Category Archives: technology use

Physics Teacher Speaks Out on Technology (Alice Flarend)

“Alice Flarend is a National Board Certified Teacher and is the physics teacher at Bellwood-Antis High School in Pennsylvania.  She holds a B.S and M.S in Nuclear Engineering from University of Illinois and University of Michigan respectively. Alice caught the teaching bug while doing engineering doctoral work at the University of Michigan and has been teaching for over twenty years.  She is currently working part time on a Science Education Ph.D at Penn State.  She plans on remaining in her classroom to be a bridge between the worlds of higher education  and public K-12 schools.”


Technology will revolutionize the classroom! I have been hearing these promises for most of my 20 year physics teaching career and yet there is scant high quality evidence for it. Cyber schools show little learning ( The OECD found “no appreciable improvement in student achievement” with large scale investments in computer technology. ( Computer technology seems like such a natural fit in the classroom. Why has it not been the game changer that it should be?

I claim that most educational applications of technology ignore what we know about basic learning theory. Technology is viewed as the whole toolbox, table, chairs and school rather than a tool itself.

We know that humans individually construct their knowledge and this construction is heavily influenced by a person’s prior knowledge and experiences. We also know language is the primary vehicle by which knowledge is constructed ( Contrast this with most uses of technology where the learner passively watches multimedia presentations, clicks through an online textbook or manipulates a meaningless simulation. The learner appears to be active, but we commonly mistake clicking with thinking.

A useful analogy for learning is the construction of a building. Tools and materials are needed but are useless unless there is an architectural design that is structurally sound and suited to the owner. Technology can provide the materials and can be tools, but the teacher is needed to design instruction for their students. The teacher is the architect and the contractor. The idea that people are pondering whether we will even need teachers in the future illustrates the misapplication of technology.

To illustrate this disconnect, a personal story helps. Early in my career I participated in a summer-long institute on teaching physics using inquiry. That experience really changed my teaching.

Back in my classroom, student learning did improve, but not to the degree that I expected. They were highly engaged in hands-on experiments and problem solving. I appeared to be doing everything right. However, my students were still not achieving deep conceptual understanding. They still needed me to tell them the physics even though they had just correctly answered questions during the lab. What was I doing wrong? I found the missing piece at the beginning of my doctoral program in science education when I completed classes on learning theory. I was using lots of tools but without a sufficient plan. I was not explicitly using their prior knowledge so my students looked at this new information wearing the lenses of their old ideas. I was not giving my students opportunities to talk and to write deeply about the science. My students were doing without thinking.

This brings me back to technology. Technology can provide efficient access to content but it teacher must manipulate the technology to fit the student, the curriculum. Google can provide factual information on almost any topic, but without design, those facts remain a pile of useless lumber. A simulation could be effective at addressing a common scientific misconception. The students could use it to test their prior knowledge, gather data to find a pattern or model a complex scenario. Without a design, however, the students will “play” but fail to develop a robust understanding. Too often the lesson is built around the technology rather than the technology helping to build the lesson.

Large-scale technology products with their all encompassing content, assessment and monitoring give the illusion of building knowledge. The program, however, cannot deviate from its code. A student must choose everything from a pre-generated list. There is no chance for spontaneous conversation about a meaningful detail that addresses a student’s unique prior knowledge. There is no sharing of examples from a student’s life that can then be discussed to expand beyond the textbook example. Without even trying, meaningful conversations occur in face-to-face classrooms. They must be “allowed” in digital settings.

Online discussion boards may seem a substitute for these conversations, but there is not the give and take needed for successful construction. Missing is the intonation, the emotions, the smiles and frowns, which are all a part of effective human communication. Google Docs can help kids co-construct knowledge but there must be a rich, teacher-constructed prompt requiring the knowledge of the entire group. If it can be answered or created by a single person, there is no need of a sharing tool.

I do hope that technology will help students learn. But, there will be no game-changing tech revolution. Let’s instead use it as a tool in rich lessons that help our students construct deep understandings rather than choose a lettered answer.



