ELTM15: Technology–The Rapture

Colloquially, we say, “people sometimes approach it arse-foremost.”

Shortly after iPads were introduced to the market it began: people from all over k-12 started writing proposals to raise money so they could purchase them for their classrooms. Just before that it’s was Interactive White Boards (IWBs). They were it seems the next best thing…at the time at least. About ten years prior to this people were going wild putting Palm handhelds in classrooms. Laptop projects: yes, we’ve seen quite a few of those come, and go. More examples could be listed but you probably get the idea.

Have you ever seem a horse-and-buggy setup that placed the cart in front so that it would be the thing that moved the horse around? Of course not! Everyone knows you do not put the cart before the horse! Why, then, does this blindingly obvious truth not apply to education? Why is it that people get caught up on the rapture associated with the use of shiny electronic toys and devise project after project in which they purchase a slew of them and then foist them off on the classroom without thought of what really is supposed to be happening?

How about this:

  • The companies that make the devices market them very hard to education, knowing the large potential sales volume that could result. They therefore make it so that a body of evidence exists to justify the purchase. Research? It is incredibly easy to devise a situation that looks good enough. Here’s an example: Pick a bunch of students from a school in a reasonably well-off neighbourhood. Test them in some given domain, say, “the ability to do operations with fractions.” Supply them with the equipment you want to market and then subject them to an intensive treatment using it, along with a well-trained and motivated teacher. Subject them, along with classmates at another school who did not have the equipment to a post test. Of course they first group will do better, primarily because of the hype, interest and enthusiasm that has been expended. Nobody needs to know that, though. The one thing that’s obviously different is the presence of the equipment so attribute all of the difference to it. Bang! Research that “proves” the worthiness of the new equipment.
  • The classroom can be a frustrating place in which to work. Teaching and learning and very difficult to do well and the rewards for both are pretty intangible for the majority of teachers and students. Face it—both are expected to do their jobs well so there’ll be no trophies, no parties and no bonuses when the job is done. Couple this with the fact that budgets are tight and the result can be somewhat humdrum when you think about it. Day after day of hard work with little to show for it at the end except (for students) the possibility of maybe achieving grades a bit better than their parents expect and (for teachers) nothing more than relief that, hopefully, the students don’t perform below the district mean and, therefore, they don’t face the accusatory finger of blame from disgruntled parents/guardians, school/district administrators, politicians and local media. So, then, into this environment comes the promise of something better: a shiny gadget that, if put in place not only offers hope of better achievement but, maybe because students actually want to use it, the promise of relief from the daily grind.

Small wonder, then, that the system falls, time after time, into the clutches of “The Rapture,” the worship of “exciting” new equipment for its own sake.

It’s such a waste of resources—all of them, time, energy and, most importantly, effort put in the right direction. Here’s an example of how anyone could make themselves—and their school—look really good while, in the end, achieving nothing. Let’s say I am a bored math teacher, in need of a new challenge. One day I spy, in a shop window, a fancy new gizmo. For the sake of argument, let’s not pick on any existing device. How about a pair of spectacles that, when worn, will layer everything in front of you with extra information? If, for example, you are looking at a restaurant, then you will see the menu. If you are looking at a map, you’ll see extra information about whatever part of it you happen to be focused on at the moment.

Suppose that I decide to write an application that pops up a set of math tools whenever you look at a mathematical sentence, whether it is an open expression, a function, or an equation, whatever. If you look at an equation, for example, it will offer tools with which you can solve it numerically, graphically and, maybe symbolically. There’s just one catch—the app I designed doesn’t actually show you how it’s done, it just does it for you. Look at an equation, pick “solve” then pick from “graphical”, “symbolic” or “numeric” and—BOOM—there it is.

Now, armed with this app I go after my administrator and convince her/him that I’m on to something big; something that will change not only how math is taught but also how it is done. In turn we go after the district admin, then the department of education people. In the end I carve off for myself a nice piece of money to develop a product I can sell to make even more. I also get lots of time to play around with the toy in my class, to cavort in front of the media (along with the big shots of course) to show them how innovative my—sorry, “our”—school is.

