Category Archives: technology use

Whatever Happened to Media Literacy in Schools?

Far more policy talk than classroom action is the short answer. The long answer is below in the questions I ask.

Where and When Did the Idea Originate?

Having students become media literate across school subjects has been talked about since the early 1960s in Europe and the U.S. but has hardly made a dent in lessons that most teachers teach. In Britain, Canada, and other nations there has been far more policy talk and even some action (media literacy Europe/Canada ). For example, in the United Kingdom, the 2003 Communications Act required the government to promote media literacy in British schools. David Buckingham and colleagues tells the story of what happened since then (see here and here).

Much less has happened in the U.S. with its decentralized system of public schools in 50 states, over 13,000 districts, and nearly 100,000 schools. A timeline for media literacy, broadly defined, begins in the 1960s.

The earliest U.S. classroom materials that I have found were created in 1972 as a Media Now kit of lessons and activities that teachers could use in their classrooms. Based on the work of media analyst Marshall McLuhan and psychologists Jerome Bruner’s Process of Education and Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives , Ron Curtis and others developed a self-directed learning kit containing 50 individual packages divided into seven modules for teachers to use. The source I used claimed that it was used in over 600 schools.

There has been much state activity in promoting media literacy in schools  since (see above timeline) but no mandated courses as far as I can determine. For example, although California curriculum standards call for media literacy skills in English/ language arts and history/social science in K-12 grades, current high-stakes state tests contain no items that examine media literacy.

Media Literacy Now, an advocacy organization, keeps tabs on state legislation that include funding, promotion, and action involving media literacy. The National Association for Media Literacy Education has made connections to Common Core standards adopted by most states.

With state and federal officials enacting laws promoting media literacy and  organizations lobbying for more of it in schools and classrooms, individual teachers in scattered schools across the country have heeded the message and introduced lessons into their classrooms. But not much more than that. Pressing teachers and students to score well on tests, graduate high school, and go to college, media literacy lessons are close to the bottom of most teachers’ “to do” lists.

What Problems Did Media Literacy Intend To Solve?

The major problem is the current inability of children and youth to parse Internet and media ads, to evaluate sources of information harvested from the Internet, and reason critically about what they see, hear, and digest from mainstream and social media.

Sam Wineburg and colleagues surveyed in 2016 nearly 8,000 students from middle school through college on their skills in judging Internet information. The survey made a splash in media outlets. He says:

Our most reported finding was that 82 percent of middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between an ad and a news story. But putting it that way isn’t really fair to kids: While dozens of outlets reported this nugget, none mentioned an industry study that showed 59 percent of adults couldn’t tell the difference, either.

Wineburg’s solution?

The answer is not to affix another barnacle to the curriculum’s hull. We need to rebuild the entire ship. What should history teaching look like when kids can go online and find “evidence” for the canard that “thousands” of black men put on grey uniforms to take up arms for the Confederacy? What should science teaching look like when anti-vaxxer sites maintain a “proven” link between autism and measles shots (despite a retraction by the journal publishing the claim and the fact that “no respectable body of opinion” supports the linkage)? What should language arts class look like when ad hominem arguments, name calling and “alternative facts” overwhelm civil discourse?

What Does Media Literacy Look Like in a Classroom?

I offer two examples of lessons using new technologies, one in a Canadian elementary school on analyzing candy ads after students had read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and a Providence (RI) high school social studies lesson on World War II.

Watch on YouTube the Canadian elementary school teacher, using an interactive white board, teach a lesson on candy ads.

For the high school lesson, journalist Dana Goldstein describes a lesson where the teacher had students use laptops to analyze sources–her example of students working on media literacy skills.

I sat in on Jennifer Geller’s 10th grade Contemporary World History class at the Providence Career and Technical Academy. That day’s state-mandated lesson objective was to “trace patterns chronologically for events leading to World War II in Europe.” But Geller, a 12-year veteran in the district, used technology to layer a more ambitious and contemporary media literacy skills-building session on top of the dry history.

First the sophomores read the following paragraph in their Prentice Hall World History textbook:

With the [German] government paralyzed by divisions, both Nazis and Communists won more seats in the Reichstag, or lower house of the legislature. Fearing the growth of Communist political power, conservative politicians turned to Hitler. Although they despised him, they believed they could control him. Then, with conservative support, Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933 through legal means under the Weimar constitution.