Leave a comment

Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Technology Evangelists, Skeptics, and Those in the Middle

In a recent post from EdSurge (November 5, 2015), the following graphic was shown:



The text in EdSurge accompanying the graphic said:

Everyone loves a good metaphor–and this week, New Jersey principal Jon Cohen made us think with this “pencil metaphor” graphic posted via Twitter, describing the educator spectrum of edtech lovers and resistors [sic]. Where does your school fall? Do you have a lot of leaders, or or are you struggling to convert the “erasers”? We bet this newsletter can help you “sharpen” your skills, even though we all … suffer a few breaks now and then!

EdSurge evangelizes for more and better high-tech use in schools. They ask entrepreneurs and hard-core advocates of more devices in schools to listen to both students and teachers before marketing their particular mousetrap to the world. But this post is not about EdSurge. It is about two graphics, the one above and one below.


I begin with the pencil graphic. While titled “Integrating Technology in Schools” it slams all those teachers and principals who do not leap on the latest high-tech bandwagon careening through school boards and superintendent offices. The graphic assumes that all high-tech innovations are positive for both teachers and students. Those who wait and ask questions are labeled “resisters.”

The “leaders” and “sharp ones” at the pointy end of the pencil are the early adopters, implying that they are both smart and astute about teaching and learning while those further down the pencil’s shaft–the “wood” and “hangers on”–are way behind the curve as adopters. Then those at the “ferrule” and “eraser” end of the pencil are active resisters, even enemies, of using tech in the classroom. This is, of course, nonsense but it does mirror many an evangelist’s view of teachers and students using (and not using) devices and software in schools and classrooms. The title is a misnomer since nothing here is about “integrating” high-tech into school routines or classroom lessons.

The pencil graphic, at best, is a warped version of Everett Rogers‘ “diffusion of innovation” graph that he had published in his 1962 book (it is in its 5th edition now). Diffusion of Innovations has been a staple of those interested in institutional and sector innovation across agriculture, medicine, health care, business, and, naturally, education for over a half-century. But, at worst, the pencil graphic is an unfunny indictment of those teachers, students, and parents who raise questions, express skepticism, and lay out reservations about the wisdom of mindlessly adopting the next new thing produced for schools and classrooms.

Now, look at Roger’s graph of adopters. Rogers avoided the loaded words used to describe adopters except for “laggards.” in the U.S., few teachers would puff out their chest after being called a “laggard.” Rogers was aware that the graph he constructed prized innovation–that it is “good” to adopt a new idea, practice, or technology– and possibly from that core assumption, the word “laggard” snuck into the categories. The five categories Rogers created roughly map onto the “pencil” but note the far more negative and positive language in the pencil graphic.

For each category, there are many examples among teachers. The sixth grade teacher who bought and brought into her school the first Mac machine was an innovator. The first teacher in a building who designed a piece of software just for her class is another innovator. Early Adopters are those teachers who first tried out email, spread sheets, iPods, iMacs, laptops, and tablets in their classrooms shortly after they heard about them or the district technology director invited teachers to demonstrations of the hardware and software. As the number of teachers seeing colleagues using devices and software spread, more teachers asked those early users how it worked, for what kinds of lessons they were used, and even watched the tools being used in lessons. In many schools, two-thirds of the teachers (Early and Late Majority) became occasional (weekly or monthly) to daily users. In short, these teacher-users became the middle of Rogers’ graph. In every school, however, there were non-users and reluctant participants–“laggards,” in Rogers’ phrase.

Seldom did the categories and percentages of “innovators” to “laggards” map perfectly onto specific schools or districts. What Rogers built was a map for researchers and practitioners to use in understanding how innovations–again, a positively charged concept in U.S. culture–spread across sectors and in institutions. It is a heuristic, not GPS directions for innovators.

Evangelists would find the “pencil” to their liking because of the shared assumptions under-girding the clever graphic. Those assumptions are dominant in the U.S. where if you do not have the latest device or software, eyes roll or snide comments get said. Evangelists for technology seldom engage in reflection because they are true believers. True believers seldom entertain questions or skepticism because they are often taken as an attack upon bedrock principles.

