Sunday, April 7, 2013

Educational Technology: Purchase Should Not Pre-date a Plan.

[Updated August, 2017]

This is (sort of) a sequel to my lighter, fluffier post from earlier.  That was the jab, this is the uppercut.  This will read better after having read that one.  Warning: This post is a bit more dense than most.  Educators will be fine, laypersons might need a Jolt Cola or something to get through it...

I noticed technology’s real and tangible impact for the first time as a teacher in the realm of mathematics.  When I was a student in high school and college, all math textbooks had an appendix consisting of various tables and charts.  When I needed the sine or cosine of a certain angle, or had to calculate a logarithm, I would consult a chart in the back of the book, and the figures would be there for me.  If the precise figure that I needed was not there, I would perform a mathematical interpolation to calculate the number I needed.  One day, sometime in the early 90s, when I was a new-ish teacher, I had the opportunity to work with students in mathematics, and I noticed that these charts were not in their (newer) textbooks.  I searched everywhere in the book, and then I realized the hard truth: Of course they weren’t there. Every student had a scientific calculator to more quickly and precisely do the job for them.  I also noticed, however, that none of the students really understood the relationships between sine and cosine, what interpolation was, or the greater mathematical context of logarithms.  They only knew how to “get an answer.”  I became very fearful for this generation of young students.

It has only gotten worse.

As a former foreign language teacher, I have likewise found auto-translators, computerized dictionaries, spelling-checkers and grammar checkers to be double-edged swords. A fun exercise:  Take your favorite short story, essay or article.  Copy the fist 2-3 paragraphs into Google Translate.  Translate to any common high school second language (Spanish, French, whatever…).  Then cut the foreign-language translation and paste in back into the translation engine, and re-translate it back to English.  Behold the mutated crap that the process yields.  This is what it looks like to a Spanish teacher when a kid turns in something in Spanish that has been auto-translated instead of organically written.

As an English teacher, I have found the Internet to be an incredible source of content, but also a tempting opportunity for plagiarism in what seems to be an increasing tendency towards immediate gratification and lazy shortcut-taking.  Just this semester [Spring 2013], I have logged six egregious incidents, one of which resulted in an expulsion (the student was apparently a multiple offender).  I explored the dark side of human nature with regards to plagiarism in an earlier post.

To successfully incorporate technology, a teacher must therefore know what to incorporate, when to incorporate it, how to incorporate it, and most importantly, must know what technology can and cannot do. Teachers need to know their students’ needs, and be able to merge the technology seamlessly into a carefully wrought educational plan; computers are not like sprinkles on a cupcake – just putting them there does not make things sweeter.  (Or maybe it’s better to say that it is like sprinkles on a cupcake; they make things look better and fancier, but actually do nothing to improve the quality of the cake itself.)  Lastly, it is crucial for teachers to know how to educate themselves about technology – where to go for resources, questions, information, and help. 

Technology is not a panacea, nor can technology swoop in and save the world for teachers, programs, schools and districts in peril.  As a teacher, lack of funding is often blamed for lack of success in the classroom; similarly, lack of resources is often invoked as a cause of woe.  The problem with the way that these complaints are framed is that the clear implication is that more money and more resources would miraculously clear up the problem(s).  And given that educational technology can be very cost-intensive, an axiom is set up that does not necessarily compute:

        (Fig. 1)  More money --> More technology --> Better education

A number of studies show that this statement, though perhaps intuitive, is utterly unsupported, the outcome of which is all too commonly visible in schools everywhere: “…an overemphasis on hardware with scant attention paid to the pedagogical and curricular frameworks that shape how the computers are used is common in educational technology projects throughout the world” (Mark Warschauer, “Demystifying the Digital Divide”).

Warschauer tells of two situations where merely throwing resources at a perceived problem did little to resolve it. An effort by the government of India to provide computer and Internet access publicly to children, in what was dubbed a “minimally invasive education” (Warschauer, “Reconceptualizing the Digital Divide”) project, failed when the social structures were not put into place to monitor and instruct and collaborate in the effort.  A more poignant example perhaps can be found in the town of Ennis, Ireland, population 15,000, which was awarded some $20+ million in 1997 as part of digital grant program to help bring technology-starved Ireland, rapidly emerging from the third world to the first world, into a level to technological sophistication befitting a country on the world stage.  Warschauer reported:
“The prize money that Ennis received represented over $1,200 US dollars per resident, a huge sum for a struggling Irish town.  At the heart of Ennis’s winning proposal was a plan to give an Internet-ready personal computer to every family in the town.  Other initiatives included an ISDN line to every business, a website for every business that wanted one… Ennis was strongly encouraged… to implement these plans as soon as possible.”
Alas, a 2000 visit to Ennis revealed that many of the programs had been disbanded or abandoned, and many of the computers had ended up on the black market.  The technology had been imposed upon the people, and had not been integrated into the people’s social structure.  Warshcauer paints these as cautionary tales for American schools and school districts newly aglow in the warm light of technology, and stresses what he calls “technology for social inclusion.” (The concept of social inclusion is tied in to Freire’s critical literacy, and the notion that educational processes should to some degree invoke, validate, utilize and incorporate those social practices, values and priorities to make the process salient and meaningful for the language learner, but that’s perhaps a blog post for another day; I applaud the general concept, but not the extent to which many Freireans tend to embrace the notion that education is somehow synonymous with hegemony.) 

