Is technology ready to transform education?

Technology hasn’t transformed education, but that could be changing, writes Steve Lohr in the New York Times.

Until recently, computing in the classroom amounted to students doing Internet searches, sending e-mail and mastering word processing, presentation programs and spreadsheets. That’s useful stuff, to be sure, but not something that alters how schools work.

The new Web education networks can open the door to broader changes. Parents become more engaged because they can monitor their children’s attendance, punctuality, homework and performance, and can get tips for helping them at home. Teachers can share methods, lesson plans and online curriculum materials.

Transformative? Or steps in the right direction?

Lohr thinks technology facilitates project-based learning, but his example — telling students to spend two weeks developing a U.S. energy policy — doesn’t require any technology that hasn’t been around for awhile. Internet searching isn’t new. Project-based learning isn’t new.

I think online learning will transform career education: Many adults trying to qualify for a better job will find it convenient to take online courses. I’m still not persuaded it will change K-12 education fundamentally. If so, we’re not there yet.

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  1. We’re definitely not there yet, but we could be. The problem is less with the available technology and more with teachers who are reluctant to take the next step in web-based instruction.

    The Internet now offers educators the ability to create secure blogs, online Content Management Systems, classroom message boards, chat rooms and more.

    My students do 80 percent of their class work in cyberspace, on their own private, secure web sites, blogs and forums. The result? Better turn-in rate and higher achievement.

    Kids love the Internet. They love online communities and they are far more creative with the web than are adults. What teachers need to do is throw away their pencils and chalk and meet their students on their turf.

  2. Design a U.S. energy policy in two weeks? I’ll do it in two seconds – longer than it takes me to type it out.

    Assign a price to pollution caused by energy use.
    Then let the market sort it out.

  3. The plan calls for schools to ramp up “project-based learning” instead of “teachers lecturing and being the givers of all knowledge”. Because this is working so well for our schools already?

    The government-industry partnership identifies a set of skills that mirror those that the New Technology Foundation model is meant to nurture. Those skills include collaboration, systems thinking, self-direction and communication, both online and in person.

    Will they be able to measure how this experiment will actually improve achievement of these skills?

    The project-based approach, some educators say, encourages active learning and produces better performance in class and on standardized tests.

    I’d like to see more evidence that this will lead to higher academic achievement, not just rely on what “some educators say”.

    Parents become more engaged because they can monitor their children’s attendance, punctuality, homework and performance, and can get tips for helping them at home.

    Oh, but it’ll make it easier for parents to re-teach at home.

    Sounds like more of the same. Try something “innovative”, and see if it works.

  4. The technology may be new but the idealism and rhetoric in Steve Lohr’s article is going on a hundred years old. Lacking a thorough understanding of what actually goes on in the classroom, idealists use their imagination. They imagine not only what happens, but they imagine the rationale of what happens or ought to happen. And they always think their ideas are new.

    The early stages of using the internet in the classroom focused on “finding sources”. You can find a lot of information on the internet, and isn’t that what education is all about? Finding sources? That, of course is the encyclopedia salesman’s perspective. Learning consists of finding information, and the encyclopedia has a lot of information, very conveniently arranged, so put a set in every classroom and education will be transformed. Apparently that rationale was bought hook, line, and sinker, by the superintendent of the first school I taught in, in 1964. He was proud that the school had invested rather heavily in having a set of encyclopedias in every classroom. But it didn’t transform my math classes. And the internet will not transform my math classes either. All the information needed in a math course is neatly wrapped up in the covers of a text book. The student’s job is to somehow learn it, not to find it. The teacher’s job is to direct and aid that learning, not to find “alternate sources of information”.

    Another promise of the internet and software is in presenting information. So a lot of people think power point, and “multimedia presentations” are going to transform education. But before the internet and educational software there was television teaching. That was going to transform education. The best presentations of the best teachers can be put on video and everyone can profit from it. Teaching will be transformed.

    But education was not transformed by television. It is indeed true that presentation of subject matter is an important part of teaching, but it is not necessarily the biggest or most important part. Children learn by doing. They learn to manipulate mental concepts by manipulating mental concepts. That means they must practice what they are to learn. That means they must do homework. And they must do well selected homework, which means the teacher must carefully choose assignments. And to practice right learners must have feedback. That means the teacher must give feedback. A fancy presentation, by television, or computer, or anything else, is only part of the total picture. It may improve education, but it will not transform education. (Although, in my humble opinion, power point has never improved anything.)

    But Lohr says that technology will allow students to work on projects, and the “project method” is something new and exciting in the world of education, is it not?

    Of course it is not. The “project method” was new and exciting in 1918 when William Kilpatrick popularized it. It certainly gained a following, but it never transformed education. The project method has some problems. It can easily displace learning. Instead of building knowledge, students focus on some tangible goal. It is often argued that “we learn by doing”, and that is supposed to favor projects. But “doing” can mean a lot of things, not all of them beneficial. The “doing” that is really educational is building structures of knowledge in our minds. The “doing” required for that is pretty mundane. It’s called “study”

    Indeed I would argue that Lohr’s example of a two week project of designing an energy policy is a very good example of a very bad thing to do. As described by Lohr it has nothing to do with learning math, science, and other important subjects, and has everything to do with producing a tangible product. Some years ago we would put that tangible product in a “professional looking clear plastic binder”, and expect that to raise our grade. Now we can access it on a computer. This is progress? This will transform education?