And for teachers, principals, parents who ask questions or raise issues about the new technologies, they risk being called resisters, an epithet that in U.S. culture, enamored with innovation and technology, is akin to the Scarlet Letter.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

More Magical Thinking about Technology in Schools

I watched the World Series and saw both New York Mets and Kansas City Royal fans wearing hats, shirts, and displaying signs designed to get their teams to win. I saw similar clothes and painted faces on soccer fans during the World Cup. The belief, the intuition that these caps and jerseys would get their teams to win borders on superstition. And most fans would agree. Yet, yet, yet just maybe wearing the stuff, painting the face, and holding signs aloft would be just the thing that would snatch defeat from the other team. As a recent op-ed put it: fans “have an powerful intuition and, despite its utter implausibility, they can’t just shake it.”  The contradiction is aptly caught in the title of the opinion piece: “Believing What You Don’t Believe.”

This is no rant, however, about how emotion trumps reason or how thinking thoughts (or fans waving signs) will produce the desired outcome. Nor will this post elaborate how our cognitive “slow” and “fast” thinking ways do not always work in sync or that our “slow thinking” will correct the impulsive move where we have “trusted our gut. ” In this post, I again look at how local, state, and federal policymakers, high-tech entrepreneurs, and CEOs of major corporations engage in “magical thinking.” Inhabiting a technocratic mind-set, these leaders who rely on experts  believe that more and more use of high-tech tools will provide the adrenaline shot for U.S. schools to match international rivals’ test scores and lead ultimately to a larger share of the global market for U.S. goods and services.

I offer two examples of high-tech industry and civic leader aspirations to link all public schooling to the job market and larger economy that highlight this phenomenon: MOOCs and every child learning to code and taking computer science courses.


Massive Open Online Courses burst on the scene three years ago with claims that such courses offered free to anyone on this planet with an Internet connection will–here come the key words–“revolutionize” and “transform” higher education.  John Hennessey, President of Stanford University, said a “tsumani is coming.” Equity and excellence, values that both liberals and conservatives cherish, will be fulfilled. Nothing of the sort happened (see here, here, and here). In the Gartner “hype” cycle, MOOCs are buried in the “slough of disillusionment.” All within three years. High-tech hyperactivity has compressed time into bytes.



Coding and Computer Science

Young children learning to code in elementary schools while their older brothers and sisters take computer science in high school is currently in the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” in the above hype cycle. Consider that the British government has gone even further than the mania gripping the U.S. by mandating in its national curriculum that all UK children learn to code and take computer science in their secondary schools (see here and here).  The UK “computing” curriculum is, of course, a national experiment in further vocationalizing public schooling to tie education to the economy. With no national curriculum in the U.S. (Common Core state standards is a pale, decentralized version of such an effort), the surge of interest in coding (e.g., Year of the Code, next month’s celebratory week of Computer Science, coding boot camps), much of it financed by tech industry giants, has seized the spotlight of attention. That attention has shifted from every student having access to computers in school–very close to being a fact in the U.S.–to using these devices in classroom lessons. From kindergartners getting lessons on coding to online courses to blended learning to flipped classrooms, the mania for computers in schools has corralled both public and private funding as the high-tech solution to students becoming equipped with 21st century skills.

To be clear, I do not refer to those tens of thousands of teachers and principals who, with care and thoughtfulness, have slowly integrated their devices and software into lessons to teach content, skills, and creativity. They keep their heads down and often escape the mania I refer to above.

So is there anything intrinsically wrong with pushing coding and computer science in U.S. schools? After all, both are being sold to school boards and parents as ways of teaching logic, thinking skills, as well as preparation for future jobs.  So on the surface, nothing appears to be unseemly. Underneath the surface, however, are two matters that often go unnoted by advocates of coding and computer science.

First, the original trio of goals for computers entering schools and classrooms since the early 1980s were improving academic achievement of students, altering the traditional patterns of teaching and learning, and preparing the next generation for the labor market. Nowadays, few champions of computers in schools even mention academic achievement or talk of “transforming” teaching and learning through laptops and tablets. But the vocational goal does remain in the current joy for teaching children and youth to write code and create algorithms.

Second, is the historic pattern of focusing on public schools as a national problem to be solved (think segregated schools, national defense, drug and alcohol addictions as problems that schools could “solve”) and seeking another “technical” solution to its ills. In this instance, injecting coding and computer science, online instruction into K-16 schooling. Such a technocratic strategy aims to alter traditional curriculum and lessons for one over-riding purpose to get ready for an ever-changing, fast-moving job market and economy.

