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Has educational computing jumped the sharK?

 

Gary S. Stager

Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology 21825 Barbara St. Torrance, CA 90503 USA Email: gary@stager.org

Presented at ACEC 2006 - Cairns, Australia - October 2, 2006

 

 

ABSTRACT

 

Incremental approaches to classroom computer use have been slow to produce significant educational benefits. Criticism of educational computing is often validated by a lack of compelling models created in the absence of vision or adequate leadership. However, this paper departs from critics who suggest that computers should play little or no role in the intellectual lives of children by arguing that the opposite. Computational technology needs to play a much greater role in the learning process and is essential to the sustainability of schools.

 

Despite the societal shifts resulting from widespread access to computers and the Internet, schools and other educational organizations remain committed to outdated notions of computer literacy instruction. Such efforts, along with the allure of online delivery and assessment, serve to centralize curriculum at the very moment the identical technology could be used to revolutionize the learning process. Individuals once at the forefront of the learning revolution promised by the widespread availability of powerful computational and communications technology now preside over the use of that technology to reinforce the least effective educational practices of the past. This leads inevitably to a lowering of educational standards and a diminution in the learning opportunities available to young people.

 

INTRODUCTION

 

This paper is not offered as an exhaustive review of the literature regarding the current state of educational technology use in schools around the world. No one paper could possibly do so. It is intended to stimulate discussion among members of the academic and practitioner community regarding current trends and their possible consequences. The author bases his observations on work as a teacher educator, consultant, teacher, researcher and educational journalist in schools across the United States and Australia, in addition to recent efforts in Canada, Brazil and India. The author speaks at more than a dozen educational technology conferences annually, consults with industry and writes a magazine column read by approximately 100,000 educational leaders each month. These various activities afford the author a rare perspective from which to identify patterns of rhetoric, policy-making and pedagogical practice.

 

Some of the evidence presented in this paper may strain credulity. However, the practices and products in question all exist. Alfie Kohn said, “In education, satire is obsolete.”[i] The confluence of magical new technology, an increasingly high-stakes educational system and the capitalistic desire to profit from this tension results in strange, but real challenges for schools.

 

This paper attempts to alert educators, members of education-related industries and policy-makers to trends that while at first glance appear to indicate progress, especially since they involve high technology, may actually result in expensive detours, distractions and disasters.

 

Critics (Alliance for Childhood, Cuban, Oppenheimer) often assert that computers do not belong in school for a variety of ideological, financial or developmental reasons. However, I agree with Seymour Papert that computers are today’s primary instrument for intellectual work, and central to the educational enterprise. If for no other reason than the fact that computers are already a part of the world of kids, we must respect the role they can play in children’s lives and develop ways to maximize the potential of technology. I have spent the past twenty-four years helping students use computers in intellectually rich and creatively expressive ways that defy current notions of curricula or educational standards.

 

After four decades of advocacy for computers in education, Seymour Papert corrected the record by suggesting that, "Computer scientists weren't supposed to bring computers into classrooms. They were supposed to bring computer science to children in classrooms." (Papert 2002) Papert contends that the failure to use computers in new ways as an instrument for educational progress is the result of an imagination gap. (Papert 1997)

 

Soon after bold creative teachers began tinkering with computers in their classrooms, schools embarked on the well-documented process of assimilating them. Computers were corralled into odd “lab” arrangements and children made an occasional field trip to the lab for the purposes of being taught “computer,” often by a teacher possessing few qualifications. Special computer literacy curricula was developed to meet the needs of inexperienced lab teachers and limited student access. Trivial work done during lab time failed to inspire other teachers to integrate computing into the life of their subjects and motivated teachers were quickly discouraged by too little access to too few computers. Educators with little or no technological fluency are asked to serve on committees where they use a crystal ball and develop “tech plans” not yet invented and students they have not met.

 

I postulate that the educational technology challenges associated with teacher professional development, inadequate funding and the demand for standards are not our primary problems. They are symptoms of an imagination gap and shortage of honest reflective practice that threatens to rob children of the potential afforded by advances in communications and computational technology.

 

Some may view this paper as a cautionary tale. Others may find that it affirms their tacit concerns while some will disagree violently with my hypotheses. This paper should not however be misconstrued as an argument against the widespread of use of computers and related technologies in appropriate ways across all subjects and grade levels. Many critics of educational computing alert us to the trivial ways in which computers are used. If school computers are used in dubious ways, the solution is not the abolition of computers, but more thoughtful practice.