    It is obvious that Lohr is thinking of collaborative effort when he uses the word “team”. He does not address the problem that some students don’t like working in groups. Educators in general tend to not address that problem, and therefore they do not look for the reason why some students don’t like to work in groups. The answer is very simple. Group effort dilutes individual effort. Therefore group effort is often frustrating. That simple idea needs to be investigated and analyzed a lot more deeply.

    Technology will improve education, other things being equal, because technology makes it considerably easier to do what we have always done, and what really needs to be done. But that phrase, “other things being equal” is the kicker. Overenthusiastic, but indiscriminate, educators can be tempted to do the wrong things, just to use technology. Lohr’s energy policy project strikes me as a prime example.

  5. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School has an interesting new book out called “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns”. He sees computer-based learning as a “disruptive innovation” that will transform K-12 schooling. In his book, he postulates that demand for online high school classes will follow an S-curve that will start to “flip” in the year 2012. In the years between 2012 and 2018, Dr. Christensen projects that the share of online courses will grow from 5% to 50% of all high school courses. I’m not sold on his timetable but I do think that in the not-to-distant future we’ll see a much greater market share for computer-based learning.

  6. Film strips, movies, radio, television and computers in early ’80s were all going to transform public education and without exception they failed.

    Mightn’t it be worth understanding why, in a world of blistering change, the public education system has resisted all substantive change while eagerly embracing every half-baked edu-fad?

  7. Brian Rude hits the nail on the head.

  8. Brian Rude: I you, man. I’d argue that evaluation of sources and discrimination of what and how you search are the key skills of the internet age. Wiki’s, blogs, etc. are useful literacy tools, but I think they work simply because of their novelty.

    Education embraces edu-fad because political reality demands instant results. Real reform starts in early elementary and bubbles up. It also takes 3 – 5 years for a (good, supported) teacher to truly implement responsive, effective teaching in her classroom. Everybody wants the test scores up this year. Even Jaime Escalante took 10 years to get that AP Calc class you see in the film (it didn’t happen in one year… please… who is idiotic enough to believe that?). But as long as Hollywood says you can do it in one year, then that is what the public believes.

  9. Mark…why specifically is it more educational for a student to write an assignment using a blogging tool, rather than to write it with a word processor or for that matter with a typewriter or a quill pen?

  10. Dick Eagleson says:

    It seems preposterous, given that personal computing has been around for 30 years now, but in my experience there is still a lot of computer-phobia at all rank levels of K-12 education, from classroom teachers to district superintendents. This is reflected in the fact that Education is the only white collar sector in which a typical worker’s desk – i.e., that of a classroom teacher – does not usally have a computer on it. Heck, just having a working phone in each room seems well beyond the capabilities of many school districts and phones have been around for a century longer than personal computers. Computers aren’t going to remake public education because a sizable majority of the people involved in providing it don’t appear to want to have anything to do with computers if they can possibly avoid doing so.

  11. Any technology is going to have the same problems as The ubiquitous technology in education, books. If don’t know how to use the technology it will be worthless to your education. If you can’t afford to buy the technology you won’t be able to use it for your education. And there’s no technology that can yet match a skilled and engaged guide or classmate in terms of learning productivity. But if you do know how to use some technology, can afford to get access to it, and the appropriate guide/classmate is not available it sure seems like you should put that technology to good use.

    Some of my favorites:

    1. Books – don’t require batteries or plugs so you can take them anywhere, lots of information in a small space
    2. DVD + TV – have voices that never get tired, don’t mind repeating themselves ad-infinitum, if done well can actually get kids to sing and play along
    3. Computers – these things never get tired of drill, they give kids immediate feedback, report and share results automatically

    I keep plenty of these around my house and they are often put to good use. Unfortunately there are a lot of people that can’t afford what I can or perhaps don’t know how to use these technologies. So please …


  12. All the technology in the world isn’t going to save us from ourselves. You want to transform education? Then transform children by bringing back the traditional two-parent (one male, the other female) family. Kids from broken homes come to school with a millstone around their necks. They need two parents that will love them and instill virtue. Unfortunately, we’ve gone too far in the wrong direction to ever bring it back.

  13. Dr. Christensen talks in his book “Disrupting Class” about how “disruptive innovations” don’t initially compete directly against the current market leader’s product but rather against nonconsumption. For example, in the ’70’s Digital had a very successful market for $200k minicomputers. Apple couldn’t directly compete with DEC’s minicomputers because their personal computers weren’t good enough at the time to solve the problems that DEC’s customers had. So Apple marketed its IIe PC as a relatively affordable toy for kids. Kids were nonconsumers so it didn’t matter to them that the Apple wasn’t as powerful as the existing DEC minicomputers. A few years down the road, however, improvements in PC technology rendered DEC’s minicomputers obsolete.

    Dr. Christensen argues that the traditional government-run education system will in the near future be “disrupted” by the innovation of computer-based learning. At first, online learning will compete against nonconsumption by offering classes in subjects where there isn’t enough demand in any given school to justify offering a traditional course (such as a very advanced math one or an unusual foreign language). But eventually, Dr. Christiansen believes that the technology will improve such that computer-based learning will render the traditional model of education obsolete.

    He makes an interesting argument, I encourage you all to read “Disrupting Class” for yourselves.

  14. I think that the technology is evolving at such a phenomenal rate that they real questin is not really whether technology is ready to transform education, but rather if ‘Education is ready to transform technology’.

    Currently the technology trends are being dictated by enterprises and entertainment. When will we be ready to say that the path of technological development is also being affected by educational pushes?

    “Technology is anything that was invented since you were born. The rest is just everyday stuff.”