Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Optimism vs. Realism with regard to Educational Technologies

It is fine to be optimistic about the potential to use technology to improve learning and instruction. I am optimistic – otherwise I would not be in this profession. However, I do maintain that there is very little evidence of large-scale (e.g., nationwide) sustained improvement in learning and instruction due to the various uses of technologies in recent and not so recent years in the USA. I have found two funded educational projects that managed to have large-scale and sustained impact over the years (perhaps there are others): Sesame Street (see http://www.sesamestreet.org/) and Headstart (see https://www.acf.hhs.gov/ohs/about/history-of-head-start). 

I argued years ago in a paper that the success of an educational technology project should be based on whether or not there were subsequent projects building on the findings of earlier works. In that sense, Jasper Woodbury (see https://jasper.vueinnovations.com/) was somewhat successful as it eventually led to such efforts as Marcia Linn’s WISE (see https://wise.berkeley.edu/). One could argue likewise for some success of Seymour Papert’s Logo (see http://el.media.mit.edu/logo-foundation/what_is_logo/history.html) which eventually led to Scratch and Co-Lab (see https://www.media.mit.edu/people/mres/projects/). However, none of those efforts resulted in large-scale, sustained adoption in American classrooms although they demonstrated positive outcomes, as have other works. 

The point I have been making in recent years concerns a failure to connect theory and research with practice, policy and the management of educational systems – that is the purpose of the major online reference work entitled “Learning, Design and Technology: An International Compendium of Theory, Research, Practice and Policy” (see http://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007%2F978-3-319-17727-4). I am not optimistic that my efforts with that work will have the intended impact.

I stand by my comments to the Beijing National Day School (BNDS) visitors and think it is time for those in our profession to stop over-promising and to realize the challenges in turning good research into practice that lives well beyond specific studies and experiments. My guiding mantras are these:

  • It is not about the technology – it is about the learning.
  • It is not about the technology – it is about the use of the technology.
  • It is not what one says that matters – what matters is what one does (Gagné said that our job is to help people learn – he said that to researchers at AERA who were asking about publishing their research results).
  • What matters is the will of a society to value and support education – this is what I regard as the most fundamental challenge in the USA.

 There are no doubt successful research projects in the sense that they demonstrate some of their intended outcomes. What I have not seen are the translation of those outcomes into sustained practice on a large scale in this country. I do believe the UVA-Smithsonian STEAM effort (see https://news.virginia.edu/content/smithsonian-curry-give-students-chance-reinvent-famous-creations) will have a positive impact. It is not clear that school districts will change curricula or invest in innovation in the way that those at BNDS have been doing since 1952.

And then I think about my experience in Indonesia with multi-grade rural schools – it led to a dissertation studying 12 such schools. I visited a rural school in the Bogor District that took two hours by car to reach a village and then walking for two miles to reach the school that served three somewhat remote mountain villages. It was a three-room schoolhouse, no computers, electricity wired outside buildings, one blackboard and chalk in each room – one room for 1st and 2nd grade, one for 3rd and 4th grade, and one for 5th and 6th grade students. There were about 50 kids in each of those rooms, three to a desk sharing one pencil, one pad of paper and a straight edge. I observed the 5th and 6th grade classroom. The teacher only had a two year degree but was also going full-time to get his baccalaureate as had been mandated by an Indonesian law. He was amazing. The 5th grade students were studying math – geometry. The 6th grade students were studying science – botany. When he looked at the left side of the room (5th graders), the others worked quietly on a problem. When he shifted to look at the other side, the 5th graders worked quietly. After an hour or so, the 6th graders all got up and left the classroom. He then showed the 5th grade students how to calculate the perimeter of a polygon, constructed with a right triangle on top of a rectangle. To solve the problem, they had to  know the Pythagorean theorem – 5th grade students in a rural, multi-grade school in Indonesia. I was riveted. After working two examples on the board, the teacher set them to working a problem on their own in the groups of three to a table. I watched each group work together to solve the problem -  no fighting over the one pencil or straight edge and they understood the Pythagorean theorem and used it to correctly solve the problem.

Then I began to wonder what happened to the 6th grade students. My Indonesian colleague told me that they had been sent outside to find plants that could reproduce without seeding – e.g., by plant cloning. I went outside to observe. What I saw were small groups of students (3 to 5), sharing one knife finding plants and cloning them – all without adult supervision. I was again amazed. 

At the end of the day, the parents came up from the fields to greet us and exchange ideas. They wanted to know how to improve the school and the teaching – we had  nothing to offer. Nothing. We then asked them what their goals were. Through a translator, we were told they wanted their kids to get a high school education – that meant the kids would have to leave the village and spend the week or year in Bogor (two hours away by bus). How many now go on to high school? we asked. About 10%. What happens to them? They find jobs in the city. What is your goal for these kids? For 75% to go on to high school. What happens to the village if they do not return? We only got shrugs in reply. They valued the education of their kids more than the survival of their villages. Given that amazing experience, we wanted to see if it held up in other situations, so we had an FSU doctoral student visit and study 12 other schools (I visited several of them with her and saw the same kind of commitment to education in other rural multi-grade schools in Indonesia). 

The challenges education faces in Indonesia are arguably more formidable than those we face in the USA, but I am inclined to believe the will of the people to educate their children will play a greater role than almost anything else – technology or otherwise. That is why I am optimistic. And realistic at the same time.


  1. I am not sure what education becoming frustration means. Some promote the idea of making education entertaining - as in 'edutainment'. I counter that developing a high level of competence and expertise takes time, effort, and dedication - as in educational punishment or 'edunishment'.

    I have long admired the live oak tree in the Alamo courtyard in San Antonio, and used to want to be like that ... a mighty oak tree ... now I will settle for being an acorn.