Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Twists & Turns of In-School Technology

7/5/11 Turn: All of Korea's Textbooks to Go Online by 2015

6/9/11 Twist: Steve Nelson, Head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, shares his digital reservations in this Huffington Post piece.

5/26/11 Twist: Check out Chronicle of Higher Education's 'Why Are So Many Students Still Failing Online'? for more fodder on the subject of appropriately matching courses to online learning offerings.

Judging from a recent Superintendent's Report provided by Mounds View Schools' Dan Hoverman about a twin city-wide Superintendent Technology Leadership Academy, Minnesota educators & students are living in "interesting times" with respect to the advance of technology in the state's public school classrooms.

According to the Association of Metropolitan School Districts leader consortia efforts Hoverman referred to, the day may soon arrive when online textbooks are common, hybrid classes are prolific, and handheld devices like iPADs and smartphones are encouraged-- not disallowed-- in schools' student codes of conduct.

In case you've been out of school for awhile, it's only taken about one generation for most classrooms to go from being technology-free to the juncture where superintendents are considering whether technology should be omnipresent in our schools. The first round of instructional monitors mounted in the classroom corner is long gone (deemed a failure by most) and have been wonderfully supplanted by a family of projection & interactive devices known as LCD monitors, DOC cameras, and Smartboards.  In addition, the "computer lab" has evolved from being hard-wired and location specific--  to a mobile set of laptops--  to one with WiFi zones that may soon allow student, staff and guests alike specially-authorized access into a school district's various data systems.

Interesting times, indeed, and based on educational leadership sessions like those of the Association of Metropolitan School District's Education in an Online World, the proverbial train is being thoughtfully guided from the instructional station of online learning.  But given the financial realities schools face and a system everyone at least complicitly agrees is "stuck" in an agrarian model with a school year shorter than those of most countries, might the times be a bit too interesting for our school communities' own good?

A "Wait a Minute" from Mr. Postman

Neil Postman hit the nail on the head in his 1995 book The End of Education. In a treatise all the more prophetic since most people had barely constructed their first email message at the time of its publication, he wrote:

The role that new technology should play in schools or anywhere else is something that needs to be discussed ...  In particular, the computer and its associated technologies are awesome additions to culture ...  But like all important technologies of the past, they are Faustian bargains, giving and taking away, sometimes in equal measure, sometimes more in one way than the other.  It is strange-- indeed shocking-- that we can still talk of new technologies as if they were unmixed blessings, gifts, as it were, from the gods.  Don't we all know what the combustion engine has done for us and against us?  What television is doing for us and against us?

At the very least, we need to discuss what we will lose if computer technology becomes a sole source of motivation, authority and psychological sustenance.  Will we become more impressed by calculation than human judgment?  Will speed of response become a defining quality of intelligence?  If the idea of school will be dramatically altered, what kinds of learning will be neglected?

These are serious matters ... and they need to be discussed by those whose vision of children's needs, and the needs of society, go beyond thinking of a school mainly as a place for the convenient distribution of information.  Schools are not now, and never have been chiefly about getting information to children. 

(End of Postman excerpt)

There are those who would rightfully "counter" Postman by asserting schools are not chiefly about creating more information access for students, although that is unquestionably a major product of the technological change schools may soon be endorsing.  In the estimation of many, schools are primarily about providing the constructs & inspiration for students to take charge of their own learning.  Programmes like International Baccalaureate are founded on this very precept, although principals, teachers, counselors, librarians and parents already know the huge challenge of transferring the responsibility for academic progress to students.

To the credit of educational developers behind Six Technologies Expected to Change Education, some of its near, mid, and long-term technologies are designed with the self-guided learner in mind-- particularly the learning analytics and personal learning environment tools.  But since educators and parents alike have been challenged enough in creating passion for learning with old-fashioned person to person communication, this question is worth asking: will all the time & expense that goes into the sophisticated learning analytics systems be well spent?

Wendy Kopp's Tale of Two Philadelphia Schools

As the founder of the Teach for America program that began in 1983, Wendy Kopp knows a thing or two about hoeing hard rows in the field of education.  In a book titled A Chance to Make History, Kopp chronicles the journey that the "Teach for America" corps has led in turning around urban schools across America.  Among her most telling anecdotes are two Philadelphia schools that are at opposite ends of the technology spectrum-- and the student performance index-- with the successful school being the one that is most technologically primitive.

Philadelphia's School of the Future-- Upon opening in 2006, a team of founding experts trumpeted this school as a revolution in education, with an approach that included laptops for every student, innovative scheduling, "21st century" course design, and online courses and resources.  But as Kopp asserts, at least one important thing was forgotten-- the failure to prioritize human capital that accounts for high-performing schools in low-income communities.  For when the school's 2009 Pennsylvania assessment results came out, the school's students registered dramatically lower scores in math, reading and science.  Kopp believes this state-of-the-art facility failed to outperform the schools it was meant to replace due to the absence of a transformative mission & the leadership, culture, effective management, and student supports to act on that mission.  To this state of deficiency, technology made matters worse by diverting the school's leaders from the core work that is responsible for creating strong schools.  And rather than moving the school environment in a direction more focused on learning, technology ended up increasing the chaos in an already under performing institution.

In a similar high-poverty location during the same time period, however, Kopp tells of an alternate educational enterprise:

Philadelphia's Mastery Network has transformed  previously low-performing, impoverished districts by dramatically outperforming districtwide averages & producing college-ready graduates-- and with little attention paid to technology.  In 2006, it's Shoemaker campus was a failing institution with abysmally low standardized scores in math and reading. But soon Mastery remade its mission, recruited new leadership & staff, created a system of roles & responsibilities for students, and built a network of support services into the school.

With these efforts, test scores increased 50 points in every subject, closed the school's achievement gap in reading, and resulted in 100% of its graduating class gaining acceptance to college.  Hear Scott Gordon, the network's founder: "Why are so many schools NOT focusing on talent development, great management, and clear goals? ... we have such a hard time doing what we know works."

In the view of Mastery's leaders and others, what works are the basics, and not an emphasis on technology.  Since they achieved such success in an environment similar to School of the Future's during the same time span, their example shows-- at a minimum-- that massive infusions of technology may not be for everyone.

A Conclusion

Do the Philadelphia examples mean that schools everywhere should abandon all forms of technology?  Of course not. What they do illustrate, however, is that the incorporation of technological devices is one can easily turn a do-able mission into a  managerial minefield-- first in the day-to-day function of the school in the form of fragmented attention spans, student equity and teacher training issues, and-- second in the difficult-to-maintain horizontal and vertical curricular designs that-- like it or not-- will always require a buffer to accommodate the latest idea De jure from "higher" educational authorities.

Add to these the complexities of how best to include families (who will likely be paying for the devices schools will be taking advantage of) as partners in opening up the widest learning horizon possible for their students.  Decision making accompanies ownership, do you copy?

On top of the age-old "he who has the gold makes the rules" issue, these devices will be used to help create more student-driven, beyond-the-classroom learning.  As educators everywhere legitimately cry foul of the forces attempting to create more narrow curriculum, the argument that students & their families are increasingly being left to advance student learning in the social & natural sciences, arts, home economics, and vocational subject areas grows stronger by the day.  It remains to be seen whether students will dedicate their technological devices to these ends during out-of-school time.

Yes, these are interesting and important times for technology. And considering the level of technological shift schools are poised to embark on, the swing between potential educational gain and loss has never been greater.

Let's just hope that enough people can shape the right policy to prevent our schools from hurtling headlong into a technological abyss.