The goal then, is not to merely heap technology on a people, as if technology were a grand paradigm-leveler that would “even out” or somehow render more manageable all societal, cultural and traditional differences in the world.  Likewise it is folly to assume that technology may be equally applied to all areas and all people without special consideration of how to integrate it. Warschauer pleads for what he calls “culturally-appropriate interaction” (Warschauer, “Language, Identity and the Internet”). Citing difficulties encountered when computerizing schools in deeply traditional Hawai’i, Warschauer makes an observation that must be applied to the educational realm at large: “A number of patterns of Hawaiian interaction have been identified, and these patterns are all too often at odds with how classroom instruction is organized.”
Warshcauer’s comments go to the heart of the difficulties that many have with technology’s incorporation into the classroom and into society in general:  It is so prevalent, so powerful, and very quickly growing so important, that either you’re with it, whether or not it fits into your traditions or experiences, or you must abstain from it altogether.  In this he speaks of what some have called “intellectual colonialism” (Anatoly Voronov).  This is the “progressive” (read: “guilt-fueled self-flagellation”) notion that the Internet itself, with the vast majority of its sites in English, and the text-based, literacy-dependent format of its presentation all speak to a subversive re-colonization of the world by White Euro-American cyber-literati. Even Warschauer struggles with this dichotomy:  “To use the Internet fully usually requires access to resources … which are only available to a minority of the world’s people.  In that sense, the Internet can heighten unequal access to information and power.  But in other senses, the Internet is the most liberating medium ever invented” (Warschauer, “Does the Internet Bring Freedom?”). And true, it is well worth it to consider that your students may well cut across all cross-sections of language, culture, poverty, upbringing, custom and expectations. Still, the indictment is a telling one, suggesting on the part of the accuser the errant and overzealous belief that technology is education, as opposed to just one component of a full educational experience.  My advice?  Recognize the “liberating” aspects of technology, as Warschauer calls them, and embrace those aspects even, but never forget that it is the educational process in toto that can and will liberate youth.

Calling technology a highly liberating medium might seem to reinforce the idea that the “poorer” areas are more in need of technological enhancement, and all poor schools need is a nice fat educational technology grant and all will be solved. This, however, makes the faulty assumption that the so-called Digital Divide is an economic Divide.  In Warschauer’s writings, he claims that the so-called Divide is not one of access to technology or techno-dollars.  It is, rather, a divide in literacy, both in general and literal sense, but also in the sense that in lower-performing schools – which also tend to be poorer schools, hence the common confusion – technology tends to be seen as a fix, and is thrown at a problem, not carefully and fully integrated with the pedagogical infrastructure and nurtured with proper teacher training and support.  (Though, I should point out editorially, it is not unreasonable to surmise that this type of training/consultancy is cost-prohibitive in poorer schools, hence its conspicuous absence.) This idea of the problem being not the lack of technology, but the lack of successful implementation of existing technologies, is pervasive.  The lesson for any new teacher is clearly to learn and understand the various applications of available software, hardware, media, platforms, devices, sites, and services, and become fluent in their use.  There is and always will be something new and more modern or flashy, so the alternative is to always be unsatisfied with what you have, and attitude that can only taint a teacher’s daily work with its pessimism.  Remember that money, like technology is a way to get to a destination, not the destination itself.
Case in point, Warschauer has suggested that an approach involving “a combination of well-planned and low-cost infusions of technology with content development and educational campaigns targeted to social development is surely a healthy alternative to projects that rely on planting computers and waiting for something to grow” (“Demystifying”).   The United States has its share of poorer areas; one does not need to travel to India or rural Ireland to find abject poverty.  One also does not need to leave the United States to see tragic wastes of technology dollars on classroom situations not ready for the jump to hyperspace:
“The reports were nearly finished, and the teacher was feeling pleased with the results. When I asked to see one, she steered me to a young man whose report she felt was in particularly good shape. Sure enough, as the student clicked through the presentation, I was immediately struck by the clean graphics, the strong colors, and the digestible writing. Then, suddenly, he was done. This was the extent of his report. But its content was no deeper or more complex than what one commonly sees in civics papers done elsewhere, with pencil and paper, by seventh and eighth graders. Mystified, I asked the student how he'd used his time. He estimated having spent approximately 17 hours on the project, only seven of which had been devoted to research and writing. The rest went to refining the presentation's graphics” (Oppenheimer, “Point. Click. Duh”).
In this case, a Massachusetts 11th grade classroom in a relatively well-off area, the millions of dollars that had gone into funding for computers had not gone into adequate training for instructors, who in turn were having students use the computers to do little more than high-tech mimicry of the functions of the pens and pencils that they used to use.  Computers had no higher purpose; there was no gestalt quality to the instruction or the learning, post-technology.  Clearly my earlier axiom (Fig. 1) is revealed to be bogus. The Massachusetts scenario is a delicious, though tragic, example of Warschauer’s characterization of the Digital Divide, which I described earlier.  There was adequate funding in the Massachusetts example, but that clearly did not solve the pedagogical problem of incorporating technology to enhance the learning experience.

