Using Computers and Related Technologies in an Age of Standards

The Dish2According to Allan Collins, Professor Emeritus of the Learning Sciences, Northwestern University, in this “age of technology,” the very technology which consumes so many of us, has had little effect on mainstream education. As he pointed out in his book, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (library copy), which he wrote with Richard Halverson, schools spend a lot of money on technology, but this technology is on the periphery of learning, and has not really been used to help students learn. Indeed, we’ve spent so much on technology, that I remember a stunning visual experience visiting a science and technology center in a North Georgia school district.  I saw piles and piles of “old” computers stuffed into a closet taking up space, replaced with “newer” computers.  

The technologies that have emerged in society over the past 30 years (1984 – 2014) happen to emerge when the standards-based and high-stakes testing accountability model was put in place in the nation’s schools.  In 1984, when Apple released the Macintosh computer, it was essentially a stand alone machine that too many of us, did amazing things.

My colleagues and I have a long history using technology in teaching, especially computer and Internet-based technologies.  When we started connecting our classrooms to the Internet (c. 1990), and thus to each other, the technologies we used were primitive.  We had to rely on telephone lines, very slow modems, and not lightning fast computers.  We had lots of problems with the technology, but the major problems were not with technology.  The problem was how to use these technologies in schools, not only here in Georgia, but in other countries such as Russia, Spain, Australia, the Czech Republic and others.

But there is a side to technology that must be understood in the context of schools.  There are many who advocate technology as a way to not only make teaching more efficient, and cost-effective, but as a way to manage the implementation of a standards-based, high-stakes authoritarian accountability system.  Take for example tablet computing, in which every kid carries an iPad, Kindle Fire, Nook,  Chromebook, or Android tablet.  These are powerful tools that students can use to do a variety of things in school or at home.

The claim is that using tablets in classrooms will enhance learning and promote student-centered learning, exploration and research.  There is, however, little empirical evidence to support this.  Yet, for  some students, a tablet or a smart phone are ubiquitous.  So, for many educators, it only a question of when schools with provide tablets for each student.

Christopher D. Lehmann, founder and principal of Science Leadership Academy, was quoted in an Education Week article saying this:

Thousands of educators out there are trying to leverage these tools to let kids build, do, and create.   If the only thing we allow them to be is an evolution of ‘drill and kill,’ then the failure of our imagination would be great.

Strict adherence to the Common Standards without any flexibility for teachers to change, cut, or add standards will result in less imaginative ways to used technology, indeed to import new pedagogies that are more student-centered.

Simply putting tablets or any technology in the hands of students will not necessarily improve learning, or be an easy goal to carry out.

The problem is the authoritarian standards and test-based accountability system that keeps us entrenched in a pedagogy which can be simply explained as teaching for the test.

But there is more to it than pedagogy.  There is the reality that corporations have seen the potential for huge financial gains at the cost of students, their parents, and teachers.

Digital Oceans

The authoritarian accountability model that is implicit in a standards and traditional pedagogical approach is the perfect environment for “big data” and what Pearson refers to as Digital Data, Analytics and Adaptive Learning.  Mercedes Schneider posted on her blog today a Pearson report entitled Impacts of the Digital Ocean on Education.  As one of her readers commented that the report was chilling and dystopian.

When I first looked at the report, I thought I was reading a fictional story of what education might be in a futuristic world.  I imagined that each student in these futuristic schools would be connected to computer data systems by means of their use of all sorts of technology including computers, tablets, watches, and other devices.

In the scenario of learning sketched in digital ocean paper, students every move, and interaction can be monitored and data collected and stored on remote computers.

To the authors of the paper, the term “digital ocean” is the “vast amount of data that is available from interactions with digital tools.”  This vast amount of data can be used to create learner profiles which can be used to make predictions about learner performance based on statistical models.   According to the authors, these advanced models can be used to tell us about our student’s levels of skill.

This is very much like the thinking that is used to rationalize the use of the VAM (Value added model) statistical model used to decide a teacher’s level of skill.  As I’ve reported on this blog, VAM is not supported as a valid and reliable method to measure teacher effectiveness.  Are we opening the door to the same kind of thinking about students?

