A Lesson from Kyrene: Technology Alone Is Not the Answer

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

Test results for reading and math from the Kyrene School District in Arizona seem to prove that pouring millions of dollars of technology into traditional classrooms may be a waste of money. According to Matt Richtel,* in the last six years the district, “which serves 18,000 kindergarten to eighth-grade students, mostly from the cities of Tempe, Phoenix and Chandler,” has invested $33 million in “technology-centric” classrooms. In a few months, the district will be asking voters to approve “$46.3 million more in taxes over seven years” to continue this program.

If people are surprised, they shouldn’t be. In the photo that accompanies Richtel’s article, we see students in a traditional classroom, lined up in rows and sitting before notebook computers. A large screen at the front of the room projects a page that is apparently on the teacher’s notebook. All appear to be on the same page. This was held up “as a model of [successful innovation] by the National School Boards Association, which in 2008 organized a visit by 100 educators from 17 states.”

However, “as statewide scores have risen,” says Richtel, “the scores in Kyrene have “stagnated.” He concludes, and I have to agree, “The push for technology is to the benefit of one group: technology companies.”

As we view the photo, we have to ask ourselves, What’s wrong with this picture?

The crux of the problem is we forget that a classroom is a form of technology, too. Thus, we have a case in which a newer technology (computers with internet access) is embedded in an older technology (classroom). This inlay is incompatible and cripples the impact of the new technology. It’s like placing a 21st century sedan on a 19th century road and wondering why a horse-drawn carriage fares better.

For the 19th century classroom, perhaps the best technology is the 19th century lecture and hardcopy textbook. The point is that the latest technology, confined to a classroom, is like a Pratt & Whitney F100 turbofan jet engine in a 1965 Volkswagen beetle chassis. If the beetle doesn’t fly, no one’s surprised.

What is the lesson for the Kyrene School District? It’s actually quite simple. As form should follow function, pedagogy should match environment. Thus, don’t spend millions on technology that simply replicates traditional approaches in the F2F classroom. Teachers lecturing with interactive whiteboards and students reading via iPads, by themselves, won’t produce better test scores.

The new technology invites innovative pedagogy. However, limiting the field for that innovation to the classroom is counterintuitive. The question is, How do we get teachers and students to think outside the classroom box in their use of technology?

In the 21st century, we really need to begin to think of the classroom as but one of many available learning and teaching technologies. Since students and teacher are together, in the same place at the same time, they should probably focus on activities that are dependent on in-person interactions. Other activities such as reading, writing, computing, researching, listening to lectures, and doing exercises could then be done independently outside of class with online technology at a time and place determined by each student or small groups of students. Discussions, for the most part, can be managed online in asynchronous forums; however, those that rely heavily on F2F (face-to-face) interaction could be relegated to the classroom.

Teachers can be creative, but they need encouragement and support for sustainable innovations. Not necessarily in the form of better pay, but (1) more freedom to determine how and when to use some of the latest online technology that they’re independently exploring, discovering, and using, (2) more resources to implement those technologies in their own online learning and teaching environments, and (3) more non-instructional time to develop, prepare, and manage these new environments.

When we consider that the power of the new technology is in anywhere-anytime learning, we have to question the millions we spend on the time- and place-bound environment of the classroom. When the world can be — and is — our learning environment, why remain within the confines of an outdated environment?
__________
* “Classroom Is Futuristic; Test Scores Are Stagnant,” Bendbulletin, 5 Sep. 2011.

23 Responses

  1. “Thus, don’t spend millions on technology that simply replicates traditional approaches in the F2F classroom” Amen to that brother!

    New technology should not cement old, failing practices but open up new vistas for learning. I believe that new technologies that have a chance of success have been developed for education or at least substantially adapted to it and not simply brought into the classroom from the corporation or game developer.

    “…(1) more freedom to determine how and when to use some of the latest online technology that they’re independently exploring, discovering, and using, (2) more resources to implement those technologies in their own online learning and teaching environments, and (3) more non-instructional time to develop, prepare, and manage these new environments.”

    I have a contrary view of these ideas, at least for K-12 instruction. The first assumes that teachers are good at exploring and evaluating new technologies when our experience tells us just the opposite. Most teachers are most likely to adopt technologies that support their current instructional models, not help to build new ones.

    I’m not sure how we get teachers more resources to implement technologies (especially these days) and will pass this item by with a neutral opinion.

    I am of the opinion that new technologies for education should not require lots and lots of non-instructional time to develop, etc. The technology should be easy to use for teachers and supported heavily by those creating it. If a teacher cannot “get” the new technology in less than an hour, preferably in 15 minutes, then there’s something wrong with the technology for this environment.