 

It is remarkable that there remain proponents of a view that computers should play no role in education despite the transformational impact they have had on nearly every other aspect of society. Like many other educational innovations, the use of computers in schools may be dismissed as a failure before it was seriously attempted. It is well known, but seldom mentioned, that most children touch a computer for minutes per week in school. It is ridiculous to assign failure to the computer when access is so meagre and a vision for its use eludes most educators.

 

JUMPING THE SHARK

 

This author’s body of work challenges conventional arguments against the use of computers in school based on concerns over funding, child welfare and alternative priorities while joining Seymour Papert in offering optimistic scenarios in which computers may create efficacious opportunities for knowledge construction. However, recent observations of educational technology practice within American and Australian classrooms, as well as the changing rhetoric found in professional publications and conferences leads me to conclude that educational technology may have “jumped the shark.”

 

It’s a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now… it’s all downhill. Some call it the climax. “We call it jumping the shark.” (Jon Hein – www.jumptheshark.com)

 

In this case, jumping the shark applies to the possibility that we have reached the tipping point where even exuberant proponents of educational technology must question whether the system’s implementation of it is now causing as much harm as good. This radical view goes beyond Papert’s predictions of assimilation in which the school system will naturally attempt to use new technology to support old practices and the “assimilation blindness” (Papert 1977) in which critics simplistically compare the computer to other classroom objects. At first glance the proposition that “educational technology may now do more harm than good” would seem to agree with critics of computers in the classroom. However, the common ground is limited to concerns about the quality of education afforded children.

 

While much criticism of educational computing is concerned with an erosion of control, uniform curriculum, traditional assessment instruments and industrial notions of efficiency, my fear is that educational technology is now being used to strengthen such instructionist tendencies at the expense of children. In other words, the current trajectory of educational technology is dominated by practices and objectives that succeed in making schooling much more like the desires of the technology critics and therefore squanders the enormous potential to revolutionize education that inspired so many ed tech pioneers for more than a generation.

 

Much of the rhetoric now embraced by an increasing number of people who previously advocated exciting visions of children using computers in personally liberating ways treats students in an instrumental fashion subordinate to the goals of the system. What some in the past may have deemed the utopian aspirations of educational computing proponents have now been silenced by classroom practices more inflexible and reactionary than before microcomputers entered schools.

 

These Are Not Happy Days

Unlike in the television show, Happy Days, when Fonzie jumped a shark while waterskiing in a leather jacket, the precise moment in which educational technology began its decline is not easily identified. A number of trends, marketing triumphs and political conditions converge to create the current malaise. Anyone of these variables alone would be troublesome, but together they create an alternative educational reality where friends and foes do little to realize the transformative promise of learning technology.

 

Just a few of these variables will be explored due to space constraints.

 

The Dominance of Information Technology – Our Homemade Straightjacket

Educational computing has experienced a semantic sea change over the past fifteen years. In fact, the word computing is hardly mentioned in the literature. Educational computing gave way to terms like informatics, ICT, information technology and just technology. When the vast capabilities of computing are reduced to, “just another technology,” we are then safe to make comparisons to a zipper or Pez dispensers.

 

It was the educational technology community, not external forces that debased the language we use to describe our efforts. Computing is a verb connoting action, technology is a noun - one more checkbox on an arbitrary list of curricular objectives. The C in ICT is at best cosmetic when the vast majority of students remain unable to email, collaborate or publish online despite the lofty (and readily ignored) goals of official technology standards. Our noble profession is increasingly referred to as “the industry.” Language matters. It shapes practice.

 

Since the widespread deployment of the Internet in schools during the mid 1990s, the function of the school computer has been reduced to that of information appliance or worse. Contemporary literature, popular and academic, focuses almost exclusively on the use computer for information retrieval and the occasional regurgitation of that information in the form of PowerPoint presentations or web pages. The false complexity associated with designing a web page or slideshow lulls spectators into believing that the students were engaged in an intellectually meaningful activity, when that assumption is often incorrect.

 

Recent doubts about such activities have not led to wide-scale challenges to the practice of digital book reports. Instead a new pedagogy of information literacy has emerged, complete with workshops, workbooks and literature attempting to fortify and justify the use of computers to support dubious educational practices. Edward Tufte, Seymour Papert and very few others outside of the practitioner community, have taken the unpopular step of revealing that this emperor has no clothes. The genuine effort expended by children creating such products is difficult to disregard, but the context of those efforts and the validity of the task needs to be challenged.

