Tucker’s Lens: Technology in the Classroom: Savior or Bust?

by Marc Tucker

Educational technology is once again in the news. The OECD is out with a new report showing that heavy investments in classroom computers have not improved student achievement in the dozens of countries studied. This report should come as no surprise, given the history of classroom technologies.

8mmfilmFifty years ago, in 1965, I was doing some research on earlier attempts to apply what were then the most advanced technologies to education. I came across testimony delivered to the United States Congress by the leading experts in the 1950s. They were extolling the virtues of 16- and 8-millimeter film.

These technologies, they said, had the potential to revolutionize instruction in our schools. Film could be used to put the nation’s very best teachers in front of every student. Advanced production techniques could be used to create films that brought history to life in movies made for schools, clearly show the principles of fluid dynamics at work and illustrate all kinds of other phenomena far better than the best textbooks. With such resources available, ordinary teachers would no longer have to simply deliver unadorned lectures, but could instead provide powerful visualizations of all sort of phenomena and, at the same time, meet the needs of individual children and small groups in a way that had never before been possible.

Film had been the great hope of the 50s. I was doing this research because I had been tasked with leading a project to exploit the potential of other technologies, including microwave communications, cable and television. Like film, it was said, TV could be used to bring the world’s best teachers to every student in America at very little cost. Like film, television could bring history alive in dramatic recreations, present scientific phenomena with a clarity and vividness that no classroom teacher could otherwise achieve. All sorts of wonders could be presented with an immediacy that teachers could not otherwise access in any other way. Combined with microwave, telephone and cable communications, the advocates said, television would become interactive, with teachers and students at remote locations interacting synchronously and asynchronously just as if they were in same room together, thus making great teachers available to remote rural schools. TV presenters could integrate slide presentations into their lectures. They could do the same with short films or tapes. Cable and microwave would make it possible to exchange print and visual documents easily, while the class was going on and it would be possible for students to access those documents at other times, too.

Only the schools, the Congress was told, had been largely unaffected by the communications revolution that had impacted every other sphere of our lives.

Put to good use in our schools, these technologies would revolutionize education and bring it into into the 20th century.

But the combination of film, TV, microwave and phone technologies fell far short of the dreams their advocates had for them. Some teachers wheeled the projectors into their classrooms, drew down the window shades and turned the lights off while their students watched a movie, often to give themselves a much-needed break. But the films available were rarely as good as the advocates had hoped for and even more rarely were they designed to fit with and support the curriculum the teacher was supposed to teach, much less present material that would be on the test at the end of the semester.

ClassroomMovieThe films turned out to be mainly diversions. The endless stream of instructional television programs produced by educational television stations to supplement their otherwise meager income did not star brilliant teachers or embody brilliant production values. They starred ordinary teachers trying to earn a little extra income and they were typically appallingly dull and boring. What little interaction there was was perfunctory and awkward. The classroom teachers who used the new resources that were designed to supplement and enhance their teaching did not stop lecturing, nor did they stop relying heavily on the textbook to guide them and their students through their courses. That is not because, as is often charged, they were resistant to change. It was because these new resources could not easily be used to supplement and enhance the curriculum they were supposed to teach. Indeed, they typically took time away from that curriculum.

Years later, in the early 1980s, I was given a grant by Carnegie Corporation of New York to investigate the potential of an exciting new technology—the personal computer—for improving instruction in American schools and colleges. I threw myself into the task. I read through the literature and talked with the leading experts on artificial intelligence and natural language processing. I met with the producers of the most celebrated instructional software. I visited with classrooms in which the new machines were being used and talked with the students about the new technology. I hung out in the new computer stores and talked with the young executives who were buying the new machines for themselves and badgering school districts to use them in the schools. I talked with middle school math teachers who were teaching eager students to program in PASCAL and BASIC. I was asked by the Educational Testing Service on behalf of the National Assessment of Educational Progress to serve as the chair of their new committee charged with assessing the computer competence of American students. I was asked to join Apple Computer’s national advisory committee in instructional technology and was, to my stupefaction, described by the New York Times as one of the nation’s leading experts on the new educational technologies, which I most certainly was not.

Every claim that had been made for the future of film, microwave communications, TV, cable and related technologies was now being made for personal computers, and many more. But what I actually saw happening was very sobering. Much of it mirrored what I had learned earlier.

