JRTE Spring 2010 Issue – A Sacrilegious Review

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Three of the four articles that make up the spring 2010 issue (v42n3) of Journal of Research on Technology in Education caught my attention more for their assumptions than their stated purposes. These assumptions highlight, for me, some of the weaknesses inherent in efforts to introduce technology into schools and colleges.

In “Technology’s Achilles Heel: Achieving High-Quality Implementation,” the “heel” for Gene E. Hall is school and college administrators. According to Hall, “Education technology scholars and practitioners are engaged with some of the most promising and interesting innovations.” However, these innovations don’t find their way into classrooms because of the failure of administrators to implement them. Thus, our enlightened ed tech guiding lights are “confronted first hand with the challenges associated with disappointing implementation efforts and failures to go to scale.”

To address this bottleneck to change, Hall suggests that ed techs sort administrators into three types, or CFSs (for Change Facilitator Styles): initiators, managers, and responders. Initiators “tend to have very strong beliefs about what good schools and teaching should be like and work intensely to attain this vision.” Managers “use . . . resources and procedures to control people and change processes.” Obviously, these are very strong chain-of-command types who believe that good leaders impose their will or the will of those above them on the rank and file below. And these, BTW, are the most successful CFSs.

The least successful are the responders: “They allow teachers and others the opportunity to take the lead with change efforts. . . . They view their teachers as strong professionals who are able to carry out their instructional role with little guidance. . . . They make decisions one at a time and based on input from their various discussions with individuals. Most are seen as friendly and always having time to talk.”

What I’ve omitted in the quote above are the descriptors that portray responders as weak and warm ‘n’ fuzzy all over. My purpose in doing so is to highlight those descriptors that, ironically, define effective leaders in collegial environments.

And where do teachers fit into this structure? Well, you can get a pretty good idea from the quote at the beginning of the article: “The hardest thing about technology is not selling them on it. It is getting them to use it!” (The quote is attributed to Phil H., a district tech coordinator.) I added the italics for emphasis. The teachers are the ignorant and huddled troops in the trenches, the them, and the implied us are the enlightened ed techs.

To get a clearer perspective on the techs’ task, Hall suggests the metaphor of a bridge: “The challenge of accomplishing sustained and widespread integrated uses of technology is the metaphorical equivalent of providing a bridge to facilitate teachers and schools progressing across a bridge.” Thus, on the large table that the techs use to plan their war games, teachers are the little brown dots moving en masse, over bridges, from certain annihilation to glorious victory.

This metaphor, to say the least, is problematic. Treating teachers, the very agents of change, as a mindless mass to be pushed and pulled across a narrow, predefined bridge runs counter to best practice for generating real and lasting change.

The sad part about Hall’s article is the fact that teachers (and administrators) may not complain. What’s happened to the fierce sense of independence and pride that once defined those of us who choose to remain in the trenches? Up until now, if we saw ourselves as the tail, then we were confident in our knowledge that we wagged the dog.

In Peggy A. Ertmer and Anne T. Ottenbreit-Leftwich’s “Teacher Technology Change: How Knowledge, Confidence, Beliefs, and Culture Intersect,” the assumption is right up front: “To put it simply,” they claim, “effective teaching requires effective technology use.”

They reiterate this assumption, I suppose, to give it more weight:

  • “Reform efforts are based on a new definition of ‘good’ teaching — that is, teaching that facilitates student learning by leveraging relevant ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) resources as meaningful pedagogical tools.”
  • “It is no longer appropriate to suggest that teachers’ low-level uses of technology are adequate to meet the needs of the 21st-century learner. Using technology simply to support lecture-based instruction falls far short of recommended best practice.”
  • “To achieve the kinds of technology uses required for 21st-century teaching and learning, we need to help teachers understand how to use technology to facilitate meaningful learning, defined as that which enables students to construct deep and connected knowledge, which can be applied to real situations.”

Never mind that this assumption begs the question. More importantly, it’s so full of holes that it’s a wonder it remains afloat. At best this is a truism, handy for those who believe that the mere use of technology instantly improves one’s teaching.

However, once we get past the simplistic T+T=G (teacher+technology=good) assumption, we arrive at some gems, e.g., “When thinking about technology as an innovation, Fisher (2006) cautioned against viewing technology as an agent of change. Rather, he argued that teachers must assume this role.” Indeed.

The authors identify the four variables, in the title of their study, as the key to changing teachers. “When thinking about ways to change teachers’ technology practices,” they say, “we need to consider all of these factors, or we are unlikely to be successful in influencing teacher change over the long term.” This statement is a bit puzzling. Didn’t they state earlier that teachers must be the primary agents of change? Oh, well.

