A sharper pencil never made anyone a better writer, and from what I’ve seen and read, digital reading hasn’t yet led to an increase in reading comprehension. To the contrary, it leads to a decrease.
Indeed, the data is coming in, and the billions invested in education technology have not yielded a strong ROI, or, by one study, any ROI at all. The OECD recently released a report on the effectiveness of Information Communication Technology (ICT) in nations that have invested heavily in classroom technology.
The findings: “The results show no appreciable improvement in reading, mathematics, or science in countries that have invested heavily in ICT for education” (3).
A sharper pencil never made anyone a better writer,
Because of this and similar results elsewhere, in some circles, the public conversation about edtech is beginning to shift away from: “Cool, let’s try it!” to “We tried, let’s cool it.” And, I would hope that by “cool it”, we mean that we should slow down and evaluate the goals of education, and in doing so, the questions we should ask of our education technology plan.
Before we trade our Chromebooks in for composition books, it is worth thinking about what really drives learning, and asking how we can use technology to reach those ends.
Here are five questions I’d suggest asking before implementing new technologies.
1. Does the technology increase isolation or collaboration?
In an age of screen time when 8-18 year-olds spend upwards of 53 hours a week plugged in, we need to be wary of adding tech hours unnecessarily. To the degree that the screen-time activities are meaningful and necessary, we ought to leverage the power of peer to peer learning and in-class collaboration. Because so much learning and knowledge is socially constructed and transacted, the classroom is the ideal place to build and communicate knowledge. This question may seem obvious, but our allegiance to our tech can be so overwhelming that we can, like Mark Zuckerberg, become oblivious to how creepy and isolating technology can be.
2. Does the technology encourage surface or deep level knowledge?
This is big. Assessing the depth of knowledge that our classroom technology encourages must be a priority for every teacher. Why? Because so much of our tech enables students to merely identify or match information, skimming across the surface of thought. Good instructional tech will be flexible enough for a teacher to use in a variety of contexts, but with that flexibility comes a downside: it might be fun while not helping kids learn. Students might enjoy a “clicker” system as much when it merely assesses their knowledge of a word’s definition as much as they would if it measures their ability to use a word in context. Even so, clicker systems don’t require that students explain their answers, just that they know it. It is the teacher’s job to adapt the technology with an emphasis on deep thinking. Teachers need to ask: “Can this tool help me help my students go deeper?”
3. Does the technology facilitate meaningful feedback?
The best research we have on feedback suggests that the feedback that teachers receive on their own instruction is as important as the feedback students get. Why? Because teachers who get feedback consistently on their own instruction will improve their instruction. For this to happen consistently, feedback needs to be contextualized to the learning, timely, consistent, and ideally, it can’t require lots of teacher time before or after the lesson. Similarly, the value of student feedback depends on the type of feedback they receive. It is not enough for a student to know whether or not they got something “right” or “wrong.” Instead, they need to know WHY they got something right or wrong. Lots of tools give feedback, but we need to favor the ones that encourage the right kind of feedback.
4. Is the technology practical?
Teachers want solutions that integrate into their workflow, that don’t require hours of set-up, and that give more bang for the buck. They also need tools that they can use flexibly in a variety of instructional contexts. There are lots of tech tools that seem like a good idea, but ultimately factors like the learning curve, accessibility and feasibility get in the way. Teachers, who always have more added to their plates, generally want to know that the work involved in adding new tech tools will save them time, energy and effort, so they can give more to their students.
5. Does the technology encourage equity?
The strength of 1:1 systems is that they level the playing field for students without access to tools at home, but inequity of access is only one type of inequity. There are other important inequities that need to be addressed in the classroom. How about inequity of engagement? Our tech tools should help us to engage 100% of our students, and they should equip teachers with the personal knowledge necessary to differentiate instruction, to develop a stronger personal bond, and ultimately to give each student the focus he or she deserves. The classroom should be the first place we look to close the achievement gap, and we should favor the tools that help us do this well.
All edtech solutions are merely tools, and tool serves specific purposes. We know this intuitively: Nobody would ever decorate a wedding cake with a hammer.
When it comes to Ed Tech, we need to get better at asking: what are these tools for? And in education, that leads to worthwhile questions: What is an education for? How do people learn? What is a teacher for? In getting serious about answering these questions we stand a chance of avoiding becoming tools of our tools, and instead, we can better use tools, old, existing and new to make real, lasting improvements in our schools.
If you are interested in learning more about how I’ve asked and answered these questions download the Oncore classroom instruction iPad app on the App Store, or visit our website: Oncoreeducation.com.