New technology, old thinking

School technology hasn’t been used to improve teaching or productivity, writes Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

The tendency has been to sprinkle computers and Internet connections across classrooms in the pleasant hope that teachers will integrate them into their lessons. The purpose is seldom to make teachers more productive or to rethink the way in which lessons are delivered. Indeed, PCs often serve as little more than high-priced typewriters, sitting in the back of classrooms unused for most of the school day.

While competitive enterprises have used technology to cut labor costs, public schools keep hiring more teachers. Public schools spent $89 per student on technology in 2003, according to Education Week.

In 1998 there were 12.1 students for every computer connected to the Internet; by 2002, the ratio had dropped to 4.8 students per computer, according to the Department of Education. In the past five years alone, the nation has spent more than $20 billion linking schools and classrooms to the Internet through the federal E-rate program with little to show for it in the way of instructional changes or improved outcomes. Meanwhile, despite these huge new investments in technology, massive increases in the workforce of teachers drove the student-teacher ratio from 22 students per teacher to 16 students per teacher between 1970 and 2001.

Educators reflexively reject “businesslike” ideas, writes Hess.

Indeed, the very words “efficiency” and “cost-effectiveness” can set the teeth of parents and educators on edge. Proposals to use technology to downsize the workforce, alter instructional delivery, or improve managerial efficiency are inevitably attacked by education authorities as part of an effort to, in the words of Henry Giroux, “Transform public education . . . [in order] to expand the profits of investors, educate students as consumers, and train young people for the low-paying jobs of the new global marketplace.” The notion that the responsible use of public money is the work of some shadowy global conspiracy evinces a fundamental lack of seriousness about educating children.

K-12 school districts have slow, costly, low-tech information management systems, Hess writes.

When asked if he could pull some data on teacher absenteeism or staff training costs, one veteran principal in a well-regarded district spluttered, “Do you know what I do if I want substitute teacher data? I have [my secretary] go through the files and tally it up. She keeps a running total on a piece of graph paper for me. . . . If I want to check on a supply order, I call the deputy [superintendent] for services because we’re old friends, and I know he’ll actually have someone pull it for me.”

Hess has a number of suggestions on how schools could use technology effectively.

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  1. There are a number of ways technology could be used effectively in the classroom. It works well when it is a part of a curriculum that is well taught. It is a good thing for avoid paper waste and improving communication. The Kildonan School for dyslexics found that children who cannot tell the difference between the letters ‘b’ and ‘d’ by sight, do understand the difference on the keyboard. There are many very effective reasons to use technology effectively.

    I’ve always wondered why intelligence wasn’t gleaned from children interacting with programs in school. It might be a very effective way to understand how children learn and engage them with teachers who support their style.

    For technology to be effective in the classroom it needs to be taught to the teachers and to the students. You don’t teacher children to write by scattering pencils around a room, why would anyone learn to use technology that way.

  2. For technology to be effective in the classroom

    The assumption being that the only place education can occur is in the classroom so technology that’s used to enhance education must do so in the classroom.

    There are several interested parties that certainly approve of that assumption but I don’t think their primary concern is the efficacy of the educational process.

  3. Digital kids; analogue teachers. I’d guess that a good majority of teachers just don’t get the opportunities of computers and the Internet. Most of the kids do. Check out the Pew Internet Research project for the stats on kids and their use of technology.

  4. Digital kids and analog teachers is right. That to me is a big problem, not to fault the teachers however. What is needed is more teachers trained in high-tech so that separate classes can be created/held for students to attend. Then, the non-techie teachers must upgrade their computer skills by continuing education for those that can.

    To expect ALL teachers to teach hi-tech is not even close to reality. It will be next to impossible to lure hi-tech teachers to the classroom however without more pay incentives. As a high-tech consultant, I routinely earn average of six figures anually, for forty hour weeks. I would love to spend the latter fourth of my career in the classroom because by then my assets will allow me to ignore the 80% loss of income and I could concentrate on teaching without worrying about food and shelter.

  5. Professor Hess, in other articles, has written about the theoretical possibility and actuality of effective teachers handling classes of 50 or more students. Those old enough will recall the 1970’s when Japan was “burying us” and their schools pumping out math and science whizzes from classrooms much larger than those in the U.S.

    This Hess article is another on productivity of a different sort. If you meld the two you might find enough money to increase the pay of the effective teacher with the funds not spent on classroom high tech AV tools.

    I always felt there was value in being elected or appointed window monitor, blackboard cleaner or the kid who went down the hall and got the AV stuff. These were the assignments that required responsibility and usually came with an award. Ah, but egalitarianism ended that kind of thing in school. Even on the sport field the participation award has eclipsed the idea of winning.

