Instructional Technology: Villain of the Piece—Or Savior?

Cross-posted on Education Week

According to Andreas Schleicher, there is no evidence from the PISA data yet of a consistent relationship between the use of education technology and superior student performance. That, however, certainly does not mean that no such relationship will exist in the future, just that it hasn’t happened yet, at least not at the scale required to show up in the PISA surveys.

But that fact has not discouraged policy-makers in this country at all. Interest in the use of IT-related technologies in schools may be at an all-time high. Some of this interest is no doubt a function of the effects of the fiscal crisis, of policy-makers at every level looking for ways to save money. And that scares teachers, who look at some rather brute force proposals for the use of IT in schools as well as more sophisticated ones like those associated with the School-of One and its descendants and see a future in which more money will be spent on machines and software and less on them.

The argument for such proposals is that education is a last redoubt of a list of industries that, one by one, have been made vastly more productive by the use of these technologies, and it’s time has come. Surely, these folks, argue, we can find ways to improve productivity in education as we have in so many other industries. But productivity is a ratio, a representation of the relationship between inputs and outputs. You can improve productivity by reducing the input needed to produce any given output or by increasing the output that you get for any given input.

For me, this is the crux of the matter. Our challenge now is a productivity challenge. Our cost per student is greater than that of any other OECD country except Luxembourg. And the achievement of our students is in the middle of the PISA range. We are running the lowest productivity education system in the industrialized world. Our challenge, though, is not simply to reduce costs. If we reduce costs and fail to raise student performance to the world’s top levels, the result will be a steady drop in our standard of living. We have no choice but to find a way to raise the quality of our output to world-class levels. If we do that and make no change in the cost, we will have accomplished a desperately needed miracle. If we can find a way to do that and lower the cost at the same time, so much the better, but don’t count on it. My point here is that we can and should accept the proposition that it is very important to improve the productivity of American education, and we should also accept the proposition that IT-related technologies could contribute in an important way to that goal, but we need to be careful to use those technologies in a way that will increase student achievement while not increasing costs, and we should be deeply suspicious of proposals to use technologies in ways that will simply reduce costs, because doing that could actually make it harder to improve student performance, and if that happens, we will be worse off, not better off.

So, with that criterion in mind, let’s consider what types of technology use could advance our cause and which would not. I’ll begin by taking one whole realm of use off the table. Let’s just stipulate that using technology to collect, store, manage and distribute administrative data and data related to student learning to everyone who needs to have it is a good idea.

What is left, of course, is the use of IT-related technologies for teaching and learning, or if you prefer, for instruction and assessment. Several examples of ways in which these technologies could be used to improve student achievement are provided below, with commentary addressed to the conditions that would have to be present to make them effective, if, by “effective,” we mean effective enough to raise virtually all students to global standards of performance.

Using word processers to teach writing. “But,” you will say, “word processors don’t teach writing.” And you are right. They don’t. But, prior to word processors, the only way to substantially edit a story or essay done for a class, in response to a teacher’s comments, was literally to copy out the edited essay or story all over again by hand, and no teacher would ask that of a student. So it was not done. But, with word processors, it could not be easier–just hit the “print” key and out it comes. So teachers could get student drafts by e-mail, read them and comment on them online, and the students could rewrite them until they meet the standard, perhaps in several iterations. The only way people learn to write or to do any other craft is to do it over and over again under the supervision of an accomplished performer, getting better and better. Getting a grade and four or five words of comment from a teacher is no substitute for that. But, for this to happen, teachers of writing (fiction and non-fiction) would have to have more time to read and comment on what students write. Making good use of this incredibly powerful tool would require more teachers, not fewer teachers, and it would require having teachers who are themselves both good writers and good editors, not just in English classes but in history and other classes where the quality of student writing matters. I am not making an idle point here. The single biggest complaint from college teachers and employers is that high school graduates cannot write as well as they need to. More effective use of this most commonplace of technology tools could revolutionize the teaching of writing, but doing so would require a revolution in the way schools are organized and staffed.

Giving students access to the wealth of information on the Internet. This resource is famously copious and famously variable in quality and reliability. My point here is similar to the one made above. It takes a well-educated and very knowledgeable teacher to help a student who is seriously interested in consulting a range of sources to get a nuanced background in a subject. Here, too, to do this well will require more teachers and better educated teachers than would be necessary if the student, in responding to an assignment, is to go beyond the information presented in the textbook. More teachers because students will pursue different sources for the same topics and many students will pursue different topics. To be really helpful, teachers need to be prepared to help individual students with the topics they choose and the routes they decide on. We need better educated teachers because, once the query goes beyond the textbook, the teacher will be have to be able to guide the student in areas that require a much broader and often deeper range of knowledge than is represented by the text.

