed by online instructors, go to Chapter 14: Preparing Distance Instructors (p. 176) of this guide.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

How to Use Technology in Education (Frederick Hess and Bror Saxberg)

 Frederick M. Hess is director of educational-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Bror Saxberg is chief learning officer at Kaplan, Inc. They are the authors of  Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age: Using Learning Science to Reboot Schooling. This appeared in National Review Online, December 16, 2013

The book provides an invaluable template for how to best think about digital learning. Promising education technologies won’t “fix” schools or replace terrific teachers. Instead, they make it possible to reshape the teacher’s job, so that teachers and students have more opportunity for personalized, dynamic learning.

How can we expand on the book’s transformation of education? Well, the book has real limitations. Students learn best when eye and ear work in tandem — but books are a silent medium. Books are fixed, providing the same experience to every reader, every time. The material and language will inevitably be too difficult for some readers and too easy for others. Books can’t offer a live demonstration or a new explanation to a confused reader.

Online materials can be rapidly updated, are customizable to a student’s interests and reading level, and feature embedded exercises that let students apply new concepts and get immediate feedback. Virtual instruction makes it possible for students to access real, live teachers unavailable at their school; this can be a haven for some students, especially those reluctant to ask questions in class. Researchers have found that intelligent, computer-assisted tutoring systems are about 90 percent as effective as in-person tutors.

None of this will happen just by giving out iPads or mouthing platitudes about “flipped classrooms.” Rather, it requires getting three crucial things right. First, new tools should inspire a rethinking of what teachers, students, and schools do, and how they do it. If teaching remains static, sprinkling hardware into schools won’t much matter. Second, technology can’t be something that’s done to educators. Educators need to be helping to identify the problems to be solved and the ways technology can help, and up to their elbows in making it work. Third, the crucial lesson from those getting digital learning right is that it’s not the tools, but what’s done with them. When they discuss what’s working, the leaders of high-tech charter school systems like Carpe Diem and Rocketship Education, or heralded school districts like that of Mooresville, N.C., brush past the technology in order to focus relentlessly on learning, people, and problem-solving.

All of this is too often missed when tech enthusiasts promise miracles and tech skeptics lament that technology is an “attack on teachers.” What to make of such claims? The book didn’t work miracles or hurt teachers. It did allow us to reimagine teaching and learning, even if we’re still struggling to capitalize on that opportunity five centuries later. Here’s hoping we do better this time.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use