Saturday, October 12, 2013

Educational Technology and the Educational Industrial Complex

Technology in education is in the news as never before. This past week’s Education Week  has a huge section devoted to classroom technology; Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy was recently interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition about the LA Unified School Districts campaign for ipads in the classroom, and a few weeks ago, the NY Times Magazine’s special issue on education ran a long piece entitled  "No Child Left Untableted."

Let’s start with the Lewisville School District in north-central Texas. As Edweek reports:

[It] is in the process of giving all 53,000 of its students access to “the right device at the right time,” part of a so-called “1:X” initiative that began last spring. District officials are currently seeking to trademark the “1:X” name, which is also referred to as “1-to-many.”
To date, Lewisville’s 1:X initiative has included introduction of a bring-your-own-technology program; the purchase of $19.1 million worth of iPads and laptops; $23 million in districtwide technology-infrastructure upgrades; and extensive training for staff, students, and parents. 
So far, the district has purchased 19,300 iPads, 3,880 MacBook Airs, and 1,887 MacBook Pros. The goal is to give every student and teacher access to multiple devices by 2016.
Nor is there anything particular about the Lewisville School District:
As it is, more than 2,000 schools around the country now provide each student with their own digital device. 
A recent survey by Interactive Educational Systems Design Inc., a market-research firm, found that 80 percent of district technology officials used or planned to use iPads in their schools over the next two years.
In particular, there’s the Guildford County, North Carolina school system, which, as the New York Times Magazine reports, has received a $30 million grant from the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top program so that:
Every student and teacher in 18 of Guilford County’s 24 middle schools would receive [an Android tablet], 15,450 in all, to be used for class work, homework, educational games — just about everything, eventually.
One school district that really stands out is the Los Angeles Unified School District. As the New York Times magazine reports:
The Los Angeles school district… cut costs in recent years by laying off thousands of teachers yet is now using bonds to finance the spending of $500 million on iPads.
And as Edweek reports:
The board of the Los Angeles Unified School District approved a $30 million contract with Apple Inc. in June, for the first phase of a roughly half-billion-dollar effort to provide all 660,000 students in the district with their own iPads by the end of 2014.
LAUSD’s contract isn’t just with Apple, but also with Pearson, the behemoth that has brought us such wonders as Investigations Math, and which has been growing even more powerful thanks to the Common Core:
Los Angeles Unified isn’t just purchasing devices. Mr. Hovatter [the chief facilities executive for the Los Angeles district] described how the district “forced a marriage” between Apple and the education publishing giant Pearson, resulting in a package deal that means each new tablet will come preloaded with Pearson’s brand-new Common Core System of Courses. The intent, said Mr. Hovatter, is to “completely and dramatically change the way we deliver instruction to our students.”  
Mr. Hovatter, though, made clear that the initial rollout of 30,000 iPads in 47 schools, already underway, is not a pilot project. He said that Los Angeles school officials are “absolutely convinced” that going all-in as quickly as possible “is the right thing to do.”
Educational power brokers see these tablets as performing an ever longer list of functions. They are supposed to help kids access and organize assignments, take notes, receive alerts and reminders from school staff, do “in-depth” research and large group projects, and use “educational” apps. They are supposed to allow students and teachers to create multimedia content and share information and post to online discussion boards 24/7. And they are supposed to allow teachers to do quick polls, assign and assess short answer exercises, call on students randomly, and run “flipped” classrooms in which students listen to lectures at home and do assignments at school.

Amplify, the software company that has developed the Android Tablet to be used by the Guilford county schools, is even more ambitious. As the Times Magazine’s Carlo Rotella reports:
The Amplify tablet helps make personalization possible. It provides immediate feedback to the student and to the teacher, who can then make timely decisions about working with individuals and groups. Entire units of curriculum can be loaded on the tablet in advance or sent out as an instant update, accommodating students working at drastically different paces. An expanded set of tools for research, discussion, practice and demonstration of mastery allow students to come at their studies from various angles and let the teacher move into the role of a mentor who “meets each student where she is.” The teacher’s tablet also has an app blocker and monitoring functions that can see and control what’s happening on student tablets, and a one-touch classroom-control feature to lock their screens, replacing whatever was on them with an eye symbol and the phrase “Eyes on Teacher.”
Still in the pilot stage, but on its way:
Amplify’s variety of reading, math and science games, like its curriculum, are calibrated to the national standards, but the games [still in the pilot stage] are meant to feel like free play, not more schooling. 
Soon, games that know what a student has read (the tablet’s library will contain 1,000 books) will be able to strategically sprinkle a particular word in his path based on how many times the research says you need to see a new word in order to learn it. In a few years, according to Leites, advances like “gaze tracking” and measurement of pupil dilation “will revolutionize” the gauging of cognitive response by making it possible to determine exactly what students are reacting to on the screen. 
This growing stream of information, which can be analyzed down to individual keystrokes, yields a picture that will eventually progress in complexity from, say, a list of words a student looks up to a profile of metacognitive skills — like the ability to concentrate — and in time to a full-blown portrait of a developing mind. In theory, each student will generate the intellectual equivalent of a fantastically detailed medical chart.
In particular, Amplify imagines a brave new world of individualized learning, with teachers
giving a quick quiz, then breaking up the students on the fly into groups based on their answers and sending each group a different exercise from the teacher’s tablet. In not too many years, it might mean using sophisticated pattern-recognizing algorithms to analyze data from homework, games, leisure reading, social media and biometric indicators to determine that one student should be guided to an interactive simulation of coral-reef ecology, another to an essay exercise built around a customized set of coral-reef-related vocabulary words and concepts, and others to something else.
While technology spreads around and soaks up funds, pretty much everything else is the same. In particular, the stakeholders are just as self-interested; the arguments given in favor of the technology are just as lame; and there remain a great number of concerns and no evidence that the technology actually adds educational value.

