Mobile technologies in school: Who wants some Kool-Aid?

I recently attended the RSF School District’s Technology Review Retreat.  It was well-presented and included an interesting discussion regarding the applicability of mobile technologies in our school – in a word, tablets – in a shorter word, iPads.  We all want the best for our kids, for them to be ready and even to have an advantage, but I got a sinking feeling as I reflected on the retreat and the accompanying parent survey.  I should preface my remarks.  I love technology.  My educational background is in engineering.  My professional career has been about the development and commercialization of new technologies and software.  I’ve dealt with hundreds of technology firms and have either led or participated in dozens of implementation programs.  With that said, I have come to fully realize that technology is not a panacea.  It is not a cure-all.  It never is.

Like throwing money at a problem, many think the problem will go away if you throw enough technology at it.  It doesn’t.   Biggest pitfalls with technology:

1) Know what problem you’re trying to solve

before

you buy.  What problem are we trying to solve with iPads?  Are we trying to prepare our kids for the future through exposure?  In the past 10 years, we have seen a dramatic shift from desktops, to laptops, to notebooks, to smartphones and tablets – these devices are identical save their size, mobility and means to input information (keyboard, mouse, finger).  So, in many ways a computer = laptop = tablet.  Shrink it down, make it wireless…still, basically a computer.  Given their similarity, “technology exposure” already exists at our school – with computers in our classrooms – and some degree of information mobility with every student having access to some device at home.

So, why are we rushing to purchase?  Simple.  We feel a sense of panic and urgency – we need – no, must have them - to keep up.  We’ve drunk the technology Kool-Aid.  Why are we drinking it?  Who cares.  They’re drinking it over there, it must be good.  Drink up !  We’ll figure out why later. Technology has that kind of allure.  Shiny, new, fun…

2) Get references.  Better yet, unbiased references. Where has it worked before?  It’s easy to find studies touting a successful technology program sponsored by those with a vested interest as no one wants to admit they’ve made a mistake, but can you find an unbiased one?

Apple in particular woos the education market with a state-of-the art sales operation … that public-interest watchdogs say, raises some concerns….Apple invites educators from around the country to “executive briefings” …  Nonpartisan groups are critical of the Apple visits calling them “influence peddling.” … “There is a geek culture that very much worships Apple, and they’re feeding into that to get more contracts.”

— New York Times (November, 2011)

Project Tomorrow is another often-cited non-profit “independent” reference, focusing on “Preparing today’s students to be tomorrow’s innovators, leaders and engaged citizens.”  However, Project Tomorrow has investors…investors like HP and Smart Technologies.  Mmmm?  The authors of a truly independent study examining the results of the much-touted “One Laptop Per Child” program had interesting findings:

“At $200 per computer, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) has sold or facilitated donations of about 2.5 million laptops to classrooms in 42 different countries. A new study suggests those laptops do not, however, have any effect on achievement in math or language…It has been suggested that the introduction of computers increases motivation, but our results suggest otherwise,” write the study’s authors.” 

—  Mashable (April 2012)

Mmm…Kool-Aid…why are we drinking this?

3) What do the experts say?  While there are many powerful business and political advocates for technological upgrades in schools stating that mobile devices allow students to learn at their own pace, engage the student better and hold their attention longer — many independent experts don’t agree, noting that it’s “distraction over instruction.”

“Five years ago, with little evidence that teacher and student use of computers in classroom lessons would raise test scores, Kyrene (Ariz.) school district voters authorized $33 million in technology expenditures. Since then Kyrene administrators and teachers have offered enthusiastic endorsements … and, here is the kicker: test scores have stagnated… There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period.”

— Larry Cuban, Education Professor Emeritus, Stanford University (Wordpress - October 2011, New York Times - September 2011)

“The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an investor in educational technology companies —

New York Times, September 2011

.

Unfortunately, there are no independent studies that show tablets or iPads are effective in the classroom and the experts are conflicted at best.  But is it possible they still could provide value?  Even the creators of such technology are stumped.