 

Another unintended consequence of this IT imbalance is the emphasis placed on student research. Actual research in the spirit of the work conducted by historians or scientists is an enormously valuable intellectual enterprise. The process skills associated with authentic research should be a universal part of every child’s education. The Internet offers unparalleled opportunities for students to engage in research in ways never before possible, particularly the ability to publish for a limitless audience and engage in collaboration with others across time and space. This is where the majority of the Internet’s power as a new learning medium resides. However, schools tend to focus on “looking stuff up,” delivering content and monitoring student progress. These uses are not only antithetical to the extraordinary power of the Internet, but their dominance creates unintentional consequences regarding Internet safety, censorship and security.

 

Simply stated, if the dominant metaphor for using a computer is looking things up, then it should come as no surprise when children look up in appropriate stuff. This eventuality consumes scarce resources and diverts our attention away from using computers in ways that ennoble a creative and intellectual renaissance in children. The hysteria caused by both fear of using the Internet and the fear of not using the Internet causes schools to employ legions of network managers who are given unprecedented budgetary and educational discretion, along with very little oversight. Teachers wishing to do the “right thing” are often precluded to using the school network in educationally justifiable ways due to policies and technical obstacles created by non-educators with unilateral power.

 

The Total Cost of Dependency

I call this phenomenon, the total cost of dependency. It relates to the unintended learning costs of over-promising and under-delivering reliable Internet functionality and subsequent benefits. TCOD also applies to situations that result from settings in which the network functions perfectly. Educators accustomed to unreliable network access abandon the use of computers and those lucky enough to have access to fully functional networks too often focus on the use of the Internet to the exclusion of other forms of computing. The popular advertising slogan, “the network is the computer,” is inapplicable to K-12 education.

 

Proponents of the network-centric view often tell educators that as soon as there is enough bandwidth, everything they ever dreamed of will be possible. There is plenty already possible for learners to do with computers and the fixation on the Internet is depriving too many children of those rich experiences. If there ever is limitless bandwidth, computers will be television, not a constructive medium for active learning. For children trying to make a movie, program a robot, animate a poem, build a simulation or design a video game, regular ubiquitous access to a sufficiently powerful computer is far more important to both the job at-hand and a student’s intellectual development, than is net access.

 

Hooked on Office

A web browser and Microsoft Office are the most used software applications. Both applications represent critical tools for personal productivity and communication. However, learners should also use computers in constructive ways - as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. Adults seem amused by the sight of children playing Donald Trump dress-up, “Look how cute she is! She’s wearing mommy’s heals and using Excel!” However, the dominance of Office applications in schools places a disproportionate emphasis on using computers to get “work” done[ii], versus using computers to learn. While the two goals are not mutually exclusive, I assert that the balance of educational experiences should tilt towards learning and process rather than product.

 

DISTURBING TRENDS

 

It is impossible to predict which specific technologies or pedagogical practices that will withstand the test of time. However, there are several technologies popular in schools that warrant review.

 

Skinner Rocks!

The growing assault on public education led by the Bush and Howard administrations is manifest in the obsession with testing, data, standardization and punishment. The dissection of learning into sequential bite-sized decontextualized fragments directly benefits the textbook, testing and integrated learning system companies. These are divisions of the same multinational behemoths. These conspicuous relationships advocate for Orwellian schemes like, “No Child Left Behind,” and have expensive technological “solutions” at the ready.

 

The market for inexpensive drill-and-practice software evaporated long before the enduring fantasy that if you get the software just right, every toddler will master long division subsided. Today, expensive instructional management systems are sold to poor schools terrorized by the threat of sanctions accompanying low performance on standardized tests. Although these systems have not changed much in forty years, they are no longer seen as a window onto the future as much as a life-saving attempt by desperate underprivileged schools.

 

The folly of teaching machines, personalized learning and continuous assessment date back to the invention of computers. Bad ideas are timeless. Government policies and easy-to-produce high-profit teaching systems from well-heeled corporations create a perfect storm for using computers in low-level disempowering ways.

 

Early advocates rebelled against CAI when excitement about computers in education was infectious. Today is different in that that these pioneers now make purchasing decisions and create a climate in which these systems dominate the landscape. Today, membership organizations purporting to represent educational progress, such as ISTE, are engaged in “monetizing” the testing craze and rushing to create “high-stakes” computer literacy examinations.[iii] Every child must now be above average every minute of the day.

 

Such regressive practices are no longer typified by children sitting at banks of computers wearing headphones or in the back of the classroom playing Math Blaster. Teaching systems have gone wireless and centralized simultaneously.

 

BUT WAIT, THERE’S LESS!

 

Two categories of such systems dominate the marketplace and classrooms; “smart” boards and “clickers.”