So here again within a few years, “magical thinking” about the power of technical products to tie schools to the economy via coding and computer science has arisen even in the face of the dramatic shift in goals for these high-tech products over the past three decades and the failure of MOOCs to gain traction in higher education since 2012.

The feel-good attitude of World Series and World Cup fans who wear jerseys and hats believing that to do so will help their teams win is alive and well in the high-tech community.







Filed under school reform policies, technology use

The Parents’ Dilemma: What Should My School Do about New Technologies

Sixty-seven percent of parents in a recent survey agreed with this statement: “I don’t mind my child spending more screen time if he or she is learning.”  And in another survey of parents, 67 percent said that “incorporating more technology in the classroom” is  a “high priority.” So where is the dilemma?
The conflict in perceptions arises over the one-third of the parents in one survey disagreeing with the statement: “I don’t mind my child spending more screen time if he or she is learning.” And a similar percentage in the other one responding that more classroom technology is a low, not a high, priority.  Within that one-third of dissenters, is where the high value of students using devices for their lessons comes into play rubbing up against another prized value of children and youth employing non-screen devices during school to learn since those very same kids are on their varied screens once they leave school and come home. And it is this tension between these values that wracks the one-third of dissenters in these surveys.
In this post I want to go behind the survey numbers and listen to Yalda Uhls,* a parent who advocates sensible use of new technologies in classrooms given the available research.

Many parents are unsure about the best path to technological modernization. When my children were in elementary school, our parent association held many tense meetings about the best technology plan for the school. The parents argued for months. The many valid and important questions included:

1.     Our children already spend too much time outside of school with media; is it really necessary for them to do their homework and school reading on these devices?

2.     If educators focus too much on technology in the classroom, what other skills will be shortchanged?

3.     On the other hand, shouldn’t children learn the basic skills for using technology productively and creatively, to help them be more effective in college and in the job market?

In order to begin to answer questions about what makes the most sense for a school, I emphasize that is important to consider carefully the current models for computer use in schools, as well as any data pointing to their effectiveness, or lack thereof.   For example, is there evidence for the effectiveness of One-to-One Programs?

Is it really necessary to give each enrolled child her own device beginning in kindergarten? Certainly, putting devices into a classroom setting seems more organic to practical academic instruction than segregating computers in one area of the school. Moreover, in the real world, we don’t go to separate “computer labs” to do the parts of our job that require technology. However, most public schools are cash strapped; are one-to-one programs a good use of their budgets?

Some studies find benefits to these programs, but often the measures are limited to self-reports, with inherently subjective variables such as “student engagement.” In addition, it takes time for a program’s effects to emerge; in the first year, technological complications, such as adequate wireless bandwidth, must be resolved. More importantly, teachers need extensive training to get up to speed. In order to effectively examine this enormous investment, evidence from long-term one-to-one programs provide important information.  In fact, the evidence about several of these programs, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative and One Laptop per Child, which were in place for more than ten years, suggest proceeding cautiously.

The research above reflect a pattern that researchers who study digital technology in the classroom witness repeatedly: a high level of enthusiasm for the new technology, anecdotal stories about the transformational learning that will occur, an introduction along with many unanticipated challenges, and finally an investigation of the facts and effects. Too often, the financial burden of the programs means drastic cutting in other arenas.

Convincing data does not back the claim that simply handing computers to kids will increase their engagement and achievement in academic subjects. The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that without adequate infrastructure and trained teachers, digital devices cannot meet their promise. As the report on the One Laptop Per Child  program concluded, “computers by themselves, at least as initially delivered by the program, do not increase achievement in curricular areas.”

Uhls understands the dilemma that parents face when their local school buys interactive whiteboards and laptops or tablets for each child. As a parent, she wants other Moms and Dads to look behind the hype over spanking new devices and ask principals and teachers the reasons why they are using computers, why, and what research there is about children learning from the new technologies. The dilemma parents face won’t go away but it surely can be better managed when they and school principals and staff openly discuss the worth of children looking at screens at home and in school.


*Yalda T. Uhls received her PhD in developmental psychology from UCLA. She is the Regional Director of Common Sense Media, a national non-profit that focuses on helping children, families and educators living in a digital world. She is also senior researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA, UCLA campus. Yalda’s research focuses on how older and newer media impacts the social behavior of preadolescents. Her new book is: Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact, Not Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age (Bibliomotion, 2015)


Filed under technology use

Does Integrating Computers into Lessons Mean That Teaching Has Changed?