    Sadly, parochial schools have not escaped the technology arms race as parishes have had to deal with the “but your schools don’t have computers” complaint and have ended up spending money on the latest technology craze in order to say that they’re just as equipped as public schools. Ugh! That money could have gone to their hard working and generally under compensated teachers.

    That’s too bad. Especially when we’re talking about K-8 ground work education where a little Trivium and the ageless lessons of our civilization can be accomplished with 1920’s textbooks on History and Grammar. And if need be the science regime spiced up with a video in the auditorium of an old NOVA show.

    After all, that was the early education of the generation that took us to the moon, and invented the transistor radio and air conditioning.

  6. I teach at the college level and I’ve seen that sort of thing.

    I was forced to go to meetings last spring about this very topic (I say forced because I did not want to go and they expected I cancel two days worth of classes – and then another day later in the semester – and now a day this fall – for these meetings. When I suggested it be done as a teleconference so we would not have to travel, that plan was shot down – interesting.)

    Anyway, the main suggestion was going over to computer based instruction – instead of dissecting frogs, the kids dissect virtual frogs. Instead of sitting in a classroom with a calculus prof (or TA, I will admit that’s more common), they go to a “lab” where they do online exercises. Oh, yeah, a TA or maybe a prof might be on duty to help people who get stuck….

    In a lot of the cases pushing computer-based instruction, it seems to be the cattle-call model – “how many more students can we cram into a section without making the instructor’s head explode?”

    So it’s a self-paced, self-teaching model. The instructor is there in case there is a problem.

    So instead of getting to teach, we get to troubleshoot. (And more often than not, it’s computer troubleshooting, not information troubleshooting.)I can see that that model might work ok to well in some classes (I teach an analysis class right now that operates on that model) but I think it’s wrong to apply it to all classes. And I think there are a lot of students who don’t “self-teach” well – I know I wasn’t.

    I don’t know. I feel like a lot of the computer based systems risk becoming very impersonal because of the sheer volume of students that get put in a section, partly to justify the cost of the computer lab. (And, I’ve seen situations where a brief power outage earlier in the day screwed things up so royally that the class could not meet.)

    I guess I’m kind of pessimistic about it because I got into teaching largely for the interaction, and it seems that too many of the computer-learning models take that factor out.

  7. “instead of dissecting frogs, the kids dissect virtual frogs”…and I’ve also heard of physics “labs” in which you role virtual balls down virtual inclined planes, rather than real balls down real inclined planes. There is a subtle but important error in this kind of thing. It basically represents a reversion to medieval scholasticism as opposed to Enlightenment scientific experimentalism…believe what the book (or in this case the computer program) tells you, instead of looking to see for yourself.

    The correct way of doing it would be to use the computer to simulate the ball, and **then go to the lab to see if it was right**. I’ve heard of some schools where this is done, but I bet the pure-virtual scenario is more common.

  8. Ricki says they wouldn’t go for teleconferencing. That’s because no one wanted to give up the opportunity of arranging the chairs.

    Okay, it was a bad joke. But meant to illustrate as does Joanne’s initial post how Neanderthal the people in charge of in place education programs are.

    Last year at the high school our daughter attends the publisher of the new science textbook was late shipping. Out of nowhere came CD’s with the entire text so the lessons could go forth. In the book business, it’s called bundling and drives the cost of books into the stratosphere.

    But this is a place for technology that we should not wait for. Why waste the paper. As it is right now, you can find a lot of classic — in the public domain — literature on the web.

  9. So it’s a self-paced, self-teaching model. The instructor is there in case there is a problem…So instead of getting to teach, we get to troubleshoot.

    Sounds reasonable to me. Granted it may not work for all students or in all situations, but failure to use this approach where possible seems awfully wasteful to me, in terms of staff and resources, and also in terms of students’ time spent (even though the latter is traditionally considered valueless).

  10. “So it’s a self-paced, self-teaching model. The instructor is there in case there is a problem…So instead of getting to teach, we get to troubleshoot.”

    I agree with the “cattle-call” analogy. Its quite obvious that too many so-called universities today are nothing more than poorly run business and academic pursuits are the last item on the agenda if you have the courage to peer beneath the surface.

    But again, isn’t this also the death-throes of a civilization bent on hedonism as its foundation? Look at every media advertisement you see today. Blatant lurid sexuality rules the day. The pleasure-principle is destroying the USA at an alarming rate. Thats our reward for adopting moral relativism, when in fact, THERE ARE dire consequences to society. Now its too late…er..well maybe not. Maybe our grandchildren will rise above this. For us, its all over. We must suffer the financial chaos, wars, and disease resulting from our headlong race into hedonistic obsession with evil, myself included. I am no “saint”, I am caught in the wave just like many of us posting here.

    or not?

  11. Jack Tanner says:

    To paraphrase Linda Chavez – ‘Putting the internet in every classroom will do for education what it’s done for productivity in the workplace.’

