Why have the results of computers entering schools in the past thirty years so disappointed champions of high-tech?
From Europe (OECD Report 2008) to the U.S., from developing nations buying One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) to developed nations counting on schools preparing children and youth for a high-tech world, the same dreary statistics and conclusions emerge: teacher and student use of high-tech devices in daily lessons is minimal and even where usage is optimal, student outcomes in improved achievement and other indicators fall well below expectations.
Blame for this dismal outcome has fallen on resistant teachers, traditional administrators, mindless policymakers, eager philanthropists, and self-promoting vendors. Taking a step back from finger-pointing and the self-indulgent I-told-you-so is hard to do since bloggers and pundits offer splendid one-liners and quotable phrases that make for great bumper stickers. But if analysis means breaking down a problem into its constituent parts and reassembling those parts in ways that explain better what is going on than do slogans, then pausing to take one step back is crucial to understanding a problem before rushing in to solve it.
For many years I have written, spoken, and taught about the history and the intricacies of school reform in the U.S. Readers, audience members, and students have asked me about computers in schools and the directions that technology has taken in the larger society and its limited use in schools for instruction. Every time, without exception, I have replied that the history of technological innovations in schools is a sub-set of school reform, not an exceptional case at all. If you want to understand what happens to technological innovations when they are adopted and end up in classrooms, know what occurred to major school reforms that succeeded and failed.
Although skeptical looks and words, albeit polite ones, came from those who asked the questions, I plunged on and said that anyone determined to transform schools, especially classroom teaching and learning through technology should first understand that the history of school reform is filled with recurring efforts by promoters of one reform or another to adopt and put into practice the next “new” thing.
For example, nearly two hundred years ago the major structural school reform was to establish the common school for everyone; a half-century later it was age-graded schools; in the early 1900s, reformers pressed for social/medical services, adult education, and vocational education in schools.
All of these structural reforms were successful in eventually becoming part of the contemporary U.S. school. Yet there were many launches of innovations that had little staying power. Recall the non-graded school, the open classroom, instructional TV, programmed instruction, vouchers, and too many others to mention. I could go on but the point is made.
And that point is that bringing high-tech devices in schools to transform teaching, learning, and bring schools into the 21st century must be seen within the larger picture of U.S. public schools as targets of structural reform for the past two centuries. Here is the place, then, to note that K-12 online instruction is being promoted as a “disruptive innovation” that will transform, even eliminate, the age-graded school–introduced over 150 years ago–into places that will permit students to proceed at their own pace in learning and achieve at higher levels than in self-contained classrooms with one teacher and 25 to 30 students. Online instruction in K-12 will revolutionize teaching and learning. Again, the technology is the lever that will upend the traditional world of schooling, the overall target of reformers.
Online education, promoters claim, can “disrupt” K-12 learning and create an entirely new system of tax-supported public schooling. No surprise, then, that amid post-2008 cuts in educational spending, many cyber schools (e.g., Agora), blended schools (e.g., Carpe Diem) and similar ventures (e.g., Flex Public Schools) have attracted great interest among entrepreneurs, CEOs, educators, academics, and many policymakers from both sides of the political spectrum. These reformers are determined to have U.S. students perform better on international tests and be better prepared for jobs in an information-based economy. Online instruction joins Common Core Standards, charter schools, evaluating and paying teachers on the basis of student test scores on reformers’ to-do list.
Of course, there is no one version of K-12 online instruction. Credit recovery programs, rural students taking Advanced Placement courses, blended schools like Rocketship charters, the School of One, and even mandating high school students to take courses online in schools–all come under the umbrella of online instruction. But the dream of all students clicking away at computer screens at home or elsewhere lures reformers into believing that existing school structures and habits will melt away.
Those high expectations for online schooling, like earlier incarnations of technological “new things,” will fade as the political realities of wholesale restructuring of schools and classroom practices without widespread cooperation of teachers become apparent. More disappointment is around the corner.