Oversold & Underused? - Digital Literacy Dover

Friday, 18 December 2015

Oversold & Underused?

Or: It's not enough to change the tools, you have to change mindsets

(And if you don't change mindsets, nothing changes)

Oversold and Underused by Larry Cuban (2001)

I was inspired to write this post, by nothing more than a sense of bewilderment at how many of the teachers involved in the ongoing of working to see real reformation and revolution in terms of the potential of digital tools to transform learning are completely and utterly oblivious of this book, written ages ago (in computer terms anyway) and it's words of wisdom for anyone who wants to learn from the mistakes of the past...

"“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” George Santanya

Alongside Fullan's Stratosphere, Cuban's seminal text on the challenges of tech integration is one of the most important, and insightful books on the subject of tech integration in schools I ever read. What is more astounding still is that Cuban's predictions back in 2001 continue to remain as true today as they ever were.

Of course if anything at all here resonates with you in the slightest you really should read the book. But, I realise that most teachers have better things to do than read books about tech integration, so with that in mind, I have condensed the entire book into my own version of 'Cliff's Notes', some 'Sean's notes', in a Google doc. Below, for the sake of brevity I present the sections that I believe are absolutely essential. Everything that follows are Cuban's words, anything I have to interject is included in [brackets], in addition most instances of emphasis, and headings to structure content are also mine.

Levels of Integration

The Initial level is entry (first months of using computers). Then adoption (teachers generally use text, lecture, and conventional approaches but introduce lessons to teach students how to use keyboard, mouse, and elementary applications). After adoption, the next level of integration is adaptation, when most of the classroom time is still spent in conventional ways of teaching, but  students spend about one fourth or more of their time using computers for homework and daily work in class. The next level is appropriation, where the teacher is fully confident in the use of computers and integrates the technology regularly into daily routines. The highest level is invention, where teachers experiment with new ways of networking students and colleagues and use project-based instruction and interdisciplinary approaches.

These levels of integration with curriculum and instruction are drawn from Judith Sandholtz, Cathy Ringstaff, and David Dwyer, Teaching with Technology (1997).


Teacher's Attitudes toward Technology

To fervent advocates of using technology in schools, no revolution had occurred in how the teachers organize or teach in these classrooms. Nor had there been dramatic or substantial changes in how teachers teach, or children learn. If anything, the addition of a computer center to the array of centers already in common use in these classrooms means that teachers had adapted an innovation to existing ways of teaching and learning that have dominated early childhood education for decades. Studies of computer use in other preschools and kindergartens across the country supported this observation.

Despite the claims of technology promoters that computers can transform teaching and learning, the teachers we studied adapted computers to sustain, rather than transform, their philosophy that the whole child develops best when both work and play are cultivated and “developmentally appropriate” tasks and activities are offered.

In interviews with the 21 teachers, 13 (just over 60 percent) said that their teaching had indeed changed because of their use of information technologies. [...] Of the 13 teachers who said that their teaching had changed, most referred to how they changed their preparation for teaching and how they used computers as another tool to teach. Only four said that they now organized their classes differently, lectured less, relied more on securing information from sources other than the textbook, gave students more independence, and acted more like a coach than a performer on stage. In short, they said that in using technology they had become more student-centered in their teaching; they had made fundamental changes in their pedagogy.

Neither the age, experience, nor gender of teachers was a significant factor in our data. We found little difference in computer use between veteran and novice teachers, between those with and those without previous technological experience, or between men and women. Furthermore, we did not find technophobia to be a roadblock. Teachers at both schools called for more and better technology, were avid home users, and believed in the future ubiquity of computers in society.

Teachers continually change their classroom practices. For example, some teachers quickly adopted computers for their classes, though most did not. Yet the teachers who decided to wait or choose to ignore the new technologies still engaged in changing other aspects of their teaching. Some may have decided to use a new textbook; others may have discovered a new way to do small-group work; and even others may have borrowed a technique from a colleague down the hall to press students to write more than a paragraph. These small changes are incremental and occur frequently among teachers. But these small adjustments are not what the promoters of computers had in mind. They wanted to transform teaching from the familiar teacher-centered approach to one that required the teacher to play a considerably different role. Using technology, the teacher would organize the classroom differently, giving students far more control over their learning (for example, working in teams on projects). Such changes would entail fundamental shifts in the teacher’s and students’ roles, the social organization of the classroom and power relationships between teacher and students.

The point, then, is that teachers change all the time. It is the kind of change that needs to be specified. Champions of technology wanted fundamental change in classroom practice. The teachers that we interviewed and observed, however, engaged mostly in incremental changes.