This, in turn creates something of an expectation. In light of the great things that are evidently happening at “our” school an expectation starts to grow that this is something that needs to happen everywhere and others start to feel pressure to join in the movement. Of course it’s unlikely that anyone will figure it out at the time. The students are not really doing or learning math. They are just messing around with a cool little interface to some clever math tools when they should be learning about the underlying theory and practice that made those tools work in the first place.

Now, lest this post be perceived as entirely too cynical, let’s make two things perfectly clear. First, though the case presented may be interpreted as casting teaching in a negative light, understand that this is by no means describes mainstream activity. Typical teachers are not the type to willfully deceive others. While some enter the teaching force perhaps little like this—you know, the self-aggrandizing types who seek nothing other than to be worshiped by their colleagues and students, the fact remains that these types do not last. Teaching is a tough job, suited only to those with resilient, healthy personalities and the self-centered “look at me” types soon depart. In the end, the more-or-less nonsensical projects and movements, too, are similarly weeded out as the vast majority of teachers, who are focused on real results will put them to an honest test, and on finding them useless, will subsequently deposit these flawed devices and associated practices on the technological scrap heap, along with a lot of other useless garbage that has gathered there over the years. In the meantime, though, some damage is done, in the form of wasted time and resources.

Second it has to be emphasized that it does not have to be that way at all. Many devices, including the ones mentioned not-too-kindly just above are, in fact, truly useful. The thing is, though, it cannot be about the devices. Instead, it has to be about the learning. In particular it has to be based on how we can somehow improve the system from where it currently is. Without doubt things like tablets, IWBs and yes, devices like the magic spectacles lampooned above can be put to good use in a learning setting. But the learning must come first. Here’s the way it should work:

  • Think about just what it is you wish to improve. Be as specific as you can.
  • Look at the current system whereby the current outcomes are attained.
  • Collaboratively plan for a better approach. Now is the time to look, with eyes wide-open, at all available technologies because they are out there.
  • Test it out then make the changes that become obvious through the piloting process.
  • Pass it on to everyone else; implement it.

And while doing this, bear in mind that the “it” in question is not just a device. It is, rather the combination of the device as well and the theory and practice related to its best use.

After all, what we are about is the achievement of outcomes. The technology (most of the time—there are exceptions) is a means to an end, not necessarily and end in itself.

Next: The (not so) connected world

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17 thoughts on “ELTM15: Technology–The Rapture

  1. We have several children each year who arrive at secondary school unable to either write legibly or to an acceptable speed to keep up in a classroom, so a set of ‘Alpha-smarts’ were purchased without, shall we say, an awful lot of research. These Alpha Smarts are mini keyboards with a tiny screen, so that you are able to see two or three lines of type, but not the whole page. The idea is that students can borrow these, use them for class work and then print off any work done via a usb cable and a kindly printer and in theory, the work is then stuck into an exercise book. However, no-one considered whether or not these children had any keyboard and IT skills so in practice, these pieces of technological wizardry are just as much of a hindrance to the students as is their own handwriting. An example, I think of the cart before the horse? A few old fashioned handwriting sessions or a course in typing from a keyboard would have been more beneficial and far less expensive 🙂

  2. Your arguments also apply to the acquisition of all sorts of other electronic gizmos as well. In my area of Biology there are a tremendous number of folks out there trying to sell all sorts of probes that can measure all sorts of stuff in real time (temperature, pH, ion, gasses, and you-name it). Each of these probes must connect to a little, proprietary (of course), black box that acts as some sort of intermediary between the probe and a computer. Well … the number of these that are currently sitting around the department is CRAZY. And many of them were never even used! People got sucked into the great idea and then never followed through. In some cases the equipment was used once, and when the instructor, who argued that this stuff would change the nature of science education, realized that the stuff didn’t turn out to be as billed … he/she jettisoned the idea all together. What a waste! Same goes for DNA technologies that are just sooooo sexy that everyone wants a piece of the action. So get boxes are purchased, cameras, DNA sequencers, and all the rest. 99 out of 100 times the stuff just sits … and looks real good to those being given tours around the department. Am I sounding just a little bit resentful? Hmm. In none of these cases had your suggested recommendations (above) been followed. D