 

Smart Furniture

“Intelligent” white boards may appear as cost-effective strategies for advancing a school’s technological capability, yet these Pre-Gutenberg technologies may ultimately reinforce the worst of existing classroom practices. They reinforce the dominance of the front of the room and omniscience of the teacher. Facilitating increased lecturing and reducing education to notes on a board represents a step backwards. We should question the widespread appeal of these products. The sales success of clever furniture is undeniable, but its actual use is less clear.[iv]

 

Classroom as Game Show, Teacher as Huckster

A new category of products has hit the educational technology market and enjoys remarkable sales. The more academic-sounding acronym, classroom performance systems (CPS), has been created to bestow. With a CPS, each child watches typically unattractive multiple-choice questions displayed on a screen in-front of them and on-cue punches what they think is the correct answer into a handheld remote-control device. The software can then present the teacher and class with the correct answer and a tabulation of student results. Such a system requires learning be reduced to its simplest, most binary form and gives aid and comfort to the misguided notion that continuous assessment is synonymous with teaching.

 

Teachers report to me that their “colleagues” find it difficult to design their own quizzes for these systems. The result of this difficulty marketing agreements with textbook publishers who happily provide, for a fee, questions that require little more than a smile from the classroom teacher. This contributes further to the deprofessionalization of educators and does little to help them embrace the constructive use of computers in their classrooms.

 

One vendor, eInstruction, reports sales of 1.8 million “response pads”[v] and is suing a rival over their patent entitled “System and Method for Communicating with Students in an Education Environment.” That’s funny; I didn’t realize that teachers need remote control devices in order to communicate with students.

 

One corporation, Qwizdom, announces on its website that “Instant data just got even faster!” What’s faster than instant? Qwizdom refers to being part of the “audience response industry.”[vi] There is no illusion that teachers are more than performers and students spectators. Furthermore, emphasis on faster instants does violence to the promise of personal computers as incubators for project-based learning and deep intellectual engagement.

 

David Thornburg, reminds us that a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is allowed to think about a problem, poll the audience or phone a friend before pulling the trigger on her answer. CPS systems prohibit such thinking practices.

 

Both “intelligent boards” and “clickers” reduce education to the delivery and regurgitation of information and make it simple for centralized authorities to monitor classroom activity and reduce individual students to data.

 

Immobile Laptops

Australia’s greatest contribution to the world of computing was the pioneering embrace of laptops in education. Back in 1989-90, MLC and the State of Queensland embraced laptops as personal knowledge machines that brought the theories of Dewey and Papert to life. Today, laptops are no longer about powerful ideas, personal responsibility and the decentralization of knowledge, but tools for information delivery, constant assessment and global competitiveness. Some schools now promise that when they implement 1:1 computing, they will not change the curriculum at all. This is not virtuous; it’s idiotic and a waste of money.

 

Politicians propose laptops for teachers as if they were not the last workers in society afforded such luxury. Teachers performing clerical tasks and other chores, not transforming education, justify the investment.

 

The Governor of Maine needed to allow local schools to decide whether student laptops could go home as a matter of petty political expedience. Now other jurisdictions slavishly debate the merits of laptops going home as if this were a reasonable issue and 50% of Maine schools expand the digital divide by tethering mobile computers to the schoolhouse. If one student in one classroom looks at an inappropriate webpage, skittish vendors will render laptops useless in order to sell them to a school 2,000km away. Policy should not be predicated on historical accident or local politics.

 

It took more than a decade before defeatist language like pilot, initiative, project or experiment followed “laptop” in discussions of school computing. Now it’s the norm. This implies that the decision to embrace ubiquitous computing may have been a mistake rather than on the right side of history.

 

Schools are increasingly purchasing large quantities of student laptops without any constructive software, like MicroWorlds, and doing so with the encouragement of computer manufacturers. Some student laptops don’t even have a paint program installed. This is a brilliant strategy if the school teaches the humanities only. Mathematics and science learning stand to gain the most from the problem solving and computation afforded by the laptop, but such innovation is impossible in many schools.

 

Hardware manufacturers peddle laptop carts and governors propose a laptop on every desk fifteen years after thousands of students responsibly cared for their own portable computer at home, school and in the community. The metaphoric, as well as physical, locking-down of student laptops disempowers students and frustrates teachers needlessly. This hysteria represents a systemic backlash to the unprecedented creative and intellectual freedom bestowed upon learners.

