Effective Learning Requires More than Cheap Technology

lick80By Dale W. Lick
Guest Author

As David Lebow and others explain, $10 computers could have a major influence on the advancement of learning, but it takes more than cheap computers to turn around learning systems that have been ingrained in our education systems, culture, and practitioners for many decades.

The national report, Education Counts 2007, gives us a snapshot of this situation: . . . few states have put in place policies to ensure that teachers and students can make constructive use of that technology.” With so much powerful technology available and with such a comprehensive integration of it into education, why have we enjoyed so little success in using technology to substantially improve learning processes?

The effective use of technology to improve learning processes turns out to be a far greater “change problem” than most leaders and practitioners appreciate and one that is inconsistent with the rigid and powerful cultural aspects (i.e., assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors) of education. Among the key reasons for this limited success are (a) the all too common “cultural paralysis” in education, (b) the lack of adequate transformational leadership for providing the necessary “learning vision,” “change sponsorship,” and relevant “circumstances and rewards,” and (c) few proactive professional faculty development programs that meaningfully prepare faculty change methods, “change creation,” that provide approaches for long-term improvement.

dale_feb13Culture. The single most important factor for why there has been only limited success in effectively applying technology meaningfully in education is the culture, including professional,  organizational, educational and people aspects of the culture!  It truly is the “elephant in the room” relative to effectively transforming learning and educational practices. Daryl Conner in Managing at the Speed of Change (1993, p. 176) relates that whenever a discrepancy (inconsistency) exists between the current culture and the goals of a change project, without serious intervention, the culture always wins. This is cultural paralysis: the very culture that gives education its great stability also stands in the way, potentially inhibiting major progress in new directions. To effectively align an organization’s culture with a decision to change often requires developing assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors that are consistent with the new desired outcome, a culture shift.

Transformational Leadership. Traditional leadership and management are important elements in creating the future, but not adequate! What is required is transformational leadership. Transformational leaders are distinguished by their ability to bring about meaningful innovation, successful change and transformation, and broad-based effectiveness. Transformational leaders:

  • See the big picture, create shared values and vision, and empower and inspire others in the organization
  • Serve as an institutional model by respecting others’ ideas and skills and developing trust and integrity
  • Are committed to learning, sharing, and relearning by all
  • Understand the essentials of change, share them broadly, and execute them effectively
  • Develop sharing and relationships, team building and synergy, and learning communities across the institution
  • Create an environment that nurtures excellence, risk taking, and creativity
  • Provide fair and balanced reward and incentive systems

Faculty Development. The “rubber meets the road” with the faculty! Either they make it happen or it just doesn’t happen. To have successful outcomes from the application of new learning and technology systems in education, the faculty must be engaged, prepared, lick_feb13supported, rewarded, and committed beyond their normal roles. This has just not happened in most faculty development efforts in educational institutions and programs, and reflects a major reason as to why we have been so ineffective in the meaningful integration of technology into education.

Although technology has been helpful in numerous ways in education, our success in improving student learning and increasing productivity has been at best spotty and, in general, limited. The culture and other unique characteristics of education have been far more difficult to overcome than initially expected and will require much deeper understandings of  learning research and a far greater appreciation of genuine change principles than present commitments have shown.

3 Responses

  1. While I am not happy about what is happening to higher education budgets, especially here in Arizona, it does seem to me that “cultural paralysis” as Dale calls it might yield to drastic budget cuts. Innovation won’t be sought, but it might be necessary for those who are hanging on in academia (and keeping to the old models of knowledge delivery). It may be the incentive toward change that will mean keeping their jobs.

    I personally have almost no expectation of being hired as an adjunct when every vulnerable contract worker is being cut. I have been told by one of my departments, however, that online courses will be a possibility. Why? Because students have to pay separately for online courses—it is not included in their tuition.

    Knowing this possibility (for much longer than it has been announced,I have been teaching my face-to-face classes as hybrids. I will have the resources, the forum discussions, the exercises and exams ready for an online class. The benefit to me has been that each time I use the hybrid method of course delivery, my student evaluations improve. The benefit to the students is flexibility in their schedule (Friday discussions are online, not face-to-face) and a leap in their willingness to take control of their own education. In this week’s online discussion, they are doing exam preparation for their first exam on Monday. I have listed the topics that will be covered in the exam. They post questions. Every one asks one question and answers two for credit points. In two of my four discussion groups, I almost feel like giving the exam is redundant. They are engaged and covering the material with a minimum of direction from me. One group is requiring more direction from me to focus their questions on the relevant material. Another group is wandering in the wilderness.

    At the end of each of two days before the exam, I post really good questions and answers in a general forum for everyone to read. This way my 55 students in the Women and the Law class are all getting personal attention—from me and from fellow students. Before this experiment, an exam review would have consisted of me standing in front of a room of students for 50 minutes trying to answer their questions. This serves them far better, I believe.

  2. Judith,

    You have 55 students in one class, and give them a great deal of personal attention.

    How many students might you have if you had a full teaching load?

    Could you give them all this kind of attention?

    Is one of the reasons teachers resist online education the difficulty–perhaps impossibility–of reconciling the load and the personal attention?

  3. The barriers to adopting new technology in education you mention are accurate. I see them all of the time. The other half of the equation must not be ignored.

    Much technology does not improve education. In science, probeware has been touted for quite a long time, and several companies make good income from it. Yet, studies have shown no improvement in science learning compared to having science labs without it. That result makes sense to me, but the reasons are not relevant here.

    The barriers you mention become strengthened every time a new technology fails, every time some new software program becomes “shelfware.”

    I wish I had a good answer to overcoming the barriers. I have found the following in science education.

    1. Foreign-trained teachers are less resistant to technology. I’m not sure what it is about teachers schooled in the U.S. Fewer of them readily embrace technology than their immigrant counterparts.

    2. New teachers are more likely to accept technology. They are more familiar with it, and they face enormous classroom challenges as they begin their teaching careers. They often reach for technological solutions.

    3. We do demonstrations and presentations to schools fairly often. In a room of ten to twenty teachers, a few pay close attention, several note what we’re presenting, some are grading papers or performing other unrelated tasks, and a couple are completely unconnected with what’s going on. Maybe these last didn’t get any sleep the previous night. It’s clear that the majority don’t feel the pain and so have no incentive to change.

    4. The budget amount per science lab per student has been decreasing in recent years. Now, with the economy in crisis, I expect that the changes will be drastic. Finding a way to keep up education quality will require change. Perhaps, the pain will be severe enough to force change. I just wish the pain didn’t have to be so pervasive to get education to change.

    5. Despite the idea that charter schools would be the forge of change, it’s online schools that have paved the way. Ideas created for online education are finding their way back into classrooms as “blended” instruction. As online education becomes more common than the current 1-2%, the pressure to use its ideas in regular schools will also rise and overcome the barriers to change.

    Revolution requires pain and time.

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