I’ve been meaning to post an entry about the uses of tech for research – an area of edtech that I think has enormous potential to transform a crucial aspect of high-school education – but I just read today’s New York Times extensive cover story on ed tech (“In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores,” by Matt Richtel; September 4, 2011) and wanted to share it and my response. The article addresses the sobering reality that research does not (yet?) indicate that technology is improving learning. It’s a confusing landscape on this point, but clearly lots of money is being spent in the hope that technology will make a difference – with not a lot of data to support this outcome.
On the one hand, I think the article, or at least a few voices in it, get it exactly right, among them Bryan Goodwin, spokesman for McREL (Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning), who argues that “Good teachers… can make good use of computers, while bad teachers won’t, and they and their students could wind up being distracted by the technology.” (Note that those aren’t his own words – he’s being paraphrased by the article’s author.) I’ll add that even great teachers can find that technology occasionally wastes classroom time and energy. I shudder when people think that technology can replace a good teacher, or make it possible to cram more students into crowded classrooms. Until a computer learns to give targeted, thoughtful feedback on writing, for example, an English teacher who has 30 students in his or her classroom will simply not be able to assign the amount of writing, or give the kind of feedback, that a teacher with 15 or 18 students can – and no amount of peer feedback is going to substitute for that teacher’s insight and coaching through the writing process.
However, we know that technology makes the writing process easier for students – if only because they can edit without white-out, erasable pens, and endless recopying. And the reality, of course, is that technology allows them to do so much more to make writing easier, better, more purposeful; to share it with an audience; to read the writing of others and debate, discuss, revise, publish anew. And the transformation of research with high-speed Internet access and digital tools is nothing short of amazing. So I also agree with the voices in the article who note that test scores are not the only measure of educational value-added. How frustrating to work hard to implement technology well only to have nay-sayers use ill-aligned standardized tests to point fingers.
But what do we do without measures? Where does this gap between practice and researchable gains leave us? For those us fortunate to be making decisions on a schoolwide basis, rather than for entire school systems such as the 18,000 elementary-school students in Kyrene, Arizona (the focus of the article), it seems to me the key is knowing one’s students, one’s teachers, and one’s school mission; taking cues from the teachers in the classroom; and designing careful pilots to achieve specific learning goals. We don’t need to rely on standardized tests to assess value, and we don’t need to rush to scale every tool. We can experiment, play, investigate – and assess, using student work, teacher action-research, and other strategies that can guide us on the human scale of a school despite being impractical on a district or national canvas. Ultimately, our focus has to stay on the learning goals we establish, separate from the tools. Wasting money on the wrong technology is bad – but wasting learning is far worse.