In a previous study, I investigated teachers’ responses to the introduction of the technological innovations of film (1910’s-1940’s), radio (1920’-1940’s), and instructional television (1950’s -1980’s). Each of these highly touted electronic marvels went through a cycle of high expectations for reforming schools, rich promotional rhetoric, and new policies that encouraged broad availability of the machines, yet resulted in limited classroom use. [...] But logistics gave teachers a headache. Securing a film from the district’s audio-visual centre at just the right time for a particular lesson of having the radio or television broadcast available at only one time and not other times caused problems. Incompatibility between the existing curriculum and the offerings of films, radio, and television further reduced use.

Since the nineteenth century, chalk and blackboard, pens, pencils, and textbooks have proven themselves over and over again to be reliable and useful classroom technologies. Teachers added other innovations such as the overhead projector, the ditto machine (later the copying machine), and film projector (later the VCR) because they too proved reliable and useful. But most teachers continue to see the computer as an add-on rather than as a technology integral to their classroom content and instruction.

p167 - 170
In the case of information technologies, teachers make choices by asking practical questions that computer programmers, corporate executives, or educational policymakers seldom ask. And the reason is straightforward enough: schools serve many and conflicting purposes in a democratic society. Teachers at all levels have to manage groups in a classroom while creating individual personal relationships; they have to cover academic content while cultivating depth of understanding in each student; they have to socialize students to abide by certain community values, while nurturing creative and independent thought. These complex classroom tasks, unlike anything software developers, policymakers and administrators have to face, require careful expenditure of a teacher’s time and energy. So in trying to reconcile conflicting goals within an age-graded high school or a bottom-heavy, research-driven university, teachers ask themselves down-to-earth questions in order to decide which electronic tools they will take to hand. Here are some of the questions teachers ask:

• Is the machine or software program simple enough for me to learn quickly?

• Is it versatile, that is, can it be used in more than one situation?

• Will the program motivate my students?

• Does the program contain skills that are connected to what I am expected to teach?

• Are the machine and software reliable?

• If the system breaks down, is there someone else who will fix it?

• Will the amount of time I have to invest in learning to use the system yield a comparable return in student learning?

• Will student use of computers weaken my classroom authority?

The maverick computer-using teachers I have identified sought to substantially change their instructional practices. They welcomed computers with open arms, took courses on their own, incessantly asked questions of experts, and acquired the earliest computers available at their school or for home use. They did so because they sensed that these machines fit their pedagogical beliefs about student learning and would add to the psychic rewards of teaching. Most of the innovators used computers to support existing ways of teaching. Others not only embraced the new technology, but also saw the machines as tools for advancing their student-centered agenda in transforming their classrooms into places where students could actively learn.

Thus, even within the constrained contexts in which teachers found themselves, teachers—as gatekeepers to their classrooms—acted on their beliefs in choosing what innovations to endorse, reflect, and modify.

The introduction of computers into classrooms in Silicon Valley schools had a number of unexpected consequences. They are:

• Abundant availability of a “hard” infrastructure (wiring, machines, software) and a growing “soft” infrastructure (technical support, professional development) in schools in the late 1990’s has not led, as expected, to frequent or extensive teacher use of technologies for tradition-altering classroom instruction.

• Students and teachers use computers and other technologies more at home than at school.

• When a small percentage of computer-using teachers do become serious or occasional users, the—contrary to expectations—largely maintain existing classroom practices.

Slow Revolution

Simply put, more and more teachers will become serious users of computers in their classrooms as the “hard” and “soft” infrastructures mature in schools. This explanation also suggests that uses of technology to preserve existing practices will continue among most teachers but give way slowly to larger numbers, especially as high schools and universities shift to more student-orientated teaching practices.

For the tiny band of teacher-users who have already transformed their classrooms into student-centered, active learning places, the slow-revolution explanation places them in the vanguard of a movement that will eventually convert all classrooms into technology-rich sites. Embedded in the explanation is a supreme confidence that with further work to secure better equipment, more training, and adequate technical support, as the years pass a critical mass of users will accrue, and the gravitational force of this group will draw most of the remaining teacher into technology’s orbit.

Depressing (but accurate) Predictions...

I believe that core teaching and learning practices—shaped by internal and external contexts—would remain very familiar to those who would visit mid-twenty-first-century schools.