    New instructional technologies will not take root unless they alleviate current pain and do so will very little pain, preferably with pleasure. Furthermore, the best ones will alleviate not just teacher pain but student pain as well. Making teachers happy won’t work unless students learn more with less effort.

    Oh, and by the way, the whole concept of technology is NASA’a motto: better, faster, cheaper. Otherwise, why bother?

    • Harry, thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      Your assumption that teachers are poor “at exploring and evaluating new technologies” fails to take into account the wide range of technology that they use on a daily basis for personal as well as professional purposes. Teachers, like the vast majority of other professionals, are becoming increasingly tech savvy, and nearly all the educators that I know routinely explore, evaluate, select, and use many of the latest technologies on their own. It’s not just the younger ones who are entering the professions. The veterans, too, have come up to speed and in many instances lead the trend.

      Re your comment: “Most teachers are most likely to adopt technologies that support their current instructional models, not help to build new ones” — This is true for the vast majority of people, not just teachers. Most of us “use” technologies. We don’t build them from scratch. For example, we use cars, computers, applications, social networks, etc. as tools. We don’t build these tools.

      Re your comment: “I’m not sure how we get teachers more resources to implement technologies (especially these days) and will pass this item by with a neutral opinion” — I thought the implication in my article was clear: we take the money that’s being spent on questionable practices and apply them to better ones.

      Re your comment: “I am of the opinion that new technologies for education should not require lots and lots of non-instructional time to develop, etc.” — I’m not sure what you mean by “lots and lots.” I’d say the equivalent of an hour a day would be minimum. Online instruction requires a tremendous amount of prep time.

      Re your comment: “The technology should be easy to use for teachers and supported heavily by those creating it. If a teacher cannot ‘get’ the new technology in less than an hour, preferably in 15 minutes, then there’s something wrong with the technology for this environment” — Everyone can “get” the technology in 30 minutes or less, but it takes weeks, months, and years to master it. In fact, after several years, I’m still learning to improve my blogging skills. At the beginning, I was able to start a blog and post in less than 15 minutes, but refining all the different skills involved will probably take a lifetime. Ease of use should not be mistaken for mastery of the art.

      Re your comment: “New instructional technologies will not take root unless they alleviate current pain and do so will very little pain, preferably with pleasure. Furthermore, the best ones will alleviate not just teacher pain but student pain as well. Making teachers happy won’t work unless students learn more with less effort. Oh, and by the way, the whole concept of technology is NASA’s motto: better, faster, cheaper. Otherwise, why bother?” — Good point. Dewey says the same. Seems to be common sense. If it makes life harder, why use it? But the ease doesn’t come without a price. Technology is a tool, and all tools require learning. The greater the payoff in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, they greater the willingness to endure learning pains.

  2. Hi Jim,

    By coincidence, Joel Josephson also started a discussion on Matt Richtel’s article yesterday on the Facebook EU_Educators page yesterday. However he linked to the New York Times’ original version (for mobile devices), Technology in Schools Faces Questions on Value (Sep. 4, 2011).

    Apart from the titles (which the author may or may not have been consulted about), there are other notable differences between these two versions. The original NYT article is longer and more nuanced than the Bendbulletin version.

    And the pictures are quite different too. In the NYT one, 4 young kids are using an interactive whiteboard for some collaborative task, and seem to be enjoying that. Whereas in the Bentbulletin picture you discuss, “students use laptops to take their final exam”, as the caption explains. This is the reason why “All appear to be on the same page”, as you say, but it is not the reason why “the district’s use of technology [...] is upheld as a model of success by the National School Boards Association”: the NYT picture illustrates that much better.

    It would be great to use these two versions of Richtel’s article for a media criticism activity. Students might discuss the ethics of the Bentbulledin editors’ choice of an irrelevant picture to ridicule the approval of the Kyrene school model, while covering themselves by adding a caption they could safely surmise most readers wouldn’t read, unless they had seen the original version of the article.

    • Claude, you’ve missed the point of my article. Also, I clearly indicate the article that I’m responding to. (I’m not referring to the version that you mention.) Finally, the photo is from a classroom in the district, and the NSBA award is for the district. Again, you cite a photo that I’m not referring to. Criticism, to be fair, should be aimed at what is actually said — not at what is not said or should be said.

      • I was not criticizing your post, Jim, but the way your secondary source edited the original article, in particular the picture they chose. Sorry if this was not clear.

  3. Could you be more specific about how “pedagogy should match environment” and what “activities that are dependent on in-person interactions” are you thinking of?

    Thanks.

    • Hi, acrv. Thanks for the questions.