 

One American school district had more than sixty million dollars (US) in-hand for student laptops. The educational goals accompanying the laptop purchase were so unimaginative and incremental that one politician was able to derail the entire initiative. Too little was done to excite the hearts and minds of citizens who want the most for children. (Stager 2005c)

 

Many new laptop schools pretend they invented the idea and disregard the lessons of their predecessors. They will recklessly change platforms just to get mentioned in the newspaper. Many Australian independent schools realized that changing their blazer colour was as useful a marketing ploy as integrating student laptops and didn’t require any institutional effort. The endless demands for evidence that laptops “work” demonstrates our community’s lack of capacity for growth and resistance to progress.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Computers are remarkably flexible devices capable of use in a wide range of contexts. A recent article in Technology and Learning Magazine profiled what the magazine’s editors determined to be the ten best returns on school technology investments. Not a single recommendation involved a learner doing something with a computer. This is a historic opportunity to seize powerful technology to help reinvent the nature and diversity of learning. We should embrace every opportunity to do so by keeping our “eyes on the prize” and avoiding detours. The needless focus on superficial planning, support for retrograde technologies, information addiction and welding laptops to furniture are symptoms of conservatism, ignorance and fear. Not long ago, the educational technology community were the warriors boldly leading schools towards an uncertain future filled with unprecedented learning opportunities for the children they serve. Somewhere along the line we have become reactionary and distracted by self-interest and costly detours.

 

We are duty bound to create compelling models of innovation and must define our terms, challenge accepted norms and set a course that amplifies the potential of children.

 

 

REFERENCES

 

Š       The Alliance for Childhood. (2004) Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology. Available online at http://allianceforchildhood.org/projects/computers/pdf_files/tech_tonic.pdf

Š       Cuban, L. (2001) Oversold and Underused. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Š       Harel, I., and Papert, S., editors. (1991) Constructionism. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Š       Kafai, Y., and Resnick, M., editors. (1996) Constructionism in Practice: Designing, Thinking, and Learning in a Digital World. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Š       Kohn, Alfie. (2000) Transcript of the talk “The Deadly Effect of Tougher Standards.” The Harvard Education Letter. March/April 2000. Available online at http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/2000-ma/forum.shtml.

Š       Mclester, Susan. (2004) Top 10 Returns on Investment. In Technology and Learning Magazine, November 2004 issue.

Š       Oppenheimer, Todd. (2003) The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can be Saved. NY: Random House.

Š       Papert, Seymour. (1990) “A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future,” MIT Epistemology and Learning Memo No. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory.

Š       Papert, Seymour (1981) Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. NY: Basic Books.

Š       Papert, Seymour (1993) The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books.

Š       Papert, Seymour. (1997) “Why School Reform Is Impossible” In The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(4), pp. 417-42. Available online at http://www.papert.org/articles/school_reform.html

Š       Papert, Seymour (2002) “Papert Misses ‘Big Ideas’ of the Good Old Days in AI,” from a press release published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. July 10, 2002. http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2002/papert.html

Š       Stager, Gary. (2001) "Computationally-Rich Constructionism and At-Risk Learners." In Computers in Education 2001: Australian Topics – Selected Papers from the Seventh World Conference on Computers in Education. McDougall, Murnane & Chambers editors. Volume 8. Sydney: Australian Computer Society.

Š       Stager, Gary. (2002) “Papertian Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” In the Proceedings of the 2002 National Educational Computing Conference. Eugene, OR: ISTE.

Š       Stager, Gary. (2003) “The ISTE Problem” In District Administration Magazine, February 2003 issue.

Š       Stager, Gary. (2005a) “Gary Stager on the State of Ed Tech.” In District Administration Magazine, January 2005 issue.

Š       Stager, Gary. (2005b) “Gary Stager on Effective Ed Tech.” In District Administration Magazine, February 2005 issue.

Š       Stager, Gary (2005c) “Laptop Woes. Bungling the World’s Easiest Sale.” In District Administration Magazine, October 2005 issue.

Š       Tufte, Edward. (2003) The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, LLC. Information available online at http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint



[i] Kohn has repeated a version of this quip in numerous contexts. One is available online at http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/2000-ma/forum.shtml

[ii] Despite the often underwhelming quality of such “work”

[iii] I am in possession of a December 2004 email sent by ISTE’s Washington D.C. office asking state ed tech directors to contribute to the creation of a “high-stakes” computer literacy test that ISTE would then sell back to them on behalf of a corporate partner. After months of denials, the ISTE CEO admitted to scheme at NECC 2005 and indicated that regardless of the propriety of the initiative, his membership organization needed to monetize this trend before others did. You may read the memo at http://www.stager.org/istememo

[iv] According to a March 30, 2006 press release, one manufacturer, “Smart Technologies,” has sold more than 250,000 whiteboards in every U.S. state and 75 countries.

[v] http://www.einstruction.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=news.display&menu=news&content=showArticle&id=115

[vi] http://www.qwizdom.com/download/PressRelease020306.pdf