The authors of the digital ocean paper would say that they do have a way to do this.  For example, here is what they say about monitoring others:

This emerging digital ocean,2 when combined with appropriate analysis and standards for use, opens the door to new types of naturalistic observation and inference that could help us to understand and improve ourselves. When extended to education, we expect such changes to advance our learning and our stewardship of the learning of others. (DiCerbo. K. E. & Behrens, J. T. (2014) Impacts of the Digital Ocean, London: Pearson, Creative Commons Attribution)

In the late 1980s, a group of teachers and professors in Georgia organized reciprocal trips to the former states of the Soviet Union, and through those collaborative experiences, designed one of the first computer-based Networks of learning between the US and the USSR.  We used computers that were connected to a very primitive telecommunications network to bring students and teachers together to collaborate and work on common environmental problems.  We saw the telecommunications network as a way to foster cooperation and collaborate learning, and together created a program using these technologies known as the Global Thinking Project.  We saw computers and the Internet as a way to humanize education.  Other groups saw the same potential, they independently developed powerful communication networks that were bottom up experiences, not mandated top down edicts.  Some examples include iEarn,  Global Lab, Flatclassroom Projects, and ePals.  Each of these projects uses technology to humanize education by bringing people together to solve mutual problems, talk to each other, share information about their culture, and co-plan activities and experiences.

Education as depicted in the digital ocean paper, paints a different picture.  Clearly, there is little evidence of people to people interactions.  It’s more like people to computer interactions.  The student appears to be there to generate data which is used to program student behavior on future tasks and activities.  In this light, here is what the authors say:

Looking into the future digital ocean, we can imagine schools and individual learners harnessing ubiquitous and naturally generated data to support decisions about learning. In this emerging space, learners use a digital intelligent math tutor that records each step in a learner’s response to a question, the scoring of each task, hints requested, and resources used by the learner. Learning is personalised based on learners’ knowledge states and trajectories, and the creators of the systems improve them over time as data helps them to understand the processes of learning  (DiCerbo. K. E. & Behrens, J. T. (2014) Impacts of the Digital Ocean, London: Pearson, Creative Commons Attribution).

What picture of the classroom emerges for you when you think about how the authors depict student behavior.  Is it a classroom bursting with groups of students working together on creative projects?  Is it a classroom in which students work at their own pace as they sit at a computer and use commercial software, gaming, and activities to prepare for the next computer-based assessment?

While smartphones are the most common computing device available to individuals in some locations, in many portions of the educational community learners interact primarily through general computing devices such as laptop and desktop computers. In this context, sensors are embedded into software, which is typically the data collection and management interface for the user. When working with online software through a web browser, much of the operational management may occur remotely on computers that are centrally managed for software updating as well as data collection and analysis. In other words, the local computer shares information about an activity with a remote computer that gathers information from many local computers. This magnifies the scale of data collection, frees owners of local computers from having to update and re-install software, and may lower operation costs.  (DiCerbo. K. E. & Behrens, J. T. (2014) Impacts of the Digital Ocean, London: Pearson, Creative Commons Attribution).

Delivery of Instruction

Certainly one of the attributes of traditional pedagogy is the idea that teachers, texts, videos, computers and such are used to deliver instruction.  Instruction is delivered to the student through activities that are used to check and test student learning.  Student learning is determined primarily by paper and pencil tests.  Of course, most teachers know that this is not the only way to check or assess student learning.  But for the present argument, it is suffice.

There is a general learning cycle that describes the process of learning as depicted by the digital ocean authors.  It is shown in Figure 1.  With the use of computers and digital monitoring devices, it is possible to use “big” data bases to profile every student.

Figure 1. Digital Ocean Activity Cycle. DiCerbo. K. E. & Behrens, J. T. (2014) Impacts of the Digital Ocean, London: Pearson. Creative Commons Attribution

Figure 1. Digital Ocean Activity Cycle. DiCerbo. K. E. & Behrens, J. T. (2014) Impacts of the Digital Ocean, London: Pearson. Creative Commons Attribution

There is much to look at in the Digital Ocean paper.  In an age of standardization of schooling, one has to wonder about the implications for such a wired approach to learning in a classroom of students.  We’ll explore computers and technology in the age of standardization in future blog posts, but for now, what is your view of the use of computers in the age of standardization?



About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.