      Re “pedagogy should match environment” — here’s an analogy: To train swimmers for a 2.5 mile roughwater race, an appropriate environment is the ocean and the best is the actual course. A bathtub wouldn’t do. The classroom is, at once, an environment, a medium, and a technology. McLuhan says “the medium is the message,” and by that he means that it is made up of variables that impact the participants. The traditional classroom, as a medium, sends a message to all those within. And that message is different from the one sent by a virtual classroom.

      When we embed an advanced technology in an older technology, the message from the former is squelched by the latter. It’s like giving a Neanderthal an electric lamp for a cave without electricity or electircal outlets. In this environment, a wood-burning fireplace may be the best matching tech.

      Re “activities that are dependent on in-person interactions” — this is a tough question for me because I believe that most if not all F2F activities can be moved online. However, in the lower K-8 grades, physical interactions in groups may be critical. They may be controlled or free: dancing, singing, playing physical games, acting, etc. In the upper grades, they may include organized athletics, band, chorus, team projects, etc.

      • Thank you so much for the answers. I appreciate your highly suggestive comparisons (it was an aesthetic pleasure as well).

        Although, as it concerns the first question, you didn’t add something new to what you wrote in the article, I could understand now that you are advocating a virtual learning for all activities that can be made online – that’s make sense. Of course, many people on the planet can’t afford virtual learning, even technologically developed countries are not so far as you could expect with the implementation. But you are perfectly right when you point to the mismatch between online oriented tools and the traditional classroom (no matter how ‘modern’ is its design) – It is a halfway investment, and your merit is to put things in a radical perspective.

      • Hi, acrv. Here are my responses to some of your comments:

        acrv: “I could understand now that you are advocating a virtual learning for all activities that can be made online”

        Not exactly. What I am advocating is to give technology a fair shot at making a difference in achievement. Hogtying it in an outworn environment such as a classroom isn’t exactly a fair shot.

        acrv: “Of course, many people on the planet can’t afford virtual learning, even technologically developed countries are not so far as you could expect with the implementation.”

        But this is what the technological revolution is all about. It’s putting the power of learning, teaching, publishing in the hands of the world’s poor and forgotten. Please see Stefanie Panke’s latest article A Student’s View of an Open University: An Interview with Billy Sichone (9.6.11). Sichone isn’t exactly poor or forgotten, but he can serve as an example of the educational reach and power of technology.

        acrv: “But you are perfectly right when you point to the mismatch between online oriented tools and the traditional classroom (no matter how ‘modern’ is its design) – It is a halfway investment, and your merit is to put things in a radical perspective.”

        I like your term, “a halfway investment” — it captures the intent of the article. If a school or college is going to invest millions in technology, it shouldn’t do so with half-way measures. Open it up to see what it can really do. Go all the way in implementing it — not just half-way. Turning to an analogy once more: if you really want to see how much better your new car is, then don’t just drive it around in the parking lot. Take it out on the streets and freeways to see how it handles.

        By the same token, if you have technology that can spring the student from the time- and place-bound classroom learning environment to the global anytime-anywhere learning environment, then let it happen and see what the technology can really do.

  4. Yes, tools can take time to master. Some take more than others. Blogging may be an unfair, or at least extreme, example.

    The best tools can be learned quickly, and mastering them is often a matter of definition. After all, what is mastery? It’s a different standard to different people and with different tools.

    To pick a rather poor example, math drill software should not require any mastery at all.

    Could it be that mastery is more difficult for tools not intended for education such as blogs? Should it be that mastery of technology specifically designed for education will be easier? My own limited sampling suggests so for the simple reason that such tools assume limited technology literacy by teachers and limited patience for students.

    • Claude Almansi, on September 5, 2011 at 8:13 pm said: “I was not criticizing your post, Jim, but the way your secondary source edited the original article, in particular the picture they chose. Sorry if this was not clear.”

      I’m not sure how you’re using “secondary source,” but if you mean that this article has been corrupted by an editor and is not what Richtel originally wrote, then you’ll have to provide proof. The byline is clearly Richtel.

      • “Secondary” does not mean “corrupted”, Jim. Richtel’s complete article was published on Sept. 3 (Sept.4 for the mobile version I mentioned above) by the NYT , while the Bentbulletin shorter version is dated Sept. 5. So in this sense the Bentbulletin version is a secondary version of the longer NYT original. That’s all, no judgment value implied in “secondary”.

      • Claude: “‘Secondary’ does not mean ‘corrupted’ . . . . That’s all, no judgment value implied in ‘secondary.'”

        Claude, you either don’t remember what you’re saying or are arguing for the sake of arguing. Earlier, you said, “I was not criticizing your post, Jim, but the way your secondary source edited the original article.” You’re saying that some unknown editor corrupted Richtel’s original article.