Geller asked the kids to go to the back of room and pick up individual laptops, which had been borrowed for the day from the school’s library. Their task for the rest of the period was to search online for additional accurate information about Hilter’s rise to power that had not been included in their textbook, and then present it to the class.

Geller engaged the kids in a conversation about how search engines work. “Does anyone know how the first link on Google becomes the first one?” she asked. “It’s not the best — it’s that the most people linked to or clicked on that site. You should not always trust the first thing you see!”

Geller encouraged the students to look at Wikipedia, but skeptically. “Anyone can write these articles,” she explained. “The fact that anyone can change them or fix them means if something is wrong, it can be fixed. You have to be careful with it, just like you have to be careful with your textbook.”

Geller continued, “Who do you think gets to write a textbook? And how often is it updated? Maybe a downside is the textbook doesn’t change much from year to year.”

After searching online, the students learned that it wasn’t just “conservative politicians” who supported Hitler. In fact, a full third of the German public had voted for the Nazi party. “That’s why you use two sources!” Geller proclaimed.

The lesson was relevant to both historical research and day-to-day fact finding online. It also gave the students something pretty disturbing to think about regarding the relatively broad support enjoyed by Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1933.

In both lessons, digital technologies were used to get students engaged in tasks that built and used critical thinking skills to parse a textbook paragraph and candy ads. But the technology didn’t spur students, it was the teacher’s questions about candy ads and a textbook passage about Hitler becoming Chancellor that mattered.

Does Media Literacy Work?

Hard question to answer. Because media literacy is multidimensional (print and non-print–TV, digital, mobile phone) and because it covers efforts to increase knowledge and influence behavior among both adults and children, and, finally, because so few classroom and school studies have been done beyond teacher and student surveys, results are all over the map.

There is, for example Renee Hobbs seven year study (2007) of the English department reorganization of the 11th grade at Concord High School (New Hampshire) into “Media/Communication.” Academic outcomes from the experimental Media/Communication group exceeded those of a control group, according to Hobbs.

A meta-analysis of media literacy interventions (51 studies) to increase knowledge,change beliefs, and alter behavior did show some positive evidence of changes but marginally so.

Advocacy to spread media literacy (however defined) is prevalent and shapes responses to the above question far more than research and evaluation studies.

What Has Happened to Media Literacy?

While there is much tumult in states over the need for media literacy in schools, there is far more policy talk than policy action, and even less media literacy, however defined, put into classroom lessons than advocates desire. Since Ron Curtis’s Media Now kits developed in the early 1970s, media literacy remains far more talk about its importance in classroom lessons than what occurs when teachers close their doors. According to Wineburg, the situation–students unable to sort out fake from factual news, judging the veracity of sources on the Internet–calls for more than new courses, occasional lectures, or professional development days for teachers on the subject. As long as the curriculum standards, testing, and accountability regime remains intact as it has for decades, more policy talk about doing something to educate children and youth in parsing media and the Internet will occur than policy action.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Internet Is Sowing Mass Confusion. We Must Rethink How We Teach Kids Every Subject (Sam Wineburg)

Sam Wineburg, a professor of education at Stanford University, is the author of “Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).”  This op-ed appeared in USA Today, February 12, 2019

In 2016, months before the presidential election, my research team surveyed nearly 8,000 students from middle school through college on their ability to judge material from the internet. We concluded that students’ ability to navigate online information could be captured in one word: bleak. We released our findings two weeks after Donald Trump’s election and were immediately swept up in the media maelstrom.

Our most reported finding was that 82 percent of middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between an ad and a news story. But putting it that way isn’t really fair to kids: While dozens of outlets reported this nugget, none mentioned an industry study that showed 59 percent of adults couldn’t tell the difference, either.

We are all in the same boat. That boat is taking on water.

In the wake of mass confusion caused by the internet and social media, there have been calls for a renewed commitment to teaching civics and instructing students in the foundations of democracy. But if we think this challenge is only about civics, we’re deluding ourselves. Bringing education into the 21st century demands that we rethink how we teach every subject in the curriculum.