The self-interested stakeholders include not just the private companies like Apple and Pearson, but also particular individuals tied to these companies and to one another through the governmental-educational-industrial complex. First and foremost there’s Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City’s public schools from 2002 to 2011, and now the chief executive of Amplify, itself a New York-based division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Then, as the Times Magazine reports, there’s U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan:
Duncan, whose longtime allies include Joel Klein, Bill Gates and other apostles of disruption, has a record of supporting reforms that increase the role of market forces — choice, competition, the profit motive — in education. He wants private enterprises vying to make money by providing innovative educational products and services, and sees his role as “taking to scale the best practices” that emerge from this contest.
These stakeholders, along with the superintendents who funnel money towards them, are the primary exponents of the lame arguments in favor of tablets in the classroom. Here’s some of what they’re saying. From Edweek:
Lewisville’s Superintendent Waddell said the purchasing is driven by the prominence of mobile computing devices in all walks of life. 
“We see highly fluid, highly collaborative work environments that are becoming more and more creative,” he said. “We want our kids to be ready for that.”
Ah, yes, collaborative work environments and creativity.

Then there’s John Deasy, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. In response to a question by Steve Inspeak in his interview on NPR’s morning edition about why the district has made iPads a budgetary priority:
All students should have access to technology. And all students should have access to live digital curriculum. I mean, what we would want for those privileged students, it's our obligation to make sure that students who live in circumstances of poverty have exactly that.
Isn’t it more important that all students have access to great teachers—many of which the LAUSD has laid off?

Furthermore, Deasy, like many whose priority it is to narrow the “digital divide,” seems to think that, since the digital revolution is one factor contributing to growing income disparities, the way to reduce these disparities is to give everyone access to digital media in school. That’s almost as much of a non sequitur as the conclusion that, since globalization is one factor contributing to growing income disparities, the way to reduce these disparities is to give everyone access to a globe.

Joel Klein’s argument, naturally, is tailored specifically to Amplified’s Android. As Rotella reports:
Citing global assessments that rank the United States well behind the leading countries in reading and math, he said: “Between 1970 and 2010 we doubled the amount of money we spent on education and the number of adults in the schools, but the results are just not there. Any system that poured in as much money as we did and made as little progress has a real problem. We keep trying to fix it by doing the same thing, only a little different and better. This [Android’s Amplify] is about a lot different and better.”
Echoing the former New York City Schools Chancellor is the U.S. Secretary of Education:
“To keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the past hundred years — everybody working on the same thing at the same time, not based on competency. . . .” He sighed and let the thought trail off, then added his standard reminder that we must equip our students to compete with counterparts in India and China.
There’s only one problem with Klein and Duncan’s argument: the countries that outrank us in reading in math, including India and China, aren’t doing so either via tablets in general, or via Android’s Amplify in particular.