    1. Funny I have had a similar experience regarding biology in particular. I am a HUGE fan of interfacing in physics and would not even consider teaching introductory physics (High school and first year university) without these: motion sensor, photogates, force sensor, light sensor and microphone. As part of the distance education project I retired from we ensured that the schools all had an interface along with those sensors. We also put in pH and temp for chem as well as heart rate monitor, and lung volume thing–I forget the name– for biology. As expected the physics stuff gets used a LOT but the other stuff not so much as there are better ways of doing the activities without the sensors. I think that, especially in Bio. people forget that the fancy equipment is only better suited to specialized labs where Ph.D. level knowledge is required. And, yes, much of the wastage could be avoided is some of the equipment money was used to gather good information and advice in advance.

  3. I’ve worked in technology for many years and now I’m in a university and in technology. In my very first IT job my boss said “remember, never do technology for technologies sake, that’s not what it’s about.” I held on to that mantra and it has served me well. So many people get hooked in the hype, devices proliferate like fashion accessories but to what end? A dollar for every bit of technology that was meant to be the next big thing, ultimate solution or road to glory and I’d be a very rich woman. But I’m not rich because I insist on asking questions first. Don’t get me started on the vendors who sell unsuspecting colleagues (with little IT awareness) expensive trinkets that rarely do all that was promised. When it comes to teaching or commerce we need to ask ‘what value does this add?’ Or ‘what problem does it help me solve?’ A solution looking for a problem quickly becomes a problem in its own right – when technology is involved those problems can be hugely costly and it’s sad when the money might’ve been better spent on something useful.

    1. Ha ha Tracy, I wish I’d said that! You are absolutely correct and your stance is the correct one. Continually asking “why are we doing this?” and always demanding that potential solution vendors guarantee their results is something we should get used to. The whole aspect of change management is something else that never gets enough attention. When new methodologies and equipment are introduced there should be an accompanying response from the policy and procedures people, else things will never get implemented.

  4. A teacher I know – he is quite innovative and open-minded but not a gadget geek – told me that he is often negatively surprised by non-existing basic knowledge of students about how these devices work.

    Of course nobody would expect them to be developers but it seems they know less than what could be inferred from media reports on “digital natives” etc. Is that true? They seem to use technology intuitively but they are probably less interested in reverse engineering and tinkering as generations before who did not grow up surrounded by devices (I read an article by a psychologist who warns about exposing babies (!) to iPads too much e.g.).

    I am probably either old-fashioned or too nerdy (or I have read too much about computer user’s psychology and fallacies…) but I would consider it imperative to introduce “gadgets” only with some accompanying teaching in computer science or whatever that subject might be called. And yes, I know… time is limited and adding one hour of information technology teaching means reducing teaching time in other subjects….

    1. Good points all around. This was brought home to me some time ago in a senior university “Tech Ed.” course when I realized the majority of the students did not know how an old-style (ball and wheel) mouse worked. You are correct and to this day I am totally frustrated by the fact that we let students graduate from school into our 21st century digital world without even a clue as to any of the underlying technologies! Talk about resistance to change! Hello everyone–the 19th century ended 115 years ago!
      Oh, and that whole idea about so-called digital natives–I have yet to see any real evidence that any of it is really true at all. It’s been my experience that adults are in no way second-best when they bring an open mind.

