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MSPnet Blog: “Computers in education again- anything new under the sun?”

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posted September 29, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

The MSP News last week noted that the new OECD report on “students, computers and learning” has been added to the MSPnet library (also you can link to it here ).  It has received only a little coverage in this country;  I first came across it through the BBC news website, which had a fairly full story about it.  It is worth reading at least the executive summary, if you’re interested in technology in education.  The long and the short of it is that, using the PISA scores as a guide, there is no evidence that adding more technology in the classroom (whether in terms of student/computer ratios, or Internet connectivity, or other ways of “adding”) has improved student learning in any of the ways that it’s been assumed that they would.  Indeed, one provocative finding is that “in countries where it is less common for students to use the Internet at school for school work, students’ performance in reading improved more rapidly than in countries where such use is more common, on average.”  (pg 146).

More generally, positive impact on students tends to show  a “hill-shaped” pattern:  Low use or access, is associated with less improvement in reading, math or other of the measured skills;  moderate use is associated with moderate improvement;  high use is associated with poorer results. (This is reminiscent of patterns seen in many ecological settings, where an increase in a  resource or disturbance like grazing may be associated with increases in some measure such as species richness — up to a point, beyond which the positive trends are reversed).

The outcomes of this study should not be a surprise, on the basis of research on (or personal experience of) large-scale ed tech.  In some cases, with some teachers, and under certain conditions, technology can offer real and exciting benefits. Such benefits are not automatic, and are not associated with the technology alone (separate from systemic factors inside and outside the classroom).  The people who talk in the jargon of “socio-technical” systems have it about right.

Larry Cuban, in a trenchant blog post about this study,  points out that as the evidence of the complex relationship between ed tech and learning becomes clear, and the glib assumptions that more technology will be “the answer” to “world class education,” advocates more and more often fall back on the argument that schools have to be high tech, and therefore school life has to be cast in a technology rich mold, for utilitarian, “workforce” reasons.  Or else we hear that schools have to be high tech because the world is high tech. The BBC article on the OECD study says:

Mark Chambers, chief executive of Naace, the body supporting the use of computers in schools, said it was unrealistic to think schools should reduce their use of technology.  “It is endemic in society now, at home young people will be using technology, there’s no way that we should take technology out of schools, schools should be leading not following.”

Yet technology is expensive to install, expensive to maintain, and expensive in time and talent (and money) for educators to incorporate into effective practice.  I have seen it done very well, but it’s not easy, and requires a systemic dedication beyond the classroom — and judicious choices administrators, teachers, parents, and every other participant in the school ecosystem.   Voices of urgency about the adoption of ed tech tend to have economic or “market” accents.  “Innovation” and “technology” are rarely far apart in their discourse, and that implies necessarily “purchasing.”   Joanne Weiss, a top advisor to Ed. Secretary Duncan, wrote in the Harvard Business Review (h/t to Diane Ravitch for this reference):

One of the most poignant summaries of the market for innovative technology solutions in education is that it is forever in its infancy….large urban and suburban districts… are notoriously weak consumers….If we can match highly-effective educators with great entrepreneurs and if we can direct smart capital towards these projects, the market for technological innovation might just spurt from infancy into adolescence.

Weiss of course writes about the need for research to establish which innovations (=technologies = products) are effective, but the educational concern is cast in market language, as so much of the coverage of the “education industry.”

Larry Cuban has a follow-on blog post, which wonders why there has been so little press about the OECD report, at least in this country (some of his commenters tell us that on the continent there’s been  more).  At bottom, the role of technology in education (I do not say “education reform,” that other industrial project) is complex, contingent, uncertain.  We cannot evaluate as fast as designers can design, nor marketers market, nor installers install.  Inquiry, education-as-inquiry, inquiry about education, has to travel at a different tempo — the tempo of teaching and learning, which has its own integrity.

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Moderates' views about computers in schools

posted by: Andy Zucker on 9/30/2015 11:05 am

Thanks for the provocative post, Brian.

I note that the growing absence of moderate politicians in the U.S. Congress is well known, and a sad story. Moving to education, most people, including practitioners, are moderates but to sell the sizzle our news media often focuses on the extremes: computer technology is a panacea; computer technology is a terrible waste of money. But the truth lies in between, where moderates live and work.

Many years ago I recall reading a NAEP study showing the same hill shaped graph for TV viewing that you mention for computers. For fourth graders, moderate TV viewing was associated with higher scores than low TV viewing. But a large amount of TV viewing was associated with lower test scores.

Results like these, whether for computers or for TV, are interesting but focus on a different question than most moderates want to answer. Contrast the question, "can watching Sesame Street, or 3-2-1 Contact, or Square One TV increase student learning in a specified area" (research shows the answers are yes) with the question, "is watching lots of TV going to raise student achievement" and the different perspective is obvious.

Research syntheses show that using word processors helps students to write better, and thats probably not shocking news to most teachers. But PISA doesnt measure writing skills. Can we imagine that allowing students to use the Internet adds value to learning about current events in high school? Of course. But PISA doesnt measure students knowledge of civics or current events.

For practitioners, the PISA study is a fair warning that computers are not "the answer." But the question that moderate practitioners want to ask is, "how can we use the tools available to us in schools to help our students?" Whether these tools are daily homework, the school library, the science laboratory, the electronic whiteboard, graphing calculators, student computers, or something else, answers are usually nuanced and seldom make for a simple headline. Education is too complex for that.

Switching to a medical metaphor, flooding some poor nation with medicine is not going to improve health unless there is a well-trained corps of people who know how to diagnose illness, use the available medicines for specific purposes, and a population that is understanding, willing to follow doctors orders, etc. Providing the tool, medicine, is not enough.

Acting like a moderate

posted by: Brian Drayton on 10/2/2015 11:41 am

Thanks, Andy,
I agree very much with the way you put the "moderate" position. The question of "tempo" is important here, too, because asking the sorts of concrete, specific questions you pose takes a little time and thought, and it's hard to find the time or take the thought if we're being forced by "the market" to constantly upgrade, replace, add on, and otherwise change the environment and the tool set. It's that pressure that I find most corrosive (so that an educator (such as the one quoted in the BBC article I referred to) can say that educators have to use certain tools because outside of school they are widespread), such that (mostly economic) considerations always trumping educational ones. Then purchasing becomes in effect an educational mandate.
I'd love to know about schools or districts that have some kind of technology evaluation process, by which (let's say) each year, experienced educators look at possible new hardware or software purchases, and make informed choices about not just what to buy, but how it will be judiciously integrated into the classroom. I can think of one, in my experience. Can anyone tell a story like this?