Robert Britt, an Amplify employee who trains teachers how to use the software, makes a more historical argument:
His “before” picture was the typical 19th-century classroom, the original template for our schools. He likened it to industrial shop floors designed for mass production: “People sitting in rows, all doing the same thing at the same time, not really connected to each other.” He contrasted that with a postindustrial workplace where temporary groupings of co-workers collaborate on tasks requiring intellectual, not physical capabilities. “We need a schoolhouse that prepares students to do that kind of work,” he said.  
The key, he said, is personalized learning — breaking free of the mass-production model, tailoring the curriculum to the student and redesigning it around proven competence rather than accrued face time, so that each student can go at his own pace. “Now your job is not to dispense knowledge,” Britt told the trainees. “It’s to facilitate learning. No longer is the teacher the bottleneck between students and knowledge. Rather, the teacher architects the environment — in the classroom, on the tablet, online, everywhere.”
Ah, collaboration again. As for go-at-your-own pace classrooms, these have existed both during the 19th century (look back no further than the one-room schoolhouse), and since then (I myself attended a go-at-your-own-pace math class in the late 1970s).
In the “after” classroom Britt envisioned, some students might be working together on an assignment appropriate to their shared level of competence. Others would be ranging ahead on their own, catching up, exploring a special interest. A small group might be gathered around the teacher, who, having instantly scanned the responses to a short-answer exercise just given to the whole class on the tablet, decides to spend some extra time with those students still hazy about the lesson. Britt repeatedly made a fluid gathering-and-pushing gesture with both hands, as if demonstrating a basketball chest pass, as he said: “Then you move that group out, they’re off practicing to reinforce what you just taught them, and you pull together another group, or you go to an individual, then you flow them out to the next task. Gather and flow.”
How is this different from what’s been going on in student-centered classrooms for decades—without the help of tablets?

But even Carlo Rotella, the skeptical author of the Times Magazine piece, is somewhat taken in, specifically by:
stories from Amplify’s pilot programs about previously marginal, quiet students blossoming: the boy in Georgia whose tablet-troubleshooting skills made him popular; the tall girl in Connecticut who blew away her classmates with an essay about what it’s like to be 5-foot-11 in middle school.
Rotella appears to think that essays about what it’s like to be 5-foot-11 in middle school can only be written on Android tablets.

The only good argument for technology in the classroom that appears in Rotella’s piece concerns how it facilitates individualized learning:
Jonathan Supovitz, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education, who stresses that “individualizing instruction does lead to better outcomes — if teachers can manage the environment to make that happen.” Among other things, teachers will need better tools for processing and interpreting all the additional information they have to handle. “They used to have too little data from students,” Supovitz says, “and now they’re going to get too much, and they need to be ready.”
The education system has long been obsessed with student data; the problem was, is, and will continue to be a dearth of follow-up measures—whether or not our classrooms are tableted.

Meanwhile, there are a number of persisting concerns about technology in the classroom. These include concerns about the growing role of corporations in public education, as well as concerns about as privacy and security. In LA, as Morning Edition reports "some students hacked the security on the iPads to surf forbidden sites on the Internet.”

More worrying, how much will tablets in classrooms increase the screen time of generation of children who already spend a record amount of time in front of screens—rather than, say, in face to face interactions. Rotella cites Larry Rosen, a research psychologist and expert on education and technology at California State University:
Rosen’s own studies of attention and multitasking show that pre-teenagers and young adults focus for no more than five minutes before becoming distracted. “There’s also a concern,” he said, “that technology tends to overstimulate your brain,” disturbing sleep cycles and preventing the mind from going into what psychologists call the Default Mode Network — the highly creative state you enter when daydreaming or between waking and sleep. And overstimulation can just plain hurt. Erika Gutscher, who teaches science at a year-round school in East Cary, N.C., that has been piloting the Amplify tablet since March, reports that she and her students love the tablets but get headaches if they use them too much. 
Then there are concerns about the effect of screen time on how children learn to be members of a human community. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health who specializes in the study of adolescents, describes the tablet’s ability to provide instant feedback as “particularly brain-friendly” — but, he says, “a lot of our brain activity is devoted to social interaction with other people, and an enormous amount of the change in the adolescent brain is about socialization. What if we’re inadvertently interfering with development in ways that will show up in 20 years in ways we didn’t expect?”
Then there’s a second compelling critic:
Sherry Turkle, an M.I.T. professor and a prominent Cassandra who writes about the unanticipated consequences of our immersion in electronic technology, described some aspects of tablets in the classroom to me as “the dystopian presented as the utopian.” She said, “We become smitten with the idea that there will be technological solutions to these knotty problems with education, but it happens over and over again that we stop talking to kids.” That’s the root of what she calls “the crisis in the ability to talk.” High-school teachers are already complaining, she said, that their students “are fixed on programs that give the right answer, and they’re losing the notion of talking and listening to each other, skills that middle school is supposed to teach.”

