What technology can (and can’t) do for education

As I reflect on the excitement of South By Southwest Education conference last week, a fundamental question keeps coming up: What proportion of the challenges facing the education system can actually be addressed with technology and innovation?

Let’s quickly stipulate the issues here. Stop me if you’ve heard this all before.

  1. Many schools face serious resource constraints. But America already spends quite a bit of money on education and large increases in funding are not likely over the next generation.
  2. We have disappointing results given the money we’re spending, both in college attainment and in performance on international tests.
  3. We have an achievement gap for minority and low-income students, meaning the path to raising our educational status requires raising up the students who have been the most challenging to reach thus far.
  4. Our schools are not preparing kids for the workforce and society of tomorrow, whether that means STEM disciplines in particular or the always-on, mobile, connected, collaborative, cross-disciplinary society that we are all a part of. This is a catch-all concern, with many different definitions of the problem and paths to solutions.

Now, of those top four concerns, what exactly can technology do to help? #4 is the strongest argument for “wiring” our classrooms, and ironically, it’s a qualitative, not quantitative, argument. I spoke with Diane Tavenner, CEO of the Summit Public Schools charter chain, who argued “My computer is part of who I am. It’s an imperative tool in my life.” Professionals in this day and age work using always-on laptops and mobile devices, managing their own workflow with the help of various applications and productivity tools, and collaborating as needed.  Students need to practice doing more or less the same thing. Her high schools are phasing in one-to-one laptop programs.

#2 and #3 are arguments for the use of multimedia teaching aids, particularly adaptive learning and tutoring programs. One review of the literature shows positive results for these programs in raising performance, although of differing levels of significance, particularly by giving underperforming students the extra help they need to succeed. But as the technology is constantly evolving it is very difficult to design rigorous studies that keep up with the state of the art. Every startup out there has its own “independent” studies showing increases in test performance. Then there is the question of the quality of the tests themselves and the relationship they bear to what kids are actually learning.

#1 is the diciest. In order to save money in education–or dramatically improve performance with stagnant budgets, which amounts to the same thing–you have to cut labor costs. This means fewer teachers and administrators, or less generous benefits packages, or both.  The pitch here is that integrated uses of data, combined with personalized learning and tutoring programs, will somehow make teachers so much more effective that they can improve results even with larger classes. But it will be tough to prove this, and even tougher to get teachers on board en masse with “innovations” designed to eliminate their positions.

In his speech last Thursday Bill Gates pointed out that currently, only 1 percent of private R&D investment goes into education innovation. He argued that it should be much more, given the importance of our education system to our future economic competitiveness. But in the absence of a more fruitful and honest dialogue about the goals and outcomes of such investment, as outlined above, and careful documentation of what works, a more likely outcome is another turn of the hype cycle that leaves schools more or less unchanged.


POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON March 11, 2013

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Susan Farber

It seems appropriate to ask:
When will the educational research community design and implement studies which allow for a longer-term and broader analysis and evaluation of the impact of innovative uses of technology (beyond 1-2 years and impacting more than one group of teachers and students in one school)?
When will the funders of educational research understand the importance of funding this kind of research study, so there is more data for analysis to ascertain the benefit? And if no measurable benefit, pinpoint the constraints, challenges or barriers.
Why are we not trying to establish larger networks of parallel studies of specific ways to implement the use of technology to support students’ meaningful use of devices to collaborate, manage projects (assignment completion over time) and use devices as Ms Kamenetz suggests (and push out the findings to larger audiences)? Ethnographic documentation of such uses of technology, with subsequent qualitative analysis of these ‘experiments’ can only guide how and where to invest funds and resources so these desirable outcomes are appearing in schools in various areas of the country.
We have to know how best to reap the affordances of these devices and communication networks and this can perhaps be determined through observation, documentation and analysis of what is OR is not working.
Unfortunately, the business community and philanthropists may have to be willing to cover the cost of these ‘experiments’ and studies in order to create schools where students develop the skills for employment and active citizenry.
This may appear to be the dream of an optimist, bit it may be one way to attain these goals and determine how best to use technology in schools.

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