In the past 12 months, the average household spent nearly $1400 on consumer electronics (HDTV, computers, smart phones, etc.). Even during a deep recession, overall consumer spending is up 10 percent over last year. In a culture where new technologies that deliver faster and easier access to entertainment and information are highly prized, there many Americans, even during hard times, who line up to buy the next new thing.
And school purchases—including replacement cycles of equipment– of laptops, netbooks, and iPads have surged in these recessionary years. Using federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act funds (Title 1) and Stimulus funds, regular budget line items, bond referenda, and corporate largesse, school districts—again while teachers are being let go and downsized budgets go before voters—buy the newest of new technologies for teachers and students. For example, 19 Oklahoma schools received federal Stimulus funds for 1:1 laptops; Port Jefferson School District in New York state “has fully embraced this revolution in learning” and will give every sixth grader a laptop; a Minnesota district bought iPads for its high school students. Even when some of these funds are available only for tech purchases, in the midst of tight budgets, many other districts, using non-categorical funds have bought new devices to teachers and students.
Surely, the electronic consumer and school markets differ. Individuals and families buy electronics that will give them more, faster, and better entertainment and communication. In spending the money, the reasons they give range from wanting to be the first among friends to have one to perceived need. Family members, of course, don’t need to justify their expenditures to anyone outside of the family since it is their money. School boards, however, use public funds to purchase devices and reasons have to be given to taxpayers.
The reasons public officials most often give for these purchases, past and present, is that the electronic devices will transform classroom practices, student learning, and prepare students for jobs in a competitive global economy. So, school boards need to back up these reasons with solid evidence for spending public dollars on new (and replacement) technologies that promise significant changes in teaching, learning, and administrative practice.
And here is where things get dicey. The evidence for these electronic devices doing what is expected both in the U.S. and abroad is—as I read the research–at best, spotty—at worst, weak. Few careful and impartial observers of U.S., Europe, and Asia where governments have committed themselves to infusing technology into schools can say with confidence that the use of new technologies has led to increases in student academic achievement (as measured on either U.S. or international tests), altered substantially how teachers teach, or prepared students for to compete in an ever-changing labor market.
Some readers who wince at such a bald statement might recall single studies of particular schools in the U.S. and internationally where test scores rose, teachers significantly changed their practices, or students got jobs using software learned in schools. Such studies do exist. Seldom, however, do researchers follow up these single studies to determine whether those changes once documented persisted over time, particularly when initial leaders moved on, resources shrunk, and new technologies appeared. In short, for those who champion evidenced-based practice, hunting for reliable and valid research to support further purchases of new technologies is like Oscar Wilde’s definition of British aristocrats chasing foxes: “The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”
Even if some readers reject my argument in light of their beliefs and scattered studies, I can say with some confidence that there is little evidence of across-the-board success in promoters of new technologies reaching the goals they seek in transforming teaching, learning, and preparing students for jobs. If that is the case, and I believe that it is, why do investments in new technologies in schools continue even in hard economic times?
In answering this question, I offer two explanations for why school boards, superintendents, and other supporters of technology including for-profit companies, foundations, and educators engage in non-rational behavior. Of course, it is no surprise that individuals who pride themselves on being rational beings who calculate the pluses and minuses of decisions before taking action do engage in non-rational behavior. Smart people smoke, abuse drugs, and over-eat, harming their bodies, injuring their families, and damaging their work lives. Organizations also engage in non-rational behavior.
Here are the two explanations for districts’ non-rational behavior.
1. Districts buy technology to keep taxpayers confident in their being up-to-date, innovative, and effective in their work.
2. Districts buy technology because they suffer from inattentional blindness–they are too focused on the specific problem and lose sight of the big picture.
The next post elaborates each explanation and asks which one (or both) best explains this powerful urge for districts to buy new technologies when the evidence for effectiveness is underwhelming.