For many years the rhetoric and substance of national reports written by bands of technologists eager to see electronic devices work their wonder on children and adults in schools have baffled me. In these national reports issued periodically by U.S. government sponsored agencies (e.g., Office of Technology Assessment, the National Education Technology Plan) or privately-funded groups (e.g., ISTE or the International Society for Technology in Education, CEO Forum on Education and Technology), I noted two things.

First, on the critical issue of getting new technologies integrated into regular school and classroom routines, advocates differed. Some spoke about integrating technology to advance the content of lessons in reading, math, social studies, science, math, art, music, and other subjects. Others championed learning skills such as critical thinking, analysis, creativity, and inquiry barely mentioning content. I did not find that conflict puzzling since the issue of content vs. skills–is (and has been since late-19th century educational Progressives banged the drum for learning life skills and creativity) a perennial dilemma among curriculum designers, subject-matter specialists, academics, and teachers.

Second, many of these reports used the language of fundamental change such as “transformation” while scorning any incremental or short-term teacher-crafted practical efforts that worked within the system as it is. Anything smacking of incrementalism seemed foul to those ideologues seeking only “revolutionary” changes in schools. Where my puzzlement grew in these well-funded reports written by smart folks came from figuring out how the perennial dilemma of content vs. skills got entangled with fundamental vs. incremental change.

Then I read Judi Harris’s 2005 editorial in Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education.  I don’t know Professor Harris personally but her work at the University of Texas (Austin) and William and Mary in integrating technology into schools positions her as someone in the community of technology educators to listen to carefully.

In her editorial, Harris tries to explain “why many–if not most–large-scale technology integration efforts are perceived to have failed.” Recall Seymour Papert’s LOGO in the 1980s, Apple Classroom of Tomorrow in the 1990s, and schools that abandoned 1:1 laptops in the past few years. She offers two reasons: technocentrism and pedagogical dogmatism.

Borrowing Seymour Papert’s coined word, “technocentric,” Harris points to the blinders that eager policymakers, administrators, and teachers wore (and continue to wear) in embracing the next new gadget.

Technocentrists, she says, seek “educational uses for particular technologies.” Instead, “educators must focus upon how best to assist students’ learning.” Many teachers and principals have said repeatedly to the point of the words being cliched: “integrating technology is not about technology, it is about learning.” Yet those who buy and deploy new technologies–note that most teachers are seldom involved in such decisions–continue to seek “educational uses”  for the electronic devices. Thus, technocentrism rules.

Harris’s second reason is “pedagogical dogmatism.” Among academics, particularly, and many educators there is a decided tilt toward progressive pedagogy, now called in its various incarnations, constructivism. As an example she quotes Christopher Moersch, author of  LoTi (Levels of Technology Implementation), a popular tool used to measure classroom use of technology. The designer expresses an unvarnished preference for one kind of teaching:

“As a teacher progresses from one level to the next, a series of changes … is observed. The instructional focus shifts from being teacher-centered to being learner-centered…. Traditional verbal activities are gradually replaced by authentic hands-on-inquiry related to a problem….”

Harris find the same bias toward constructivist teaching in other commonly used tools, even in the 739-page major work called Education and Technology: An Encyclopedia.

Why, she asks, should K-12 teachers’ roles change to integrate technology effectively? Certainly, the technologies themselves do not require such a fundamental change. Evidence of technology use in Europe, Asia, and the Americas  (see here, here, and here; also JECR PDF) have pointed out how powerful devices end up being used to support teacher-centered instruction.

These two reasons, technocentrism and pedagogical dogmatism, Harris argues, explain why for decades, enthusiastic policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have confused technology integration (involving  the perennial conflict of content vs. skills) with technology as an instrument for pedagogical reform (moving from teacher-centered to learner-centered instruction).  The editorial ends with her calling for a separation of the goals of technology integration from the goals of transforming teaching and learning. That call went out in 2005. Few eager advocates for more classroom tablets or more individually tailored online lessons, however, have since heeded the call.

