Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Digital technology:Over promised and under-delivered?

Students use technology to present their ideas, developed from their research, on famine and child poverty in Africa.

Schools throughout the developed world are preoccupied with a headlong rush into computer technology.

When I was principal of a school in the 90s the Board of Trustees, led by a computer 'expert', were concerned that the school had not introduced computers for their children to use. The feeling was that if we didn't introduce computers the students would be 'at risk'.

It seemed we had no choice and computers were added to every classrooms. Missing from the discussion were questions about the suitability and implications of introducing computers and even the considerable expense involved was not felt an issue.

At the time that the promise of improving educational achievement through computer education was more rhetoric than reality. Any opposition immediately was seen as being some sort of educational 'Luddite' trying to hold up progress.

I had my doubts about the importance of computer based education then and still do so today. It not as if I do not appreciate the considerable learning power of technology as I currently have an active website, an e-zine with over 4000 members, and a blog site. My continued observation of classrooms, to this day, has still not fully convinced me of their value, except where teachers integrate them into realistic , or authentic, active learning situations.

Ironically I noticed that the parents who were enthusiastic about introducing computers never visited to see how they were being used. Having them was enough to indicate to all that school was part of the future!

My concern was,and still is, that introducing computers would divert money from such areas as the creative arts , library books, and necessary consumable material for teachers and students, and most importantly divert teacher time from interacting with students on a personal basis.

Today research is slight to demonstrate that student achievement and the quality of teaching has improved due to computers. A principal researching the use of computer technology in schools, even with being given the names of schools supposedly making best use of them, found educational integration of computers less than wonderful. To make things worse, after refocusing on inquiry based learning, the results were little better.

For all this there is no doubt in my mind that if used wisely such technology has the power to transform our schools, currently locked in industrial aged structures, into twenty first century 'connected' centres of learning.

It seems however that modern technology is sold to schools by people who see schools as a 'cash cow'. And,once technology is introduced, there is aways new technology to replace old models, new upgrades to 'keep up with the play', eating up scarce financial resources of the schools.

It would be wise to spend money on professional development to assist teachers to use the technology sensibly. Apple Computers believe teacher technology education takes up to five years.With this in mind it would be common sense to ensure that this is the area that schools should focus on; until this is done the full potential of new technology is all too often lost . The recent rush for schools to introduce electronic whiteboards is a good example. As the latest 'silver bullet' their introduction places active pedagogy at risk as students learn to use them return to sitting in rows to 'learn' from them. They, however, are impressive and have a 'halo' effect on all who come into contact with them.

Our breathless love affair with modern technology has left the focus on pedagogy in the dust. Energy in learning how to use computers has all too often replaced the focus on learning from real experiences that would make their use valuable. All to often introducing computers has resulted in the 'techno- centric' virtual world replacing the richness of exploring the real world. As well too much time watching electronic screens is felt by many to be bad for student health and well being ; some even believe it contributes to violence,autism , attention deficit disorder and obesity!

The challenge for educators is to integrate technology into solving real learning problems either in subject disciplines or, better still, in problems that integrate a range of learning areas. 'Life in the real world is far more interesting, far richer than much of what is seen on a computer screen', according to Clifford Stoll author of 'Silicon Valley Snake Oil'.

Even if used in integrated studies to collect and express students ideas their use, all too often, results in very 'thin' learning. This is not helped by teachers who mistakenly believe that 'process', or 'learning how to learn', is more important than what is learned. This emphasis on 'process' results in, what some call, the 'google effect'; cutting and pasting information without any real scholarship. Such an easy way out to learning does not respect the effort involved in real understanding or 'deep' learning, or reflection. A quick read of student research will confirm the presence of such passive learning. If students do not work hard to research their own questions, do not interrogate conflicting ideas, then real comprehension and ownership' is lost.

Such superficial fast paced learning is all too often seen in classrooms. 'The Internet is a great medium for trivia and hobbies but not the place for reasoned, reflective judgement' , say computer critic Clifford Stoll who also believes that students need an hour of conversation for every hour online. He would much rather a student telling him what is in his imagination , rather than in someones else's. He adds, 'if a child doesn't have a questioning mind what good does all the networked technology do?'

Visitors to rooms should look hard to see if students key questions are evident to focus their research; they should look to see how individual students 'prior ideas' have been challenged; and they should look to see evidence of student observation, drawn or written. Student presentations should also illustrate not only the depth of thinking but also the tentativeness of much that has been researched as there is aways more to be learnt.

In such classrooms information technology, if appreciated, would be a real asset to capture information in the field ( with digital cameras for example), to get relevant ideas from the Internet, and then to express what has been discovered in their own words - both scientific and poetic. Much of what is currently observed is just too superficial; a result of 'surfing', dipping into knowledge, not thinking.

In serious learning classrooms the teacher remains the most important 'technology' in the room. Without sensitive teacher interactions who would know what faulty thoughts are being expressed by students. Teachers need to know what ideas he, or she, hopes the students will acquire; they must have the skills to enter into 'learning conversations' so as to challenge their students thinking; and, finally, to have the confidence to make educational use of appropriate information technology. Only the teacher, with the right relationships, not the technology, can draw out the pupils awareness, insight and personal knowledge. All the whizz bang high tech can't compare with a walk to study a piece of native bush or sitting quietly contemplating by a stream.