The authors mention the following study to shed light on “self-efficacy” or “confidence,” which appears to be the critical factor:

Results from a small-scale study by Bauer and Kenton (2005) noted that a greater number of technology-using teachers rated themselves as being highly confident (n=14) for using computer technology, compared to being highly skilled (n=9).

They add:

Unfortunately, learning about technology is equivalent to asking teachers to hit a moving target. Teachers will never have “complete” knowledge about the tools available, as they are always in a state of flux. This often results, then, in teachers being perpetual novices in the process of technology integration (Mueller et al., 2008), which suggests the need for teachers to have strong self-efficacy for teaching with technology.

This finding and observation are hardly surprising, but worth noting. In the face of constant flux, the only learning that makes sense is for each teacher to become an effective independent learner who is confident in her/his ability to master new technology. Memorizing specific content and skills instead of learning the process of learning is the path to instant obsolescence. The traditional practice of gathering teachers in in-person workshops, lining them up on the same starting line, and marching them, in lock-step fashion, toward mastery of application X no longer makes sense when it will probably be trashed for a new and better app while the intensive, expensive 6-week workshop is winding down. In the wake of constant change, each teacher must become her/his own best learner so that keeping up with the latest technology with little or no outside assistance is routine.

In “Technology and Education Change: Focus on Student Learning,” I suspect that Barbara Means’s major premise is much too narrow. “Most educators,” she says, “will expend the effort needed to integrate technology into instruction when, and only when, they are convinced that there will be significant payoffs in terms of student learning outcomes.”

It goes against the grain of what I know about my colleagues and me in the trenches. It’s not that we don’t value improved learning. We’re teachers so, of course, we do. But we’re also pragmatists. We often adopt an innovation simply because it makes our lives easier. For example, with a web-based syllabus, we no longer have to print, collate, staple, and distribute paper versions.

Some of us have replaced one of our weekly in-person class meetings with online discussion forums because we’ve learned that it’s a simple way to provide an opportunity for all students to speak up, especially the quiet ones. Besides, it leaves a permanent log of comments that can serve as a valuable source for opinions in student-written papers or for further discussion. Finally, many of us are using webpages or blogs to post readings or links to readings simply because it’s a lot easier to update and distribute than hardcopy lists.

We’ll also adopt new technology when it gives us more flexibility or power. For example, an instructor may be lured toward creating a class blog because it allows her and her students to use videos that they’ve shot themselves. Using personal iPhones, simple Flip cams, or cams built into their netbooks, they can upload short videos to YouTube and share them with the class. The videos could be incorporated into class projects. They might not improve scores, but they allow the teacher to experiment with activities that wouldn’t be possible without technology. And it’s also fun.

Finally, we might initiate our own mini tech revolutions in our classrooms based on personal learning experiences. For example, a high school teacher who’s discovered that her iPad has opened up a whole new world of learning opportunities may be motivated to ask her school to purchase iPads for her classroom. The ed tech specialists on her campus or in her district might scoff at the idea, claiming that there’s no research basis for such an investment, but an administrator who understands the importance of enthusiasm in teaching might risk the outlay. It might not improve learning, but it brings innovation home to the classroom, and it empowers the teacher.

Means provides a noteworthy reminder that “Case study interviews and observations point to the need for more contextualized studies and a broader view of technology implementation. Rather than treating technology as a ‘thing’ which is present or absent, researchers and educators need to look at instructional activity systems in context.” The assumption here should include, if it doesn’t already, the idea that the absence of technology within a given context doesn’t automatically exclude the possibility of learning.

One Response

  1. What saddens me about this is that when I was researching much of this about a decade and a half ago, I saw the same arguments being made then. Not much has changed, and I don’t see much chance for much more happening.

    First of all, all research on effective educational change has determined that the administration must place a pivotal leadership role in change. Back in the early ReLearning days, the Annenberg Institute thought the opposite was true, but they learned better through many failures. The Effective Schools research shows the importance of active leadership as well.

    My major concern with this is based on what I just wrote in my last article. Effective teaching methods are well known by education leaders and teachers who have been trained in these innovative methodologies. Technology that supports those innovations have been shown to be very effective.

    On the other hand, technology that supports or reproduces poor teaching methods results in lowered student achievement.

    What training do the Ed Tech people who are designing educational technology have in these effective and innovative methods? Are they creating tools that will help students learn, or are they creating tools that are in keeping with traditional methods and will make learning worse? In the school district in which I used to work, the technology department kept buying things that the instructional leaders wanted no part of, because they were not within their vision of good instructional practice.

    I wrote an article about this a few months ago, pointing out that most of the technology I was seeing was supporting poor instructional practice.

    What we need is for a meeting of the minds. We need to have the best educators meeting with the best ed tech people. We need for these top educators to say, “This is what we want to accomplish. How can you help us do it?”

    Once they have figured out what to do, they need to find educational administrators with the skill to make it happen.

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