Virtual School Meanderings

January 2, 2013

iNACOL 10 Weeks of Activities for Better Blogging: Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say

As I mentioned in the entry I posted on Monday entitled, one of the changes in the 10 Weeks of Activities for Better Blogging group was the idea of posted related blog entries each week in response to an article that they group brought forward.  The first article the group decided to discuss, back on 07 November, was The New York Times piece entitled “Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say.”  The specific iNACOL prompt went like this:

Within the article there were two recent reports that were cited.  One from Common Sense Media entitled, “Children, Teens and Entertainment Media: The View from the Classroom” and one from  the Pew Internet project entitled, “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World.”

Some questions our group generated were as follows:

  • Do you agree that technology is changing how students learn?
  • If you’re an online or blended learning teacher, what does this mean for you?

For those who have followed this blog for some time, you probably have some sense as to what I am going to say about this topic…  First on the positive, let me say that I was pleased to see no mention of Marc Prensky and “digital natives” or Don Tapscott and the “Net Generation” in this piece – namely because neither is based on either no research (Prensky) or flawed, self-serving research (Tapscott).  Having said that, the research that was used in the article wasn’t that much better.  The “Children, Teens and Entertainment Media: The View from the Classroom” was based on data collected when the researchers “surveyed a nationally representative sample of teachers for their perceptions on this issue.”  Now survey research is useful for perceptions or how people feel about a topic, but isn’t useful for drawing conclusions about actual events.  For example, “Key Finding 1: Media Use Impacts Academic Performance” is totally invalid.  You can’t measure students attention span and academic performance and writing skills and whatever based on the opinions of teachers.  The opinions of teachers are useful for giving us areas that we might want to investigate using more empirical methods, but they can’t definitely tell us that students have shorter attention spans, and they certainly can’t tell us that technology is to the cause or two blame for that!

The second report, “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World,” is similarly flawed.  Again, based on surveys of teachers, the researchers make claims like “internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily,” “the amount of information available online today is overwhelming to most students,” and “that today’s digital technologies discourage students from using a wide range of sources when conducting research.”  The researchers, at least in the top sheet results, do a slightly better job in couching the results as being “of teachers surveyed” or “of these teachers” – but the problem is that the media – like The New York Times – rarely pays attention to these qualifying statements and report that “There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks!”

The problem is that, at least within the academic educational technology community, there has been an acceptance for a long time that technology does not impact learning.  There is a famous line from an article – a literature review to be exact – from back in 1984 by Richard Clark where he indicates that technology affects learning as much as the delivery truck affects the nutritional value of the food that it carries.  Clark argued, and he wasn’t the first or the last, that technology is simply a medium and that it was the instructional design and the pedagogy that impacted learning.  Essentially, it was how we designed, delivered and supported those learning experienced that would have an effect on how much or little students learned.  To put it another way, it isn’t whether students do or don’t learn using technology, it is under what conditions can technology be used effectively.

These phrases should sound familiar to most – as you’ve heard them all before when it comes to online learning.  I have been saying for years that anyone can learn online, it all depends on how that online learning is designed, delivered and supported.  My colleagues Rick Ferdig regularly says that asking whether online learning works is the wrong question, we need to ask under what conditions does online learning work best.  If technology really did impact learning or if online learning really was better than face-to-face instruction (as the leadership of certain online learning professional associations have claimed on numerous occasions), those full-time cyber charter schools would all be meeting AYP and all of the students would be successful.  We wouldn’t see these 25% to 33% success rates, where only students who were self-directed, self-motivated, and self-regulated learners – or those with active and engaged parents – being successful in the full-time online environment in these programs.

But unfortunately the media continue to dumb down the research to the 10-word answer that the public expects.  I’m kind of glad that this topic came around today, as it was only yesterday I cam across a blog entry entitled The Education Reform Dichotomy: Big Choices Ahead, which he wrote:

Last fall, scholar Paul Thomas offered a powerful framework for understanding the two camps of reformers currently contending for public support.

He names one group the “No Excuses Reformers,” writing:

“No excuses” has a specific meaning and context in 2012, one associated with corporate education reform endorsed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a long list of self-proclaimed reformers who have little or no experience as educators or scholars. Nonetheless, these reformers drive their agendas with slogans such as “poverty is not destiny.”

The other group, to which he and I belong, he terms “Social Context Reformers.” He explains:

While often discredited by No Excuses Reform narratives as embracing the status quo or, most inaccurately, suggesting children in poverty cannot learn, Social Context Reformers are primarily educators and education scholars who call for a combination of social and education reforms committed to addressing equity: Poverty is destiny, in society and schools, but poverty should not be destiny, argue Social Context Reformers.

The blog author then included a table that I think did a great job outlining the two sides.  For those looking for the K-12 online learning translation, “No Excuse” Reform camp would include iNACOL, the Innosight Institute, Digital Learning Now, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the cyber charter companies, etc..

Problem “No Excuses” Reform solution Social Context reform solution
Low income children lag in educational success, compared to children with higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Three decades of standards-based testing and corporate-controlled, data-driven accountability to close the test-based achievement gap

Legislated, top-down reform policies that blame teachers of low-income children.

Narrow test prep-focused curriculum, especially for students in high poverty schools.

Actively recognize inequities in society and work to reverse them systematically.

Teacher preparation closely linked to practice, and opportunities to work alongside experienced teachers, who work closely with parents and community leaders to improve education.

Rich curriculum, and authentic assessment of student learning.

Public schools in lower income communities produce much worse outcomes, and in the poorest areas, outcomes are tragic. Reward affluent and middle-class schools in affluent and middle-class neighborhoods and punish schools in impoverished neighborhood.

Close down the public schools in low income communities.

Desegregation programs, with an emphasis on high quality schools for all.

Support struggling schools, building stability and enhancing the resources they offer.

Urban and rural communities and school systems are struggling under the weight of escalating child poverty among all ethnic groups.

Children arrive at school lacking vision, dental and health care.

None. Provide adequate and equitable funding for all schools, including nurses, social workers, and support services where needed.

Universal healthcare (including eye care, dental care) for children and families with children

Increasing segregation, as the most economically needy children are trapped together by residency requirements in desperately dysfunctional, under-resourced schools, in physically dangerous environments where the problems of violence and social disconnectedness impact all the children in a school. Drain public school funding for parental choice policies that reinforce stratification found in those parental choices.

Privately operated charter schools, segregated by race and socioeconomic status

Rigid school environment, zero tolerance policies

Pursue “mass localism,” with educators, parents and community engaging in place-based education, rooted in community history and needs.
The accumulated public and individual wealth of this generation was somehow “lost” in the financial collapse, so we have insufficient funds available to educate our children Strip elected local school boards of authority, so corporate leaders appointed by mayors and governors can allocate resources.

Turn whole public districts over to for-profit management companies.

Mandate “cost-saving”, privately operated online education for children in low-income districts.

Vouchers replace right to equitable public education.

Mobilize communities to regain control of our public education system.
Poor, Latino/Black, special needs, and ELL students assigned disproportionately inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers. Ignore the conditions that promote high turnover, and instead recruit TFA or other alternatively certified teachers for these students. Address conditions that promote high turnover. Develop teaching talent from the local community, reflecting the ethnic and cultural composition of the students. Create residency programs to train and retain teachers. Honor experience to retain teachers.

It doesn’t exactly line up with the 10-word answers the corporate-based, educational reformers have been touting, does it?

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