We’re still teaching history using only print texts even as kids are being historicized online by Holocaust deniers and Lost-Causers. We’re teaching science in an era when online anti-vaxxers gain traction by using scientific language to deceive and intimidate. We’re teaching students to solve math equations while remaining oblivious to the fact that they’re being bamboozled by cunning infographics that mask rising temperatures by playing fast and loose with the X and Y axes.

Massive education response needed

We will fail the challenge posed by the digital revolution if we think there’s a cheap way out of this mess. A new course in media literacy or a half-day presentation by the librarian is a Band-Aid. Ushering education into the digital age will demand the educational equivalent of thehuman genome project: a decade-long effort that cost billions of dollars, engaged thousands of scientists, and relied on international cooperation with teams from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and other nations.

The first step is to get an accurate fix on where students are at. We can’t confuse kids’ ease in operating digital devices with the sophistication needed to evaluate the information those devices yield. We’ll need a host of innovative assessments that can be administered online and that take advantage of artificial intelligence and natural language processing for scoring.

Next, we’ll need massive curriculum development and experimentation to help kids succeed on these assessments. We will need to develop new approaches to professional development for teachers, who sometimes are as confused as their students. And we’ll have to overhaul teacher education, so that new teachers feel prepared when they tell kids to open their Chromebooks.

Digital threat is a national defense issue

Most of all, we’ll need public education in the deepest sense — the education of the public — in our libraries, our community centers and our places of worship — to reach parents and grandparents so we can help them help their children become informed citizens.

In October 1957, a whirling orbital ball known as Sputnik roused Americans from their slumber and set into motion a rethinking of our educational system. I don’t see the equivalent of the National Defense Education Act coming out of Washington anytime soon. But the threat to democracy by a digitally credulous citizenry is nothing less than an issue of national defense.

Treating it as anything but guarantees a further erosion of democratic society.

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Failed Predictions on Technology in Schools

Over five years ago, Petar Jandric a professor at the Polytechnic of Zagreb, interviewed me about my decades of writings on technology in schools. The entire interview appeared in the journal E-Learning and Digital Media (2015) Here is a portion of that interview about my poor record in predicting the future.

 

PJ: Three decades ago, you published Teachers and Machines: Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920. Only four years after the famous appearance of the computer on the cover of Time magazine in 1982, you dedicated a whole quarter of the book to ‘the promise of the computer’. Some of the presented conclusions are just as relevant today. For instance, it cannot be disputed that ‘to question computer use in schools is to ask what schools are for, why teachers teach certain content, how they should teach, and how children learn’. At the time, however, it was impossible to predict the depth and extent of social change brought by information and communication technologies.

Standing on the shoulders of previous research efforts, we can learn from fulfilled predictions just as much as we can learn from failed promises. Based on the most successful predictions and the deepest historic failures, therefore, what can be learned from the first one hundred years of marriage between education and technologies? If you set out to rewrite Teachers and Machines, what would you do differently?

 

LC: Thanks, Petar, for recalling that quote from Teachers and Machines. It is the one I have used often. Please allow me to reproduce the blog post I wrote about this topic five years ago:

A quarter-century ago, I described and analysed the history of machines deployed in classrooms (film, radio, instructional television and the newly arrived desktop computer) to help teachers teach more, faster and better. Then I did something foolish in the final chapter. I predicted future uses of computers in classrooms from my vantage point in 1986.

Of course, I was not alone in making predictions. Seymour Papert dove into the same empty pool that I did a couple of years before my venture into crystal ball gazing: ‘There won’t be schools in the future… I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured in groups by age, following a curriculum –all of that’ (Papert, 1984).

Based upon my research in schools and experience as a teacher and superintendent, however, I was far more skeptical about the penetration and use of computers than Papert.

Here is what I predicted in Teachers and Machines for computers in schools:

I predict that…in elementary schools where favourable conditions exist, teacher use will increase but seldom exceed more than 10 percent of weekly instructional time [roughly 3 hours a week]. Pulling out students for a 30-to-45-minute period in a computer lab will, I suspect, gain increasing popularity in these schools…In secondary schools, the dominant pattern of use will be to schedule students into [labs] and one or more elective classes where a score of desk-top computers sit…

In no event would I expect general student use of computers in secondary schools to exceed 5 percent of the weekly time set aside for instruction. I predict no great breakthrough in teacher use patterns at either level of schooling. (Cuban, 1986: 99)

As events unfolded in the next quarter-century, my prediction flat-lined. Access to computers –desktops, laptops, hand-held devices and interactive white boards – soared. In writing Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms (Cuban, 2001), I did find higher percentages of students and teachers using computers in preschools, secondary schools and universities that ruined my 1986 prediction.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of teachers across the country have received 1:1 laptops, tablets and white boards.