Consider, for example, the recent push for “personalized” instruction customized to individual students (see School of Onehere, here and here). However labeled, “personalized” instruction using tablets and software are clothed in the language of “student-centered” instruction and project-based learning that Progressives a century ago and current advocates of “constructivist” teaching and learning would recognize in a nano-second. Students working online with an individually tailored math lesson is a mere step away from the customized lessons that Programmed Learning and Computer-Assisted Instruction gurus sold to districts between the 1950s and 1980s as individualized instruction (see here, here, and here).  In other words, the pedagogical dogmatism that Harris had noted in 2005 has hardly slowed down.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

OECD Report: Puzzles To Solve (Part 2)

In this post, I will sketch out two puzzles that emerge from the OECD report, “Students, Computers, and Learning.” The first arises from the gap between high PISA test scores and low use of computers in school in particular countries. The second puzzle is trying to explain the inattention that media both mainstream (newspapers, magazines, network news) and side-stream (opinion and curated blogs, Twitter) has paid to this report.

Puzzle 1: Students from countries that score high on PISA in 2012 spend less time in school using computers than European and North American students.

International test comparisons have driven the past thirty years of school reform in the U.S. Doing poorly on international rankings has prodded reformers to call for U.S. students to copy Asian and Scandanavian countries in their language, math, and science lessons. The OECD report on computers in 60-plus countries’ schools, however, offers empirical data that raise serious questions about one sturdy pillar of U.S. school reform: more access to and use of high-tech devices and software will improve teaching and learning.

Consider that 15 and 16-year old students in Singapore, Korea, Japan, China (Hong-Kong and Shanghai),  have scored higher on PISA (first, second, third, fourth, and sixth) than the U.S. (twelfth) yet–this is one big “yet’–have less access to computers in their schools and spend less time in school on the Internet (pp.18- 22). Thus, the report concludes: “PISA results show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education” (p.15).

How come? Why the disparity in the above countries between access and use of computers in schools (all of the above countries have very high rates of computers in homes) and scores on PISA. No cause and effect do I suggest. This is a puzzling correlation that goes against the non-stop championing of school reformers who tout the virtues of getting more and more devices and software into U.S. classrooms. The OECD report does suggest one tantalizing (and possible) reason, however. Maybe, just maybe, the thinking and writing skills necessary to navigate the Internet and read with understanding web articles and documents, as the OECD report says, can be just as well taught in conventional lessons without use of tablets, laptops, and top-of-the-line software (pp. 15-16). The puzzle remains.

Puzzle 2: Media attention to the OECD report has been minimal, especially in high-tech rich areas.

The report appeared on September 13, 2015. “Warp speed” news in the 24/7 media cycle guaranteed immediate reference to the report. And a flurry of articles in U.S., European, and Asian news outlets appeared (see here, here, here, and here). Within days, the report had been picked up by bloggers and occasional tweeters. Many of the articles and news briefs leaned heavily on OECD press releases and statements in the document by Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills for OECD. In the U.S., national and regional newspapers and network TV stations ran pieces on the report (see here, here, and here).

In those areas of the U.S. where high-tech businesses are crucial parts of the economy (e.g., California’s Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas, Boston, Massachusetts) barely a passing reference to the OECD report. None at all (as of 9/22) appeared in news organizations in the San Jose-to-San Francisco corridor. Of course, it may be a matter of time–I scoured Google’s references to the OECD report for only 10 days after it appeared. In the face of the ever-hungry news cycle, however, if the OECD report went unnoticed after it appeared, chances that the report’s findings on computer access, use, and academic performance turning up later are slim, given the media imperative to produce fresh news hourly. There may well be analyses in magazines, journals, and the blogosphere that appear weeks or months later but after 10 days, the report will be stale and forgettable news.

Here’s what’s puzzling me: National coverage in the U.S. of the OECD report was spotty. While the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post ran pieces on the report, The New York Times has not made reference to it. And in the nation’s hot spots for birthing hardware, software, and apps in northern California, Texas, and Boston, barely a mention. How come?