  12. linda seebach says:

    A reader who responded to my column on Japanese math lessons
    (which Joanne blogged Aug. 25 said she was a college graduate who never took math in college, but she had home-schooled her two sons, who both aced the math SAT, with a series of books called Ray’s Arithmetic. Publication date for the series? From 1850 to 1880.

  13. Mike in Texas says:

    I noticed no where in the article is there any mention of money spent on teacher training with the new technology.

    I also find the figure of 16 kids to a teacher a little hard to swallow. I have yet to find evidence of this figure anywhere on the Internet. The best I could do was here:

    This page mentions a range of 16 – 22.

  14. Mike in Texas says:

    > Henry Giroux, “Transform public education . . . [in order] to expand the profits of investors, educate students as consumers, and train young people for the low-paying jobs of the new global marketplace.”

    As my father in law is fond of saying, “The truth is the truth”

  15. Richard Brandshaft says:

    1) A few decades ago, John Campbell reprinted the translated introduction to a theoretical physics paper published in Communist China. Campbell said the paper was itself beyond his ability to evaluate but he was told it was first rate. The reprinted introduction was pages of Maoist nonsense related to physics by strange logic. (Using “strange” in its everyday meaning.) Apparently, such was a necessary part of Chinese physics papers at the time. I was reminded of this by Hess’s paper. It was a well reasoned paper — certainly a good starting point for experiments — but he just had to get in the bit about unions and anti-globalization people being the villains.

    2) My first though about one of Hess’s examples was that a PC could do the job before the student turned the paper in, both giving the student instant feedback and saving the teacher a lot of trouble. My second thought was that being corrected by a spelling/grammar checker might make less of an impression on the child than being corrected by the teacher. I can see arguments on both sides. Does anyone KNOW?

    3) Minor quibble. The whole country had a decline in violence in the 1990s. (Compared to the 1980s.) The NYPD credits various things they did. Apparently, every police department in the country happened to start doing things right at about the same time. Are they going to take the “credit” if the pendulum swings back up?

  16. As for the automated essay grading software: I’m sure it can check spelling. I’m less sure about grammar checking. (The only grammar-checking software I’ve seen is that built into Microsoft Word, and it is atrocious.) But no software is capable of telling whether the essay makes sense.

  17. Mad Scientist says:

    Wait a second. Forget about technology in the classroom. By and large it is a waste of time, effort, and money.

    Where technology can be effectively used in education is in Administration. The logistics of running a large school district cannot be all that much different than running a large corportaion. One must buy supplies (i.e., food for the cafeteria), administrative stuff, keeping of accounts payable/receivable, and the like.

    Take away most of the wasted effort on the overhead (i.e., the stuff you need to do but does not cram any knowledge into the empty little heads of the darlings), and you have effectively saved big dollars for many years. It is a systematic change.

  18. “Forget about technology in the classroom. By and large it is a waste of time, effort, and money.

    Where technology can be effectively used in education is in Administration”

    With respect, I disagree in detail. (I do agree in concept.)

    A classroom, as much as an entire school system, needs to be managed or “administrated” — and a simple PC and related technology could easily reduce those burden on a teacher. We don’t see businesses having managers “take attendence”. Each employee has a time card of some sort and “clocks in”. Why not issue a bar-coded ID badge to students and set up a scanner in the classroom? Is the kid in the room, on time today? A history of absents or tardys? Bing bang — here’s the spreadsheet.

    The kids — in the classroom, mind you — have had no difficulty in adapting new technology for cheating. They use digital cameras built into their cell phones to copy the tests and beam it out to later test-takers, for instance. So, why not use software to randomize the order of questions, (and, for multiple choice questions, the order of answers)? Each test could have a unique barcode, scanned to the student ID. On test 101, question 1 is: Who was 2nd President? (a) Washington, (b) Jefferson (c) Madison and question 2 is “Who mostly wrote the Declaration” (a) Madison (b) Washington (c) Jefferson. But on test 102, with the same questions and possible answers, randomized, question one might be about the Declaration, and question 2 the order of presidents. A kid who learns that “the answer to 1 is B” instead of who did what is going to get caught.

    Why not PowerPoint presentations instead of overhead projections, or chalk-talks? “clicking” to bring up an image instead of the time consuming changing of foils or hand drawing illustrations. A few seconds per image results in being able to present more information is less time == more productivity.

    THIS is using the computer in the classroom, and there seems to me to be lots of room to do so.

  19. Mike in Texas says:

    Actually Puncer many of the technologies you mentioned are already available but cost too much to be implemented widespread.

  20. Mad Scientist says:

    My apologies, pouncer. When I hear of “technology in the classroom”, I immediately think of the little darlings getting their own computer on which to play solitaire all day. Or have Word do the spell and grammar checks for them. Or have excel check their math.