In researching classrooms since 2001, again, I have found higher use by teachers and students in both elementary and secondary classrooms. More teachers – my guess is over 30% across different districts – use machines for instruction (I include the whole panoply of available high-tech devices) regularly, that is, multiple times a week. Another 30 to 40% use computers occasionally, that is, at least once a month. The remainder of teachers – still a significant minority – hardly ever, if at all, use machines for instruction. This continues to puzzle researchers and policymakers since they know that nearly all teachers have high-tech devices at home. So my 1986 prediction on teacher and student use of computers for classroom instruction was inaccurate and died a quiet death. Compassionate readers seldom remind me that I flopped in peeking into the future. The facts are clear that students and teachers use high-tech devices for instruction more than I had foreseen.

One final confession. I stated clearly in Teachers and Machines and subsequent writings that the uses of new technologies for classroom instruction would seldom satisfy those advocates of more instructional use in schools, because teacher use would tend toward the traditional, blending both teacher- and student-centered approaches, and such approaches were seen as unimaginative. Not all teachers, by any means, but enough for the charge of pedestrian teacher use to be commonly pointed out. Both of these predictions have turned out to be accurate.

I confess to my errors in foreseeing the future for no other reason than to remind readers, both champions and skeptics of computers in schools, that accurate predictions are rare and inaccurate ones are not only common but often memorable. So if I re-wrote Teachers and Machines today, what predictions would I make?

I would predict that well over 90% of US schools a quarter-century from now will be age-graded and brick-and-mortar, not virtual ones. There will be much more blending of online and face-to-face instruction in classrooms as students get older – more of the latter in elementary schools and more of the former in secondary ones. Most teachers – at least 75% – will use some form of device regularly in parts of daily lessons because they have expanded their repertoire of teaching activities to achieve their goals for student learning. Those uses by teachers and students will be far more integrated into daily lessons, yet will still be criticized by that future generation of techno-enthusiasts as obsolete and unimaginative….

 

Given my confession of being a poor predictor, readers may well chuckle at what I said in this interview of five years ago. So be it.

Unmentioned in the above post has been the poverty in student achievement gains that can be attributed to use of devices and software. The existing body of research on the effects of technology on achievement would give willies to the purveyors of hyped claims that new devices and software would raise students’ test scores, increase their critical thinking, and boost school performance. Alas, no such outcomes have materialized after billions have been spent on machines and software. But that will be the subject of another post.

 

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Tuning out: What happens when you drop Facebook? (Krysten Crawford)

Krysten Crawford is a freelance writer.

The early promise and excitement of social media — its ability to connect people around the world and inspire grass-roots activism — has given way to fears that it is making us depressed and more politically polarized than ever.

But is that really happening?

In one of the largest-ever randomized evaluations of Facebook’s broader social impacts, Stanford economists look at common assumptions about the platform and its effects on individuals and society.

Among other things, they uncover evidence that Facebook causes users to feel less happy and more anxious. But they find that the overall emotional impact, while meaningful, is less than other studies suggesting that users feel worse about themselves.

Their analysis also sheds important new light on Facebook’s impact on democracy by suggesting that the platform amplifies political divisions while also educating users about current events.

The research is laid out in a new working paper co-authored by Matthew Gentzkow, an economics professor and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). Previous studies looking at these outcomes have either been conducted on a smaller scale or focused on correlational analysis rather than randomized evaluation of causal effects.

“What you see from this study is that the rise of social media — and Facebook, in particular — has been a double-edged sword,” Gentzkow says.

It’s a reminder that a technology as revolutionary as social media can’t be either good or bad. It’s often a mix of both.

“There were a number of years where Facebook could do no wrong,” Gentzkow says. “Now we’ve had a couple of years where Facebook could do no right. Facebook is either the greatest thing that’s ever happened or it’s destroying humanity. This is just like the discussion we had when television came along. We need to start understanding the nuances of what this technology is actually doing to the world.”