“There’s a reason they call them ‘discussion groups’ and not ‘conversations,’ ” Turkle said. “You learn how to broadcast, which is not the same thing as what you and I are doing now. Posting strong opinions isn’t a conversation.”
Do any of the technology stakeholders have a rebuttal? The only response to Turkle quoted here is Joel Klein’s: “This is an important issue, and she’s obviously an important mind at work.” Regarding concerns about screen time, he adds this: “I understand that; I have some of that same emotional response.” Rotella notes that:
His near-affectless delivery made it hard to tell whether he was dismissing, simply acknowledging or genuinely sympathizing with these points of view. He did go on to say that he wouldn’t put fourth graders in a MOOC — a massive open online course — and that he would exercise great restraint in introducing technology into a kindergarten classroom.  
But he wasn’t conceding much ground. “The world is living in this tech-driven experience,” he said. “Maybe we all should be concerned about it, but think about how empowering it’s been, and the notion that a device is going to make us less good at producing citizens runs counter to how democratizing this technology is.”
The concerns, in other words, continue, unaddressed. So does the lack of evidence. Here, again, is Rotella:
When I asked Klein, who routinely characterizes current debates about education as “ideological, not evidence-based,” what evidence supports spending tax dollars on educational technology, he boiled it down to three things. First and most important was the power of “customizing.” Plenty of research does indeed show that an individual student will learn more if you can tailor the curriculum to match her learning style, pace and interests; the tablet, he said, will help teachers do that. Second, educators have not taken full advantage of students’ enthusiasm for the gadgetry that constitutes “an important part of their experience.” Lastly, teachers feel overwhelmed; they “need tools,” Klein said, to meet ever-increasing demands to show that their students are making progress.
In short, there is no evidence.

Here’s my own take on things. Most of the supposed benefits of technology are either (1) already provided by good classroom teachers, or (2) aren’t actual benefits. Consider “in depth research”--one of the most-cited examples of how technology is supposed to help. The kind of research that technology enables, what I’ve called cut and paste research, is in fact about as shallow as research gets.

There are only two really good reasons to include computers/tablets in classrooms. One is to enhance writing skills; another is to teach programming skills. Ironically, as computers and tablets have proliferated, both of these skills have declined. That’s because, as even Joel Klein can’t help acknowledging, teachers trump technology:
“We’ve spent so much on things that haven’t worked,” he said, making a list that included underused computers as well as obsolete textbooks, useless layers of bureaucracy and smaller class sizes. “We should have spent that money on preparing higher-quality teachers.”  
“Take Finland,” Klein continued, citing everyone’s favorite example of a country that puts its money on excellent teachers, not technology, and routinely finishes at the top in international assessments. “There’s a high barrier for entry into the teaching profession,”
One reason why teachers trump technology is that learning requires regular, perspicuous feedback that goes beyond the binary “right or “wrong” to analyze errors and give appropriate clues. For all its bells and whistles and mounds of data, classroom technology still doesn’t provide this.

The worst thing about technology in the classroom is the way it has private companies feeding off the public trough. When people fret about the takeover of American schools by big business, they tend to conflate corporate welfare with for-profit schools. But imagine if Joel Klein, instead of talking credulous or corrupt superintendents into spending millions of dollars of other people’s money on non-evidence-based technologies, were running his own for-profit school. Would his spending priorities be the same? Who knows? What is clear, however, is that Klein would have something he doesn’t have currently: a huge incentive to make that school a success.

There are, in fact, some highly successful for-profit schools at there. Joanne Jacobs blogs about one here.  Corporate welfare, on the other hand, is the worst economic system known to humankind.


Auntie Ann said...

Form needs to follow function: technology needs to follow application.

Effective applications need to come first and prove that they are better than the alternatives (great teachers and lots of iterative practice.) After that, the platform is immaterial.

Anonymous said...

Any program that starts with a stupid name is suspect. I used to work for a high-tech company that wanted us to use the slogan "1+1=3" on powerpoint charts -- this is supposed to mean something like "synergy". But you can't get a roomful of engineers to write that out.

1:X -- what if X = 1, or 0? Why is this the same as "many" except because of functional illiteracy?

lgm said...

>>There are only two really good reasons to include computers/tablets in classrooms. One is to enhance writing skills; another is to teach programming skills. Ironically, as computers and tablets have proliferated, both of these skills have declined. That’s because, as even Joel Klein can’t help acknowledging, teachers trump technology....

Around here writing instruction is only given in honors sections.
Computer programming has been declared 'elitist' and cancelled, just like IB, honors math, honors science, Foreign Language IV and V, and other such classes that the 'wrong' students would like to have in their schedule.

Katharine Beals said...

Update on LA Superintendent Deasy: according to last week's Edweek, Deasy's previous employer was America's Choice, an education research company acquired by Pearson in 2010. Mr. Deason "angrily dismissed 'innuendos' that [this] had influenced the LAUSD's decision to select Pearson."

Edweek also reports that Mr. Deasy may resign this winter--presumably (in what is often yet another blow to the accountability of our school superintendents) with a nifty severance package.