Putting New Technologies into Schools: Explaining Non-Rational Behavior

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.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

7 responses to “Putting New Technologies into Schools: Explaining Non-Rational Behavior

  1. Computers are no more and no less a teaching and learning technology than are books. There is no iron-clad law that says books are appropriate educational tools. Goodness knows my own teachers removed many inappropriate books from my grasp. The question is to what use?

    If we rely on our senses and memories to see how computers have changed the way we live, we see that they are a powerful conduit for change. The habits of millions of citizens are changing with resultant destruction of industry and social patterns. This is what school board personnel see and feel. They feel the vibration of a locomotive rushing past. They know it is shaping the economy in powerful ways. But they are not able to fashion a rational response to it.

    However, we are moving along a path of evolution that is not entirely dependent on machines, but on how we interact with them. Consider if you will, Lessig’s _Code 2.0_ and his statement “code is law”. The assumption he asks us to make is that cyber-realities and legal-realities are co-dependent.

    I therefore say that some degree of interaction is a necessary part of maturation. More interaction may speed the process.

    The changes we see in the economy while wide, are not deep because most industry relies on internal knowledge machinery. The machinery of discovery is widely distributed and the Internet is just starting to bring it together in powerful ways. Learning will lag behind other disciplines because it uses vast resources in comparison. Our adaptation to the machinery of discovery that appears and changes, only to die and be reborn in yet another shape is confusing to us.

    I don’t mean to say that everything is OK either. I could change my analogy to zombies following a truck full of fresh brains and be accurate.

  2. “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.” No tool will magically do those things by itself. Without clear strategies for using the device, and training/support for faculty not in just how to turn it on and off but how to actually incorporate it into practice, each year brings another pile of underused devices and a cry for the next shiny object.

  3. Some other possible reasons for spending on technology even as educators are being laid off.

    1) some federal or state funds are earmarked only for technology,
    2) as schools need to teach with lower headcount, technology can allow fewer educators to reach more students
    3) students will be working with technology the rest of their lives and use technology outside of school, using technology is necessary to mirror what they are and will be doing in the future

  4. Unfortunately … some of my friends in the education technology field continuously hint that schmears to purchasing superintendents and other officials are pretty common. These run from tickets to pricey sports events to downright cash-in-the-envelope. I know that one lobbyist I met with some years ago told me that one state ed. dept. was “filthy” when it came to hardware purchasing. Since the fish rots from the head … .

  5. As an ex teacher who has worked in business for a good long time now, I’m always intrigued by the argument that says you need technology in schools because that’s what kids will be using when they start work.

    Just one thing I’ve discovered working in business. Very, very few people are able to start working on any blank document. Such is the power of even the word processor, most prefer to use a template or cut and paste from their last effort. Now how creative or innovative is that?

    • Michael

      Cutting and pasting is indeed not creative or innovative – but it is lazy and why those who continue such practices will eventually be replaced by those students who ARE creative and trully know how to use technology to actually solve problems

  6. Mina

    I could not agree more with your explanations.
    I can only add that these reasons are global and the main focus is what we have to “show” not whether this is effective or have any impact.
    It is just about showing a will…

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