Small, but significant, impact on well-being

Gentzkow and his co-authors — Stanford doctoral candidates Luca Braghieri and Sarah Eichmeyer, and New York University economist Hunt Allcott — recruited approximately 2,850 Facebook users in the United States. To participate, subjects had to use Facebook for more than 15 minutes per day. Some of the subjects were randomly assigned to a treatment group that was offered payments to deactivate their accounts in the runup to the November 2018 midterm elections.

The scholars then used a variety of measures, including daily text messages, surveys and public information on voting and Twitter use, to track the behaviors of both the treatment and a control group.

The team was able to study a wide range of Facebook’s impacts on users. Their findings show that, on average, users who turned off Facebook:

  • Spent less time online overall and more time engaged in a broad range of offline activities, including being with friends and family. They didn’t replace Facebook with another social media platform like Twitter.
  • Reported small but significant improvements in their levels of happiness, life satisfaction, depression, and anxiety.
  • Were just as likely to experience changes in well-being regardless of whether they were active or passive users. Facebook announced more than a year ago that scrolling through a news feed — as opposed to actively contributing to the site through comments and other activity — makes users feel worse about themselves.
  • Knew less about current events and political news.
  • Became significantly less politically polarized in their views on issues.
  • Used Facebook less after the experiment was over. Four weeks after the end of the experiment, treatment users spent 23 percent less time on their mobile Facebook apps than control users.

The findings, says Gentzkow, raise a number of questions about social media’s impact on democracy. For example, is it better when people know less about current events and are less likely to have extreme political views? Or is it better for people to be more informed yet more partisan and angry in their views?

“It sets up a tough question that doesn’t have an obvious answer,” says Gentzkow, whose research focuses on the interplay between politics and media.

First, averages. Next, nuances

Particularly striking, the researchers say, were signs that users didn’t appear eager to get back onto Facebook once the experiment ended. They were more likely, for example, to uninstall the Facebook app from their phone and to be more judicious about engaging with the service.

This outcome suggests that Facebook may, as many observers have speculated, be habit forming. The fact that users who quit Facebook, even temporarily, indicated they wanted to use it less in the future is consistent with theories of addiction, says Allcott, an associate professor of economics at NYU.

The researchers also evaluated how much money users would accept to deactivate their Facebook accounts before and after they took a break from the service. They found that the median user wanted $100 to stop using Facebook for four weeks. After the month-long hiatus, the average user said he or she would accept slightly less than that to take another break.

“It turns out a four-week break does cause people to re-evaluate how they use Facebook, but they’re still willing to pay a lot of money to stay on the platform,” Allcott says. “Measured in economic terms, Facebook seems to provide a whole lot of value for its users.”

The study highlights the subtleties of social media’s effects, Braghieri says. For instance, the finding that users who deactivated Facebook knew less about current events suggests that the platform is a valuable source of information for people who might not otherwise read the news.

“We often hear that Facebook’s impact on politics is fundamentally bad because of the spread of misinformation and increased polarization,” he says. “But this paper provides a more nuanced understanding of what is really happening and is something to think about.”

To that end, the researchers have been conducting follow-up interviews with study participants to gain a better understanding of this and other nuances. They are also parsing the data for differences among users by age, education level, political ideology and other characteristics.

“Our study talks about average effects, but there might be vast differences across people,” Eichmeyer says. “Now that we have the data, we can start exploring potential distinctions.”

This research was generally funded by the Sloan Foundation. Facebook provided no funding and the authors have no financial ties to Facebook. Gentzkow is on an advisory council for the SocialScienceOne initiative which works with Facebook and other technology companies to facilitate data sharing.

 

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The Virtue of Slow Software: Fewer Fads in Schools?

Online commerce has made it easier than ever to shop, right? Maybe too easy. A recent study by comparison-shopping site Finder revealed that more than 88 percent of Americans admitted to spontaneous impulse buying online, blowing an average of $81.75 each time we lose control. Clothes, videogames, concert tickets. One in five of us succumb weekly. Millennials do it the most.

With the above paragraph, journalist Clive Thompson opens his article on “Slow Software” in Wired magazine. His argument is straight-forward: devices speed up our lives, encourage impulsivity, and buyer’s remorse. For the above example of excessive buying–which, of course, is crucial to the economy which depends upon Americans shopping–Thompson describes a piece of software that slows the shopper down.