FinnishComputerStudentsEven then, at a relatively primitive stage of the new technology’s development, brilliant people were writing software that was actually quite exciting. New computer simulations of all kinds of dynamic systems made it possible for students to grasp, for example, the way the complex variables of cities’ physical and social systems worked in a way that was totally involving for the students. The new computer language LOGO, invented by the brilliant MIT mathematician Seymour Papert, made it possible for young students to not simply learn how to apply the standard algorithms of arithmetic to the kinds of standard problems found in the standard workbook, but engaged students in an exploration of the underlying concepts that enabled them to build a solid foundation for the study of advanced mathematics and for engineering and robotics. Another early set of software programs enabled students to literally see the mathematics in the ordinary world, by visually analyzing, for example, the geometric patterns traced by a bicycle wheel as the bike was being ridden. These were genuine advances in educational technology that far surpassed anything that had yet been done with the earlier technologies.

But the problems I had seen earlier had not gone away. The tests the students would take would not require students to understand the mathematical concepts underlying arithmetic. Nothing in the approved curriculum required students to understand the workings of complex dynamic systems like cities. It was not clear that the teachers understood the mathematical concepts underlying arithmetic nor was it clear that they understood the complex dynamics explaining why cities work the way they do. No one had asked the teachers to learn these things. There was a lot of talk about teaching the teachers to learn the new technology, but there was no talk about what it might mean to provide teachers with a rationale for teaching things they themselves did not understand about the subject matter or for teaching things that were not in the curriculum they were responsible for teaching. Nor was there any talk of them teaching material that was not in the textbook they were using, that was not going to be on the tests the students were going to take or on the exams they might have to take to get into college or to qualify for their first job.

As the years went by, the United States Department of Education would produce reports from time to time on the uses to which personal computers were being put in the schools. These reports said the same thing year after year. First, the United States was biggest user of computers in the schools in the world. Second, the principal uses to which the new machines were put were drill and practice in the basic skills, the teaching of programming and the collection and analysis of school and student data.

To me, these reports spelled out the death knell of school computing. All of these uses were marginal with respect to the impact on instruction, the area in which the advocates had predicted the biggest and most important impact. Once again, the experts complained bitterly about resistance to change and predicted that market pressures on the schools were sure to produce a breakthrough.

But resistance to change, in my view, was no more a problem than it had been earlier, with other technologies. Using the real potential of these technologies well and wisely would require teachers with a deep understanding of the underlying concepts of the subjects they teach and the freedom to build curricula based on that understanding. It would require that the system place a very high priority on the students’ understanding of far more complex phenomena and skills than had been expected from most students in the entire history of public education in the United States. It would require an enormous investment in curriculum and materials development for the schools that no one had been willing to make because there was no demand for materials that would help students understand complex topics that were not on the new state accountability tests.

Students using iPadsOur education systems are themselves dynamic systems. The real potential of personal computing for education lies in its ability to create environments in which students can get access to resources for learning no earlier generation has ever dreamed of having as well as access to tools for evaluating, analyzing and synthesizing information that are unprecedented in their power and reach. But taking advantage of that potential in our schools will require changing our mind about what we want our young people to achieve in school and how we want them to learn what we want them to learn. Fully unlocking the potential of these technologies will require reconceiving school. More than anything else, it will require first-rate teachers, people whose own understanding of the subjects they teach is subtle and deep and whose ability to guide, coach and stretch their students is up to the task.

No nation I know of has yet taken up that challenge, though some are far ahead of the United States in making the kind of investment in its teachers that is the essential prerequisite of a sound investment in education technology of the sort I have described.

So the latest news from the OECD in Paris should not surprise us. Andreas Schleicher, in an article in the BBC News tells us that the data available to the OECD from PISA and other sources shows no correlation between investment in technology and student achievement.

That ought to sober us up, but it won’t. What I am saying is that we won’t see a big payoff from technology unless we make big investments in teacher quality, change our standards for student performance, make the right sort of investments in curriculum development, change the way we do testing and examinations, and integrate all this with the right sort of investments in technology. This is a systems problem and it won’t be solved until we get the system right. Some nations will say, “too hard,” and others will go to work on it. We’ll see what happens.