I can only speculate about the little attention that this eye-catching report on the connections between computer access, use, and performance has attracted at a moment in time in the U.S. when entrepreneurs and vendors promise efficient and effective management of resources and student improvement in reading, math, and science. Across the nation more and more school districts are spending scarce dollars on tablets, laptops, and software. My hunch is that the mindsets of high-tech entrepreneurs, vendors, media executives, foundation officials, and school district policymakers  contain deep-set beliefs in the power of technology to make fundamental changes in every sector of society, including schools. When occasional reports like the OECD one  appear that challenge the beliefs, it is occasionally noted but not taken seriously or simply ignored. Academics call this inability to absorb information running counter to one’s beliefs, “confirmation bias.” My hunch is that the OECD report has been largely dismissed by ever-scanning mainstream and side-stream media editors, journalists, and bloggers precisely because of this bias toward the power of computers and technology to whip schools into academic shape.



Filed under school reform policies, technology use

“Lack of Computers in Schools May Be a Blessing”–OECD Report (Part 1)

The above headline comes from the Irish Times (September 15, 2015) reporting on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study: “Students, Computers, and Learning.” Other online and print media headlines on the OECD report capture in simple words different aspects of the report: “Schools Wasting Money on Computers for Kids” or “Putting More Technology in Schools May Not Make Kids Smarter.” Of course, headlines are compressed sentence fragments seeking to convey the essence of the study.

But media DNA requires going for the sizzle, not the steak.

I have read the report’s Executive Summary, looked at the tables of over 60 countries tracking changes in computer access and use, student performance, and national expenditures between 2009 and 2012. Measuring student performance (ages 15 and 16) was the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test that covers countries in Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America.

Here are some of the takeaways I gathered from the study.

*Increased access and use of computers in over 60 countries between 2009 and 2012 has yet to translate into improved PISA scores in reading, mathematics. or science in these nations (p. 15).

*The thinking and writing skills necessary to navigate the Internet successfully in a digitally-dominated society can be taught and learned with “conventional … pedagogies and tools.” (pp. 15-16).

*”In the end, technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching” (p. 17).

As the array of headlines indicate there are different interpretations that can be extracted from the OECD research report (including mine). Surely, the notable increase in access to devices and software is an accomplishment just as increased student and teacher use of both in lessons. What is newsworthy to me, of course, is that one-leg of the three-legged stool justifying buying these devices since the 1980s was academic improvement. The other two were that the new technologies would transform teaching and get students ready for an information-driven labor market. The academic improvement leg has wobbled badly since then from the scarcity of evidence to support the claim of improved achievement. The OECD report severs improved test scores from the list of reasons to buy tablets, laptops, hand-held devices, and accompanying software. What about the other two legs of that stool justifying purchase of new hardware and software?

Transforming teaching from teacher-directed to student-centered has been a pipe dream. Yes, those teachers already inclined to develop student-centered lessons or already doing them latched on to computers (whether in labs, or with 1:1 laptops and tablets) to do better what they were already doing. But “transforming” teacher-centered instruction to student-centered for most teachers–given the constraints of the age-graded school and work demands placed upon teachers–has not occurred.

The third leg of that stool has been preparing students for an information-based society (and labor market). That reason has become the over-riding public justification policymakers give  for buying a trove of hardware and software in the past decade. Note that I used the word “public” in the prior sentence. Covert reasons for buying high-tech devices and software is simply the political pressure on school boards and superintendents to keep up with adjoining districts and reassuring parents and local voters that their children and youth are using up-to-date tools in school and being prepared for all those high-paying jobs in the computer industry, finance, engineering, robotics, etc. ,etc. Keeping up with the Jones may not have started with schools but it surely has infiltrated policy decisions when it comes to new technologies.

The shift to justifying outlays of so much public money for tablets, interactive whiteboards, and glamorous software shows up in the mania for requiring high school students to take computer science courses (see New York City). The spread of coding camps and teaching kindergarteners to write code (see here and here) are also part of this rationale for buying more and more devices and software with scarce education dollars.

So within the past decade, the three-legged rationale justifying district decisions to buy laptops, tablets, and new software has been demolished. No more hype about improving academic achievement. No more words about revolutionizing teaching. What remains is the strictly vocational aim of preparing this generation of students for jobs. As has occurred time and again during surges of school reform—inserting new technologies into classrooms is simply another reform–the deeper and more important issue gets side-stepped; What are the overall purposes of tax-supported public schools in a democracy?

The OECD report offers U. S. policymakers a rare opportunity to step back and ask why are we spending so much money on devices and software when the results in so many nations, including the U.S., show such little return on investment? In Part 2, I look at the response thus far to this report.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use