  5. mary

    Enjoyed this article on carefully evaluating just how technology might enhance outcomes or the learning experience before just purchasing the latest shiny new gizmo/s. I think I mentioned on this forum before that the fashion in school libraries these past two years has been to try to transform them into a ‘learning commons’ – incorporating quite a bit of technology – In some cases i’ve seen this defeat the purposes with libraries essentially being converted into just one more computer lab and students and teachers losing the sense of a space where reflection and interaction with other students can occur without always having the technology middddleman involved. In other places though after discussion and careful evaluation I’ve seen technology successfuly incorporated – eg as a mobile lab in a library which can be opened up and laptops taken out for such things as database training and collabrative projects but tucked away when its time to focus on sustained silen reading. Sometimes students just neeed a break from the constant intrusion of technology.

    1. The integration exercise needs to be done from the perspective of doing a better job at what we are supposed to be doing, rather than satisfying someone’s singular view of what’s good. Too often electronic technology is brought in to just make someone look good rather than focus on overall student achievement.
      As Wayne Dyer is fond of saying, “The main thing is to ensure that the main thing IS the main thing.” 🙂

  6. Here in our county school system, our tax dollars are being used to buy school children laptops….. I can’t say I like this. but any way….. it seems the more “in touch and connected” we become, the less we touch and connect. but anyway, as usual, an interesting post and a thoughtful one. thank you for following me!!!

    1. Laptops can be useful but considerable thought would need to go into the whole thing before they should be purchased. These questions need to be answered:
      What are we using them for? Who manages them from a technical perspective? Who pays for the software? Can they be used off site? How long will they last–is the cost sustainable? Will they result in improvements to the outcomes that matter?
      Sadly, these questions are rarely dealt with and bringing laptops in is often a matter of keeping up with the Jonses in nearby juristictions…

      1. I agree. Supposedly certain types of sites are banned, but they find a wa to get around it. the laptops are returned with private software (games installed) andparents usually have computers. Most of these kids have phones they can search the ‘net for information for articles. I consider it a waste of my tax dollars.

  7. For my school, the newest shiniest gadgets were the smartboards they mounted in every classroom and often removing the whiteboard in the process. I think they are great devices and incredibly useful but I teach math and I like doing examples but I find it incredibly hard to write on the board; it is also much smaller than my old whiteboard. I’d like it if the smartboard were an accessory to my teaching but it somehow became front and center, literally and figuratively, to everything I do in the classroom.

    1. IWBs are capable of doing an excellent job in support of mathematics education.If the touch settings are just right they are often a pleasure to write on and, what’s more, the fact that the IWB software can store your writing as files that can be distributed to students who might benefit from them–people who, for example, missed class due to illness. What’s more, there are numerous applications that can be used directly, effectively, on IWBs. Geomerer’s Sketchpad, FX draw, FX graph, Vernier’s software and good old Microsoft Excel come to mind.
      That said, of course there are some very real downsides. In middle and high school especially math teachers have to get used to demonstrating worked solutions to students, regardless of all of the lofty talk that comes from conference papers. We have to show students how to do things and then give them an opportunity to do those things themselves, at increasing levels of complexity. No magic, just hard work. It’s often VERY difficult to write math well on most IWBs unless you are the exclusive user of it–other users tend to mess up the settings. There’s always the issue of shadowing from the projector and, of course, the boards are never big enough. To work with examples, ideally, you’d need three of them, side by side. Finally it needs to be said that giving (your) notes to students straight up is not effective since the learning happens when the students make their own by interpreting yours.The ability to save and distribute notes may, therefore, be over-stated,
      In an ideal world teachers would be consulted prior to the “forklift upgrades” that usually happen when whole schools or districts get upgrades like these as money becomes available. When that happens it’s a case of one size fits all, unfortunately. That’s never ideal because we all have our techniques that work with our particular way of teaching an with our particular brad of students. Simply put, teaching and learning are rather individualistic and you’ll never get a large scale solution that works ideally.
      One thing I have found, though, is that the district leaders I have worked with through my long career tend to be open to ideas, especially when presented skillfully. Once the forklift upgarde is in place it may be possible — with the district’s blessing — to tweak the installation to make things better. Perhaps, for example it may be possible to move unused IWBs out of places where they are not used an in to places where more are needed. In return, for giving up something you did not need you now have leverage to request that which you do.

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