[A team of software designers] created Icebox, a Chrome plug-­in that replaces the Buy button on 20 well-known e-commerce sites with a blue button labeled “Put it on ice.” Hit it and your item goes into a queue, and a week or so later Icebox asks if you still want to buy it. In essence, it forces you to stop and ponder, “Do I really need this widget?” Odds are you don’t.

The pace of life has surely accelerated with Facebook Newsfeed, incessant tweets, over the top Instagram pics, and pop-up ads everywhere you click on the web. Misinformation on Facebook spreading swiftly and harassment campaigns on Twitter ever-present, slowing down software seems to be a way of thinking twice before deciding on something important to us. But it is not easy as Thompson concludes:

It’s a Sisyphean battle, I admit. Offered the choice, we nearly always opt for convenience…. Icebox is brilliant but hasn’t yet taken off. Socratic deliberation improves our lives—but, man, what a pain!

Slow software reminded me of what Steve Arnett reported in an earlier post. Ninety-eight percent of the software that school administrators purchased for classroom use was not used intensively (at least 10 hours between assessments)–yes, 98 percent.

The apps with the most licenses purchased are ConnectEd, WeVideo, Blender Learn Discovery and Education Streaming Plus. The apps with the highest intensive users are Google Drive, Canvas, Dreambox Learning, Lexia Reading Core5 and IXL. (Some apps, such as Google Drive, have more users than licenses purchased because they offer their services for free.)

All of this got me thinking anew about who makes district decisions about buying software for classrooms and the muting of teacher voices when it comes to these district office decisions–which, of course, have to ultimately be approved by boards of education.

School leaders need slow software before going on buying sprees of teaching and learning software peddled by companies. Impulsive shopping–see opening paragraph above–hits school leaders as it does the typical consumer surfing Amazon or similar sites. This impulse buying is the way that fads get started (hype transforms fads into “innovations”).

Of course, district officials who spend the money do not need software to slow their decisions down for a week that Icebox proposes. Instead of slow software, they can use some old-fashioned, analog ways of decision-making that bring teachers into the decision cycle at the very beginning with teachers volunteering to try out the new software (and devices) in lessons, administrators collecting data, and analysis of data by mix of a teachers and administrators. And I do not mean token representation on committees already geared to decide on software and devices. With actual groups of teachers using software (and devices) with students, then a more deliberate, considered, and informed decision can be made on which software (or devices) should get licensed for district. Of course, this suggestion means that those who make decisions have to take time to collaborate with those who are the objects of those decisions before any district money can be spent. And time is a scarce resource especially for teachers. Not to be squandered, but there are tech-savvy teachers who would relish such an opportunity.

My hunch is that there are cadres of teachers who do want to be involved in classroom use of software before they are bought and would appreciate the chance to chime in with their experiences using the software in lessons. Teacher validation of an innovation aimed at teaching and learning can not be sold or bought without teachers using the software in lessons.

As Thompson points out it is a struggle to restrain impulsivity when buying stuff because “[o]ffered the choice, we nearly always opt for convenience.” That applies to district leaders buying software for teachers to use in their lessons. And faddishness is the last thing that schools need when budgets are tight and entrenchment is in the air.

A Fad Dissolver period declared at the onset of a classroom trial that runs three-to-six months to determine how valid and useful the software is could halt the impulse buying that so characterizes districts wanting to show how tech savvy they are and avoid the common practice of storing in drawers and closets unused software and devices.

 

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Oversold and Underused: Software in Schools (Thomas Arnett)

Thomas Arnett is a Research Fellow of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This appeared in Education Next November 30, 2018.

Earlier this month, education news outlets buzzed with a frustrating, yet unsurprising, headline: Most educational software licenses go unused in K-12 districts. The source of the headline is a recent report by Ryan Baker, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Learning Analytics. Baker analyzed data from BrightBytes, a K-12 data management company, on students’ technology usage across 48 districts. That data revealed that a median of 70% of districts’ software licenses never get used, and a median of 97.6% of licenses are never used intensively.

The findings unveil a clear disconnect between district software procurement and classroom practice. To be clear, not all software is high quality, which means teachers may have good reason to not adopt some software products that fail to deliver positive student learning outcomes. But for quality software tools that can yield breakthrough student outcomes, underutilization is a huge missed opportunity.

