Why do districts keep buying new technologies when the evidence for success is so paltry? The political and psychological explanations offered in Part 2 offer plausible reasons for non-rational behavior. But plausible is a long stretch from being convincing
I doubt very much whether I can persuade readers that “resource dependence” theory and “inattentional blindness”–even in combination–can explain all of those scarce budget dollars flowing to vendors even when little evidence supports such purchases. Behavioral economics combines research on economics and psychological blind spots of individuals (their political and social biases and “rules of thumb”) to show again and again that people have “bounded rationality” in solving problems. Surely, there are other explanations that readers can offer. And some have in their comments to Parts 1 and 2.
Eliminating non-rational decisions in complex organizations is a fool’s errand. Think about the hasty, ideologically-driven decision to invade Iraq because Hussein supposedly had weapons of mass destruction or the greed-driven proliferation of “collateral derivatives” or bundled sub-prime mortgages that triggered financial panic and the Great Recession of 2008. Post-mortem analyses of these decisions can lead to greater understanding among decisionmakers about their hidden beliefs particularly when key evidence-driven questions are asked publicly. Yes, I do believe that policymakers can make better decisions, especially when they examine openly their assumptions when making policy. Which brings me full circle to the instance of non-rational behavior in buying electronic devices.
More and more evidence accumulates as new studies reveal that unbiquitious access and use of computers falls far short of producing the desired outcomes that policy elites, district officials and vendors promised patrons. Beyond the studies cited in the first post (July 4), additional ones have been published about children in Romania whose low-income families got vouchers to purchase computers to be used at home. The researchers, using an experimental and control design for the study, found “strong evidence that children in households who [had] the voucher received significantly lower school grades in math, English, and Romanian” than those children in low-income families who did not have a voucher (or computer) at home.
Or the North Carolina study that examined the availability of broadband service between 2000 and 2005 and effects on middle school test scores in that period. In this large correlational study, access to the Internet and home computers had a negative effect on children from poor families in math and reading but not for non-poor students, thus widening, not closing, the achievement gap between income groups.
Then there is the recent $20 million Texas study of 21 middle schools where students were permitted to take the machines home. Savvy tech people configured the machines to block email, games, and many questionable websites. In another 21 middle schools–the control group–students were not allowed to take the laptops home. In the 21 schools where students took the machines home, sure, you guessed it most of the students figured out how to get around the firewalls installed by experts. The conclusion of the study? “[T]here was no evidence linking technology immersion with student self-directed learning or their general satisfaction with schoolwork.” As for test scores, the evidence was decidedly mixed in the academic subjects with lower scores in writing in those schools with the highest school use of laptops.
For those readers who note the design of studies as a factor in giving weight to the conclusions, two of the above three studies were quasi-experimental and one was correlational.
These powerful “learning tools”–desktops, laptops, hand-held devices–give students and teachers unparalled access to information and, as tools, can be used in many ways individually and collaborativel, in and out of school, to advance knowledge in academic subjects. Yet the results in test scores and other measures are meager. The return on investment is atrocious. Still districts buy netbooks, iPads, laptops, and the next new thing. What to do?
As I have suggested in earlier posts, the chances of districts abandoning high tech purchases are close to nil. Whichever explanation readers find congenial–political, psychological, or their pet ones–new devices ( a robot teacher, perhaps) will continue to flow into schools even when district budgets are tight and evidence of effectiveness is scarce. The answer, at least to me, is the classic democratic one of policymakers being transparent with those who matter–parents, students, educators, voters, and taxpayers–in making decisions about technology. Transparent means letting all stakeholders in tax-supported public education know the assumptions, the desired outcomes, the strategies used, and, most important, the results over time of these educational investments. Technological Impact statements, similar to environmental impact ones, done before a decision is made would be a major step forward in transparency in decisionmaking. More public discussion, not less is required. Truth be told, however, I know of no districts that present to their patrons even this small gesture toward rational decision-making when it comes to putting technologies into schools.