        This argument that we’re having is distracting and I ask that you cease and pursue issues that are relevant to the article that I’ve published. If you have some other point to make that’s not directly related to the article, then please submit an article of your own.

    • Harry, blogs are a common and powerful tool that’s being used by many educators and students for personal and academic activities. They are simple to create and use, yet they are infinitely leverageable.

      Re our discussion on “tools” — the context is teaching and learning in schools and colleges. Your point, as far as I can tell, is that teachers are incapable of determining their instructional value and incapable of using them on their own. My point is that teachers are more than capable and are already doing it.

      What are these “tools”? They are countless. We cover many of them here in ETCJ: blogs, twitter, facebook, diigo, cloud apps, skype, cartooning apps, search engines, translation and subtitling apps, wikis, LMSs, email, listservs, open courses, MOOCs, youtube, video and photo editing, word processing, spreadsheets, music players, taking and using digital photos and videos, using online libraries, and databases, using video services such as netflix, elluminate live, second life, ebooks, ipads, iphones, itunes, etc. No one teacher is a master of all, but the vast majority are adept at some or most of these. And given the necessary encouragement and support, they could find ways to incorporate them into online teaching and learning activities.

      Re “mastery” — I brought this term up in response to your comment that anyone should be able to use an app in 15 minutes. I agreed, but I qualified my agreement with the statement that we need to distinguish between mere “use” and “mastery.” My point is that anyone can learn to use a tool quickly, but being able to use it well (mastery) may take a lifetime. Obviously, I didn’t mean a simple math drilling program. However, learning how to incorporate simple drills into a dynamic curriculum may be much more complex and may require mastery of a higher order.

  5. Again via the discussion on Richtel’s article: Stagnant Future, Standard Tests: Pointed Response to NY Times “Grading the Digital School”” where Cathy N. Davidson reviews Richtel’s article, and advocates the development of new testing modes adapted to the digital age. Excerpt:

    Matt Richtel’s panoramic essay, “In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores.” weighs in this morning on the topic of “Grading the Digital School.” I found myself cheering and jeering alternately throughout this piece. Why? Because it so quickly confuses “standards” with “standardized test scores” and technology put into classrooms with “preparing kids for a digital future (actually, the digital present: it’s here, it’s now, like it or not). These confusions are so pervasive in our culture and so urgent that I want to take a moment to focus on them. (…)
    The article begins with a description of an inventive, imaginative, engaging assignment by seventh-grade teacher Amy Furman who teaches her kids “As You Like It” with all manner not just of technology but of interactivity. The kids are co-creating, (…) they are understanding together, they are making connections to their own contemporary culture (Kanye!), and they are doing exactly what seventh-grade kids should be doing for true learning to be happening: they are understanding a complex text and making sense of it within the context of their own lives. (…)
    It is not the test scores that are stagnant. It is the tests themselves. We need a better, more interactive, more comprehensive, and accurate way of testing how kids think, how they learn, how they create, how the browse the Web and find knowledge, how they synthesize it and apply it to the world they live in. As long as we measure great teaching such as Ms. Furman’s by a metric invented for our great grandparents, we give kids not just the limited options of A, B, C, and D in a world where they can Google anything, anytime. Worse, we are telling them that, in the world of the future, the skills they need, they will have to learn on their own. For, after all, they are not on the test. …

    • I fail to see what your point is, Claude. What does this long quote have to do with my article?

      • Both your post and Davidson’s are reviews of the same article by Richtel. While your take is that what is at fault is an outdated and inappropriate implementation of tech in Kyrene schools, hers is that the problem lies in an outdated assessment of an inventive, uptodate and efficient implementation of tech. So it seemed interesting to have both takes.

      • Thanks for the clarification, Claude.

        Re your comment that I’m blaming Kyrene’s “outdated and inappropriate implementation of tech” — that’s only vaguely accurate. I’m very specific in my article: Kyrene’s emphasis is on “technology-centric” classrooms, and my point is that the real power of online technology can’t be realized in the confines of classrooms. Thus, to say that technology is failing the Kyrene students is unfair.

        Re Davidson’s article: I haven’t read it. I would have commented on the evaluation methods, too, if that were a problem, but there was little to go on in the article, which doesn’t provide specifics on the evaluation methodology.

  6. [...] A Lesson from Kyrene: Technology Alone Is Not the Answer [...]

  7. [...] caso va segnalato un interessante intervento di Jan Shimabukuro in ETC Journal. In sintesi , la sua posizione è che il risultato del non miglioramento delle [...]

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