Giving students access to powerful modeling and simulation tools. Here we get to some of the most powerful tools that the computer can offer a student, a way to visualize and bring alive some of the most complex physical, biological, social and other systems known. Dynamic models and simulations make it possible for students to develop an intuitive feeling for the complex relationships involved in these ubiquitous systems, to make deliberate changes in the values of the variables and see instantly the results for other variables and to see the results in terms of things they can relate to. Mathematics, physics, biology, economics and social systems can come alive for a student in a way that has never been possible before. But these models and simulations are not teachers, in the didactic sense of that word. It takes a teacher with a very sophisticated grasp of his or her subject to help a student use these tools in a way that will go beyond the engaging to reach a much more advanced grasp of these subjects than has heretofore been possible in our classrooms. In this sense, these very powerful tools are much like the word processor in that their potential for student learning will only be realized when the curriculum has been changed in some fundamental ways to take advantage of them and the classes have been provided with very talented and highly knowledgeable teachers who themselves grasp the intricacies of the systems these tools are simulating.

Giving students access to some of the most talented teachers in the world. Much has been made recently of the potential of the videos provided by the Khan Academy. These straight-ahead lessons, taught in the most direct way by a really gifted teacher without any bells or whistles, a topic at a time, are indeed very impressive. Khan himself advocates the use of these videos, not to replace the classroom teacher, but to change the use made of the classroom teacher. The videos, he says, should be assigned as homework. When the students gather in class after watching the video, the teacher should be prepared to answer students’ questions, help them understand concepts and procedures they did not get when they viewed the video and diagnose and correct their misunderstandings. All of these elements are vital to understanding and making good use of the material on the video and all are things that the teacher on the video, no matter how talented, could not do. But consider what is really being said here. In the normal mode in the United States, the teacher teaches the class and the student goes home to work a set of problems assigned as homework. In this scenario, the students are being urged to watch the Kahn lesson at home then, presumably, the students will also be asked to work problems at home. The class time will presumably be used by the teacher to do formative evaluation, answer questions, correct misunderstandings, often working with individual students and small groups of students, having been freed of the obligation to do whole class instruction. The great promise of this design is that it holds the potential for getting many more students to high standards by providing a first class original presentation of the material, and by greatly increasing the time available for the teacher to provide highly individualized help to students with their questions and clear up their misunderstandings. But, once again, this promise will only be fulfilled if the teachers providing this kind of help are first class. That is true because only first class teachers have the skills to figure out what is wrong, to diagnose the misunderstandings that are blocking the student’s path to success, and to manage a class in a way that will enable everyone to be engaged when that teacher is working with one or a few students at a time.

Using the technologies of natural language processing and artificial intelligence, in combination with other technologies to provide automated, accurate and timely assessments of student progress. Much has been made recently of computers to do everything just enumerated. Indeed, the work of the two state assessment consortia presumes that these technologies can be made to work as advertised. I am doubtful that this nirvana will be achieved anytime soon. These technologies depend on computers following certain rules. The rules are based on decisions made by experts and on the rather ingenious work on which natural language processing is based. My own analysis suggests that these technologies are likely to do as good or better job of analyzing student writing as the bottom half of the teacher corps, which will without doubt improve the outcome for many students who are taught by those teachers. But they are likely to give the work of future Dylan Thomas’s and William Faulkner’s a failing grade. Which is to say that they are likely to create an assessment environment that will bring up the low and lower the high. The highly automated testing environments that are now highly desired in the United States have been rejected, at least so far, by most of the top-performing countries because the policy makers in those countries do not believe that they can accurately measure the qualities of complex thinking, creativity and innovation that those countries now most prize. They may change their minds in time, and I with them, but I believe that their skepticism is highly justified right now and for the foreseeable future.

I’m sure that, by now, you get the drift of my argument. I think the IT-based technologies have enormous potential, not for lowering the cost of education, but for increasing its productivity by enabling us to get much more for the money we are now spending. But we will only realize that potential by investing at the same time in greatly improving the quality of our teachers and enabling them to take advantage of these technologies by creating a very different kind of curriculum, organizing the school differently and redesigning the whole process of instruction. That will only happen if we do what is necessary to create a true profession of teaching and then trust those professional teachers to make the most of these remarkable resources.