So when districts license high-quality educational software, why might teachers still choose not to use the software at their disposal? Some of our latest research at the Christensen Institute offers answers to this question.

Understanding teachers’ ‘Jobs’

In September, my colleagues and I released a research paper that explains what motivates teachers to change how they teach. Drawing on the Jobs to be Done Theory, we interviewed teachers to discover the ‘Jobs’ that motivate them to adopt blended learning or other new approaches to instruction.

According to the theory, all people—teachers included—are internally motivated to make changes in their lives that move them toward success or satisfaction within their particular life circumstances. The theory labels these circumstance-based desires as ‘Jobs.’ Just as people ‘hire’ contractors to help them build houses or lawyers to help them build a case, people search for something they can ‘hire’ to help them when ‘Jobs’ arise in their lives.

Through our interviews we found four Jobs that often motivate teachers to adopt new practices. Three of these Jobs seem relevant for explaining why licensed software often goes unused.

Job #1: Help me lead the way in improving my school. Teachers with this Job are eager to demonstrate their value as contributors to broader school improvement. These teachers will be interested in using district-licensed software when it 1) seems like a viable and worthwhile way to improve the school as a whole, 2) seems simple and straightforward to share with their colleagues, and 3) offers them an opportunity to help shape the direction of school improvement efforts.

Job #2: Help me find manageable ways to engage and challenge more of my students. Teachers with this Job are generally confident with how teaching and learning happen in their classrooms. But they have a few students each year who they struggle to reach. They are often open to software as a way to engage those students. But that software must not only be worthwhile for their students, but also practical to incorporate into their current practices and routines.

Job #3: Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student. Whether from perpetually low test scores, low graduation rates, ongoing student behavior issues, or a general sense that learning lacks joy and passion, teachers with this Job struggle constantly with a sense that they aren’t living up to their responsibilities to their students. For these teachers, software can be a powerful resource for helping them transform their instructional models. But that software needs to offer new approaches to teaching and learning, not just new takes on traditional textbooks and worksheets.

Accounting for the 70% of unused software licenses

We suspect that in many cases, quality software goes unused because it either fails to align with teachers’ Jobs or fumbles at delivering a good solution for meeting their Jobs.

For example, teachers who are looking to lead the way in helping their schools improve (Job 1) likely don’t look first to software as a way to fulfill their Job. Their school improvement instincts typically orient them to look for new instructional programs, not silver bullet software. To meet their Job to be Done, software providers need to start by offering an evidence-based set of practices that will help schools improve on key metrics. Then, once they’ve made the case for new instructional methods, they can discuss how software tools help to facilitate those methods.

As another example, teachers in search of manageable ways to engage and challenge more of their students (Job 2) could find a lot of benefit in the multimedia-rich and game-like aspects of many edtech products. But software platforms that are great for engaging students may yet fail to get used because teachers find them hard to incorporate into daily lessons. Software developers, hardware suppliers, and district technology teams all need to consider things they can do to make it easy for teachers to incorporate software into their lesson plans and then manage devices during class.

As a third example, consider a teacher who is frustrated by a sense that he is failing to meet the needs of most of his students because he feels stuck teaching to the nonexistent middle of his class (Job 3). The right software could be a powerful platform for helping him create individual learning pathways and mastery-based progressions that meet each of his students where they are. But if the software available from his district just supplements whole-class, direct instruction, that software won’t fulfill his Job.

Explaining why 97.6% of software licenses are never used intensively

One significant finding from our research illustrates another potential pitfall for software utilization. When new software licenses come down from the district office without clearly communicated benefits for teachers or pedagogical support, many teachers likely take a quick look and conclude that the software doesn’t fulfill any of the first three Jobs for them. Nevertheless, they feel compelled to use the software, at least occasionally, so as to not set a bad tone with their administrators. They do what they need to do to check the appropriate boxes on their teacher evaluation rubrics, but they don’t actually use the software enough for it to make a difference for them and their students. The new Job that the software creates for them amounts to, “Help me not fall behind on my school’s new initiative.” This insight likely explains why even though 30% of software licenses that get used, only 2.4% are used intensively.