“Even Mr. Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, turned skeptical about technology’s ability to improve education. In a new biography of Mr. Jobs, the book’s author, Walter Isaacson, describes a conversation earlier this year between the ailing Mr. Jobs and Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, in which the two men “agreed that computers had, so far, made surprisingly little impact on schools — far less than on other realms of society such as media and medicine and law.”

“The comments echo similar ones Mr. Jobs made in 1996, between his two stints at Apple. …Mr. Jobs said that “what’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology,” even though he had himself “spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet.” Mr. Jobs blamed teachers’ unions for the decline in education.” 

– New York Times, November 2011

4) Have a long-term plan that includes both goals and measurable performance criteria

before

you buy.  Saying is one thing, but doing is another.  It was pointed out during the retreat that most implementations fail without a studied, measured implementation taking years to develop.  The ensuing discussion included a litany of best practices, including focusing first on “why,” before your get to “what” device.   However, despite these cautions, we rush to the Kool-Aid.

“Critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills — like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools — at the expense of math, reading and writing fundamentals. They say the technology advocates have it backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later.   “In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.”

— New York Times, September 2011.

“I would check my wallet if anyone said this is the solution and you have to do it tomorrow or your schools will fail,” said Mark Warschauer, an education professor at the University of California, Irvine.  Warschauer said there is no evidence yet that such devices improve learning. “I’m a big enthusiast of technology in education, but I’m very wary of notions of silver bullet or magic bullet or game changer,” Warschauer said. “An iPad is a different way to deliver content. It has some advantages, and it has some disadvantages.”

— New York Times, November 2011.

Still thirsty?  Maybe not, but let’s not give up yet.

5) Look to the market leaders for best practices.  Maybe we’re trying to solve the problem of improving test scores.  So, let’s look to the market leaders, the leading elementary schools in the state.*   Rowe’s API score is a fabulous 10 out of 10 and our state ranking for Star Tests is 127 out of 5,205.  These are great scores, but what are the top schools doing?  In the #1 spot is William Faria (top 6 statewide for the last eight years). They have 585 students (Rowe has 510 in elementary).  They have a student:teacher ratio of 25 (Rowe’s is about 12).  They have 25 full-time teachers (Rowe has just under 50).  As for fundraising, they request $250 per student and have about a 50 percent participation rate, yielding roughly $75,000 from parents. This compares to our education foundation’s $1 million annual contribution, with a Fair Share of $1,500 and over 80 percent participation.  So, why are they consistently in the Top 6?  Is it iPads?   No.  They average six computers per classroom.  No tablets.  And most shockingly, this school is in Apple’s backyard.  They’ve solved the test score problem without iPads. Moreover, Faria Elementary belongs to Cupertino Union District, which has four of their 20 schools in the top 20 statewide.  Any iPads?  Some, but limited to a few staff members and special needs students.  Makes sense.  Same with other top tier schools like #3 Mission San Jose (in Fremont Unified School District with six schools in the top 20 this year).  Do they have tablets?  Nope.  Not one.  They now have a computer lab, but some rooms don’t even have computers for kids.  Yet, they have been in the top 3 statewide for the past seven years.

So, back to the original question – what problem are we trying to solve?

If the problem is that we need to ready our kids for the technological future, we already have the tools in place, regardless the pace of change.

If the problem is increasing engagement or collaboration, there’s plenty of evidence to show that technology tends to do the opposite, leading to “distraction over instruction.”

If the problem is test scores, there’s neither evidence to show that iPads are the “promised land” nor are they required to become a top tier school.

Technology is neither a babysitter nor a substitute teacher.  It has a lot of value when used properly, and I’m not against it, but let’s slow down.  Let’s figure out what problem we’re trying to solve, get independent references, develop a long-term plan and then use all the great resources at our disposal to have the top school in the state, if not the nation, with or without iPads.

There’s no value in gulping down a vat full of Kool-Aid just because everyone else is – sure it tastes great, but it can only give you a headache.

Not sent from my iPad.

  • All school performance data can be found at www.schooldigger.com.  Other school data was obtained directly from school administration or their three-year technology plans.

Jeff Slosar

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