Again, the key is well-trained, careful, and skillful planning and incorporation of these technological elements into instructional practices.  Skill, care, and planning are not economically-driven characteristics, and a motivated and industrious teacher can make technology work for him/her. Warschauer simply says, “The key issue is not unequal access to computers but rather the unequal ways in which they are used,” (“Demystifying”).  This is followed up dramatically with a comparison of two studies conducted in California’s Anaheim Union High School District, in which it was clearly demonstrated that, with a nod to Bernie Poole’s Eight Pillars (see below), the program in which online content was supported with and supplemented by “face-to-face teacher and peer interaction” was much more successful than the programs that relied entirely upon students’ intrinsic motivations and auto-tutorial sense of responsibility in the face of little or no feedback or support.

There are numerous scenarios in which a fully computerized classroom can be a benefit.  It is important, however, in situations like this to recall that it is not $60,000 in laptops (or iPads, or tablets) that makes a program work for the students; it is the careful and thoughtful preparation by a team of dedicated teachers and technology specialists who do more than merely offer the computers of as divine sacrifices.  Proper integration of technology into the classroom, ironically enough, requires a human component, offered by Bernie Poole in the form of eight “pillars,” or commandments:
1. Active support must come from the top.
2. A non-dictatorial approach is best.
3. Every school should have a core of teacher-computerists.
4. User-friendly technical support must be available, ideally onsite and on demand.
5. Teachers must come first.
6. Parents and students must be involved in the evolutionary process.
7. An ongoing technology training program must be in place.
8. Teachers must be given the time and freedom to restructure the curriculum around the technology.
Poole’s Eight Pillars are part of an entire online book that is available for free download.  I would strongly recommend that any teacher who is to have a strong technological component in their instruction read it first.  [What is amazing is that even though the piece has not been updated in 11 years (2006), the eight pillars are just as valid now, in 2017, as they were then.] Poole does a respectable job of satisfying both skeptics and devotees, and finds a safe middle ground where technology can be discussed on its merits, rather than focusing on the dizzying potential costs of implementing a “dream” technology set-up which, without proper training and management, would be a squandered investment anyway. 

And so, remembering that we reject utterly the quick-fix notion of more money equals more technology equals more success, we come to the issue of how schools that do not have the means to “fully” computerize can “keep up” in the 21st century.  But even this has been answered in the literature countless times.  The so-called “one-computer classroom” or “single computer classroom” is a reality in many parts of the United States.  The Internet is replete with resources that can serve as a springboard for discussion within a department on how best to maximize the use of available technologies, as opposed to how to maximize the budget for purchasable technologies.  Put another way, a purchase should not pre-date a plan.

America’s diversity is a strength, and technology in the classroom can help us tap into that strength.  But merely throwing technology at the classroom, or merely throwing money at schools and ordering them to “acquire” technology… well, that’s no better than throwing language textbooks at a child and asking him or her to “acquire” English.  Whether the school has one computer per classroom or per student, it is in teacher training, teacher education, strong supportive measures and good quality instruction that technology will find its most useful home.  New teachers should greet this technology not with a healthy curiosity and legitimate desire to test the efficacy of available programs. If nothing else, this exploration on the part of a teacher will confer a comfortable familiarity with educational technologies that can only serve to broaden the teacher’s palette of experiences from which to draw upon in the classroom, and make it much less likely that s/he will be sold on the first flashy thing a tech salesperson suggests, which would only serve to perpetuate the technological travesty of more = better. 

Educational research traditions are constantly in motion, always changing and being upgraded.  Much like our technology.  One thing all educators have in common is the desire to engage their students in the learning process.  Technology, though it be a valuable component in that process is not itself, by definition, the process.   And so above all, teachers should remember that, as Warschauer (“Demystifying”) says, technology must become “a means, and often a powerful one, rather than an end in itself.”

NoteThe above is an only slightly modified version of a treatment I wrote in 2005.  I took it out, dusted it off, and much like my recent revisiting of The West Wing, still seems downright prescient, in that it still feels incredibly timely.  Sure, much has changed since then, and the leaps in technology in the seven years from 2010-2017 far outstrip the gains of the seven year period 1998-2005, from which my initial research sources originally largely came. That this commentary is still vital and applicable is itself noteworthy.

Disclaimer: I myself am a slow adapter and a slow adopter, so maybe I am not (or maybe I am) a choice representative of all of teacherdom.  I love technology’s promise, even as its incursions make me uneasy. I’m not anti-tech, but I often find myself reflexively anti- the people who push tech. 

Do I just need to evolve into the twenty-teens?  Or is education losing its humanity in the face of a technological onslaught?

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