In education, money isn’t easy to come by, which makes it especially frustrating to learn that many districts spend money on software that doesn’t get used. The district staff members who make software licensing decisions surely don’t intend for their purchases to go to waste. But yet, as Baker’s report illustrates, there is a disconnect between software purchases and classroom adoption. A good sales pitch may get a product through the district office’s front door. But only by helping teachers fulfill their Jobs can high-quality educational software make it through the classroom door and into the hands of students. In short, software only gets used in classrooms when it meets a Job to be Done for teachers.

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High Tech Innovations and School Reform Joined at the Hip

When asked how I got interested in the uses of technology in schools and classrooms, I answer that I was the target for a quarter-century of high-tech innovations and classroom reforms  when I taught high school history and as a district administrator in two urban school systems.

I then say that I have been trained as an historian and studied many efforts of reformers to improve schooling over the past century in U.S. classrooms, schools, and districts. I examined how teachers have taught since the 1890s. I investigated policymakers’ constant changes in curriculum since the 1880s. I analyzed the origins of the age-graded school and the spread of this innovation through the 19th century. And I parsed the Utopian dreams of reformers who believed that new machine technologies (e.g., film, radio, instructional television, desktop computer) would alter how teachers teach and students learn. I then conclude my answer by pointing out that these electronic devices are in the DNA of all classroom-driven reforms aimed at altering how teachers teach and how students learn.

What surprises me is that these questioners had not viewed high-tech innovations as having either a history in schools or as blood relations to constant efforts to improve schools. Instead, they saw (and see) innovative high-tech devices as singular, even exceptional, ways of transforming teaching and learning completely divorced from previous efforts at improving classroom practice through curricular (e.g., math, social studies, science), instructional (e.g., project-based learning, direct instruction) and organizational (e.g., site-based management, charters, mayoral control) reforms.

And that is a big conceptual error. Why? Because, school and classroom reforms including technological ones, are embedded in one another like those nested Russian matryoshka dolls.

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Creating a school where district officials say “personalized learning” is in place is an organizational and instructional reform as are 1:1 laptop schools and online instruction. Teachers using Google Earth, Teaching Tolerance, Geometric Supposer, Chemix School and Lab, and other software programs are implementing curricular reforms and shaping instruction. Technological innovations, then, are nested in curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms. Consequently, they share similar features.

For example, all reforms come bathed in rhetoric. Take the “21st Century Skills” effort, organized by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition whose members include Verizon, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Dell. Their mission is to prepare the current generation of children and youth to compete in a globalized economy. Their words, like the rhetoric of so many other reformers—past and present—portray an economic, social, and political crisis for U.S. competition in world markets unless today’s youth leave school fully equipped with the skills of creating, innovating, problem-solving, collaborating, and critically thinking. And don’t forget: a repertoire of technological skills. The rhetoric must not only create a sense of crisis, it must portray existing institutions as woefully deficient. Read the stuff.

If patterns emerge from analyzing reform rhetoric so can patterns be observed in the journey from policy talk to an adopted and funded program. Designing the policy and program means frequent revisions as they go through the political vetting process to get adopted and funded (think of “personalized learning” in its various incarnations, Every Student Succeeds Act, and district adoption of Success for All).

Ditto for finding patterns in the degree to which those adopted policies get implemented and changed as the design (e.g., Open Court reading to Dreambox software to a Balanced Literacy program) wends its way into the school and eventually to classrooms.

If reform rhetoric, policy adoption, and putting innovations into practice can be examined for regularities so can the criteria used to assess the reform (e.g., test scores, satisfaction of teachers and students with innovation, rates of graduation, etc.). Once assessed, determining whether or not the reform should be incorporated—should the innovation be sustained–into school and classroom practices is a judgment call that authorities make on the basis of political, ideological, and evidentiary grounds.

In viewing technological innovations as a sub-set of curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms, then, teachers, principals, and parents can identify patterns and figure out possible consequences for the adoption of the innovation. They can track the journey as it goes from policy to classroom practice, and expect certain outcomes while being open to unanticipated ones as well.

Too many policymakers, practitioners, and parents see technological innovations as unique initiatives unrelated to historic patterns in adopting and implementing school reforms. They err. My experiences as a practitioner and historian have taught me to see technological devices as part of the river of reform that has flowed constantly through U.S. schools for nearly two centuries.

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Filed under school reform policies, technology use