Success in making new technologies available obscures, however, the divergent goals spurring the loosely tied coalition. Some promoters sought more productivity through better teaching and learning. Others wanted to transform teaching and learning from traditional textbook lessons to more learner-friendly, student-centered approaches. And some wanted students to become sufficiently computer literate to compete in a workplace that demanded high-level technological skills. Have these varied purposes been achieved in schools?

Beginning with computer or digital literacy, more and more students now take required keyboarding classes and courses in computers that concentrate on learning commonly used software. No consensus, however, exists on exactly what computer literacy is. Among computer advocates, definitions diverge considerably. Is it knowledge of and skill in programming? Is it being able to trouble-shoot computer lapses or software glitches? Is computer literacy knowing how to run popular software applications such as word processing programs and spreadsheets? Or is it simply completing a required course in computers? When we remember the many shifts in the meaning of computer literacy since the 1980's (recall how many experts once urged everyone to learn BASIC programming), any hope of securing agreement on a common definition appears slim. On such an elementary but crucial point, promoters offer little direction to computer-using teachers.

Some researchers have claimed that computer literacy, however defined, pays off in higher wages, further strengthening the educational rationale for using computers in schools. Yet schools can hardly claim full credit for students' growing technological literacy, when many also pick up computer knowledge and skills at home and in part-time jobs. The contribution that school courses and experiences have made to computer literacy and competitiveness in the workplace remains, at best, murky.

Nor has a technological revolution in teaching and learning occurred in the vast majority of American classrooms. Teachers have been infrequent and limited users of the new technologies for classroom instruction. If anything, in the midst of the swift spread of computers and the Internet to all facets of American life, "e-learning" in public schools has turned out to be word processing and Internet searches. As important supplements as these have become to many teachers' repertoires, they are far from the project-based teaching and learning that some techno-promoters have sought. Teachers at all levels of schooling have used the new technology basically to continue what they have always done: communicate with parents and administrators, prepare syllabi and lectures, record grades, assign research papers. These unintended effects must be disappointing to those who advocate more computers in schools.

Securing broad access and equipping students with minimal computer knowledge and skills may be counted as successes. Whether such intended effects lead to high-wage jobs is unclear because the outcomes may be due more to graduates' skills picked up outside of school or to their paper credentials. When it comes to higher teacher and student productivity and a transformation in teaching and learning, however, there is little ambiguity. Both must be tagged as failures. Computers have been oversold and underused, at least for now.

Yet technology will not go away, and educators have to come to terms with it as an educational tool. Understanding technology and the social practices that accompany it as a potent force in society is incumbent on both students and adults. From the telephone to the automobile to the computer, technologies carry with them the baggage of complex social practices and values that need to be explicitly examined.

How early childhood classrooms, high schools, and universities in Silicon Valley and across the nation responded to the last two decades of technological innovations is a case study in both stability and change. No one who attended schools in the 1950's and then visited schools in 2000 could fail to note many important differences in classroom practice. It is untrue that schools or teachers cannot change. Those visitors, however, would also note strong, abiding similarities between classrooms and teaching practices a half-century apart. Those similarities are due to the historical legacies and contexts. Ad hoc incremental changes have occurred often; fundamental changes have occurred seldom.

Although promoters of new technologies often spout the rhetoric of fundamental change, few have pursued deep and comprehensive changes in the existing system of schooling. The introduction of information technologies into schools over the past two decades has achieved neither the transformation of teaching and learning nor the productivity gains that a reform coalition of corporate executives, public officials, parents, academics, and educators have sought. For such fundamental changes in teaching and learning to occur there would have to have been widespread and deep reform in schools' organisational, political, social, and technological contexts.

I predict that the slow revolution in technology access, fuelled by popular support and continuing as long as there is economic prosperity, will eventually yield exactly what promoters have sought: every student, like every worker, will eventually have a personal computer. But no fundamental change in teaching practices will occur. I can imagine a time, for example, when all students use portable computer this way they use notebooks today. The teacher would post math assignments from the text and appropriate links on their Website, which students would access from home. Such access, however, will only marginally reshape the deeply anchored structures of the self-contained classroom, parental expectations of what teachers should be doing, time schedules, and teachers' disciplinary training that help account for the dominant teaching practices. The teacher in my example would use the laptops to sustain existing practices, including homework. In short, historical legacies in school structures and parents' and taxpayers' social beliefs about what schools should be doing, I believe, will trump the slow revolution in teaching practices. Those fervent advocates who seek to transform teaching and learning into more efficient, proactive work through active, student-centered classrooms will find wholesale access to computers ultimately disappointing.

Cuban L (2001). Oversold and underused: computers in the classroom. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


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