Desert of My Real Life

I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being a Luddite. I began to learn to program in the late 1970’s when I was in high school, majored in computer science, worked as a software developer and got a PhD in computer science. I love my tech toys tools and think that overall, we are better off with the technology we have today than we were before it was available. But I am often a skeptic when it comes to educational technology.

I was reminded of my skepticism about a month ago when I cam across this photo and caption. For those of you who won’t click through, I’ll describe it. It is a photo of a classroom smart board being used as a bulletin board, with large sheets of paper taped to it, completely covering the smart board itself. The poster of the photo asks a number of questions, including whether the teacher who uses the equipment in this manner should be reprimanded for educational malpractice. The comments on the photo imply that the fact that the teacher is using this equipment in this way is evidence that the teacher is resistant to using the equipment appropriately. I was happy to see that the poster of the photo also asked some questions about why a teacher might use the equipment in this way such as not enough training. But I think the issue really is that the teacher has not had the right kind of training and the probable reason for that is that the promoters of educational technology are almost always focused on the technology itself and not on the education that the technology can provide.

The fact that someone would consider reprimanding a teacher for using technology in this (admittedly inappropriate) way is part of the problem that I see in all corners of educational technology. When we engage in technology training for teachers, we almost always focus on how and not why. That is, we focus on how to use the technology and don’t engage in meaningful discussion of the pedagogical advantages of using the technology in the classroom. The impression then is that we want to wow our students with this new technology, to do something flashy because the flashiness will capture the attention of the students. I see several problems with this idea. First, if students are using similar technology in all of their classes, the newness of the technology wears off and the flashiness disappears. Second, we should be in the business of getting students to actually learn something and if we don’t have proof that a particular technology (used appropriately) improves learning, perhaps we shouldn’t be investing in such high-priced items. In other words, I do not see technology as a panacea to our educational problems.

I’ll give my own example of how this has played out in my own teaching. A few years ago, my University purchased a bunch of clickers. I went to several training sessions for the clickers, hoping to hear a pedagogical explanation for why the use of the clickers might improve student learning. I heard a lot about how to use the clickers (technical details) as well as the cool things I could do to survey my students to see where their misunderstandings are. But even this last point didn’t convince me that the technology was worth the cost or the effort to use it because I already have ways that I can survey my students to see where their misunderstandings are. In fact, I’ve been developing those kinds of techniques for years, without the use of technology. So what I wanted to know was how the technology will improve on those techniques so that my students learn better. And no one could provide me with those answers. This summer, however, I went to a technology institute for faculty in the University System of New Hampshire. One of our presenters told us about a learning framework which might help us think about technology use in the classroom. He cited several studies that sought to identify why individual tutoring of students is so effective at improving student learning. The results show that students learn best when they get immediate feedback about their learning (the more immediate the better), can engage in conversation about their learning (that is, when they have to try to explain what they learned to someone else) and have learning activities that are customized to their needs (so that they are not wasting their time going over material that they already understand). What technology can do, he argued, is help us provide individual tutoring learning experiences for large numbers of students cost-effectively. Therefore, we can use clickers, not to provide the teacher with information about student learning but rather to provide the students themselves with information about their own learning. That is, the clickers allows us to ask questions of the class, have all the students answer simultaneously and then when we reveal the answer(s), the student can see how he fared compared to his classmates and compared to the correct answer(s). This immediate feedback provides an individual tutoring type experience only if it is done with an eye toward making sure students understand what they are supposed to get out of the use of the clickers. But too often, clickers are used in the classroom because they are cool, and new, and innovative.

So back to the question of whether the teacher who used the smart board inappropriately should be reprimanded. If, instead of having students write on big pieces of paper which she taped onto the smart board, the teacher had the students type their items into a computer and then she had displayed them on the smart board in the “appropriate” manner, we would not be having this discussion. But in neither case have we asked what her pedagogical motivations were for the exercise that the students engaged in. That to me is the important question and the one that would determine whether she has committed “educational malpractice.” And before we spend tons of money on smart boards and iPads and clickers and and and…, I think we should focus on the learning improvements that might be gained from the use of such technology. In most cases, I don’t think we have a whole lot of evidence that it does improve learning. And I definitely don’t think we’re training teachers to use it in a way that takes advantage of the ways that it might improve learning.

et cetera