Before schools introduce technology into their classrooms it is important that they clarify their teaching beliefs and philosophy to ensure that the technology introduced do not become expensive white elephants to maintain and repair.

Principals would be well advised to see how well their teachers are using these expensive innovations. As Apple's Steven Jobs writes , 'What's wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology' and from Bill Gates, ' Technology is just a tool in terms of getting kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important'. Minds think with ideas not information; processing power is no substitute for inspired thought.

Clarify school educational purposes first then introduce technology to assist, as required, would be good advice for school leaders. And for all the promise of virtual communities is worth remembering that it is equally valuable to learn to explore and appreciate the 'real' environment.

Technology has dramatically changed all area of human work and entertainment. Advocates of technology in schools often envisage similar dramatic changes in the process of teaching and learning.It has become painfully clear that in education the reality has lagged far behind the vision. Education is just to complex for the simple solutions of Clifford Stoll's 'Silcon Valley Snake Oil' salesmen.

It is unethical to push students into a high tech future without providing them with relevant problems to solve and the critical skills to use the technology wisely to assist them.


Anonymous said...

Very wise and perceptive comments. It is time to really evaluate the use of technology in schools through the eyes of class teachers, not the so called experts' users, or enthusiastic salespeople

C said...

I agree with every word that you have written here Bruce.

I left my teaching career two years ago because of the continued pressure we were all under.
I now find myself working for a local council as an ICT facilitator for community groups. But I am incredibly unfullfilled.

I miss my teaching. I miss the interactions and relationships that I used to build with children. I miss the everyday life experiences that we used to talk about and integrate into our learning on a daily basis. I miss using technology in my classroom as a tool, a learning assistant. I miss the buzz we used to get when performing, sometimes using technology as an aid. It goes on and on....

And when I try to explain this to the people I am currently working with, they just don't get it.
They don't understand why I miss it.
I am an educator. I always will be.
I took my work very seriously and enjoyed it immensely.
But the pressure to justify every single thing that was done, was too much.
I am a professional person. I trained in "teaching" but at the bottom of it all I am a teacher in my heart.
Why then are teachers like me not trusted to do what we do best?

Bruce said...

Thanks for the comment 'C'

I thougt, being,a positive user of ICT, you might have been critical of my stance on its use, or lack of it, in schools. I was trying to make the point that its considerable power was underdeveloped.

As for the theme of your comments this pressure to account for everything, to have 'evidence' for everything, is killing the joy of teaching. And to make things worse a lot of it is imposed by principals without the courage to do what is right for learning. Let students learn and teachers teach, and have more faith the process and the integrity of teachers, An old colleague of mine used to say, 'teachers have two valuable things, their time and their energy, waste this on bullshit and they can't do their job! We are educators not low trusted technicians.

C said...

quote "We are educators not low trusted technicians."

Ahhhh how I wish I had worked with a principal like you - with trust and confidence in his staff.

ICTs are (in my opinion) a fantastic tool, which, when used effectively, offer students in the 21st century opportunities to learn in exciting and innovative ways.
But, they are just a tool. A wonderful one - but just that.

Teachers on the other hand, are, and always will be, the tradesmen. (Perhaps that should be trades"people" ;-) ) All at different stages of their apprenticeships, using many and varied tools to carve and ultimately assist the release of their artworks (for each student is INDEED a work of art) from their constricted moulds.

ICTs can help with that in so many ways.... Yes I love the opportunities they offer.
But I suppose that is the teacher/tradesperson in me.

Bruce said...

I think I would say that all teachers are artists who select intuitively from a range of strategies to help their students create their own creative pieces of work. Young teachers need to find the master artists to learn from.

richnz said...

I think one of the issues is this "thing" about equity!

Ages ago I gave the teachers that were effectively using the "tools" the tools.
Those that weren't using them effectively, or couldn't, or didn't want to or whatever, didnt get them.

Over a relatively short period of time ( 3 years) this situation corrected itself through and significant PD time and
Good teachers make good use of technology. Poor teacher make poor use.
Another point I think is worth noting is the reduced cost and increased usability (Moore Law I believe) of technology for our classrooms. Perhaps too many schools were on the bleeding edge rather than slowly building an infrastructure to support teachers and children's learning.
I'd like to think that the "panic buying" is history and now the focus is very much on supporting the learning that you so eloquently describe.

richnz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce said...

Greetings Rich

As you say it takes time, training and desire to make use of any new technology, or idea.

And technology is a fantastic tool but it is not a neutral one - it shapes our minds by its use and it can create 'shallow' learning ( the 'google effect') if it not used wisely.

I take your point ( Moores' Law) that the costs are no longer what they were but, for all that, I still see rooms (suites) full of computers not being used - sort of 'isn't it great to see them' rooms for visitors to admire!

Still 'over promised and underdelivered' in my book.