Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Billion Dollar Educational Gamble

I had a really interesting assignment for one of my courses this week. We are discussing diffusion of innovation--how ideas spread through culture--and in particular, how technologies spread through educational institutions. My professor hit upon a very practical example for us to explore: the Los Angeles Unified School District's recent decision to provide an iPad for every student in the district. The project is tremendously costly (estimated at one billion dollars!), and despite initial enthusiasm, LAUSD is currently catching quite a lot of negative attention in education news for some of the project's unintended consequences.

Image by Robert Scoble CC BY 2.0
Our assignment was to read quite a bit of background on the situation, and then apply what we are learning about diffusion of innovation theory to the LAUSD iPad project, and write an Op Ed piece for the L.A. Times in which either attack or defend the District's decision. (Actual submission to the Times is not a required part of the assignment.) I confess, I was a little torn on whether to attack or defend, as I see both sides of the situation, and I actually love my own iPad. But I'm not sure about the way the LAUSD has handled this particular situation so far.

What follows is my first draft of this assignment, which I will refine in consultation with classmates this week.

The Billion Dollar Educational Gamble

The Los Angeles Unified School District’s bold decision to put an iPad into the hands of every student is a misguided attempt to catapult their enormous student population into the high tech world. I believe the way this project was implemented is deeply flawed; the District has missed three key elements of a successful educational technology deployment: understanding the devices themselves, understanding the students using the devices, and understanding the teachers using the devices. Let’s consider each of these elements in turn.

First, the iPads themselves. It seems that everyone wants a tablet today--and an iPad in particular!--so of course schools will be likely to look to adapt tablets as an educational tool. The problem is that most tablets--including the iPad--are simply not designed for educational settings. They may function well enough in an educational setting, but it is important to remember that these are primarily designed to be consumer products.

As a consumer product, the iPad is beautifully designed, and--as Apple products generally do--it just “works.” But does the iPad work as well as an educational device? There are technical challenges to managing a large number of iPads. While the District rightly decided to lock down the devices as securely as possible, the very design of the device and its software makes it challenging to do so. 

I am concerned about what I have read regarding the District’s plans for what students will actually do with the devices. It sounds to me that most of the apps being pushed to students are of the drill-and-practice variety, rather than creative, open-ended applications. While there certainly is a place for drill-and-practice, the District leadership should remember that this methodology really only leads to what Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues have deemed relatively lower-order thinking skills such as remembering and understanding. The iPad could open up new possibilities for content creation as well not just consumption, which is the way many consumers use their iPads in a non-educational setting. But considering the iPad in education as a means for students to create meaning rather than simply consume information might pave the way to Bloom’s higher-order thinking skills of applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. 

Second, I think the District should have more thoughtfully considered the students who were to be receiving these devices. Yes, the District rightly put filters in place to limit and hopefully prevent students access to inappropriate material, and it is understandable that they would want to block students’ access to social media during the school day, as it might distract students from their academic work. I think that District officials, however, have underestimated students’ ingenuity and overestimated the confidence they should place in technological solutions to these problems. Students, given enough time and freedom, will find ways around any filter, around any obstacle.

I was dismayed, therefore, that the District reacted with such surprise that students were able to find ways to work around the filter. This shows that they do not give their students enough credit for being thinkers, planners, and innovators themselves! Trusting a filter to keep students on task is an approach doomed to failure. The best way to ensure that students are using the devices as they are supposed to is a vigilant and present teacher in the classroom with the students.

Finally, the critical piece to any educational technology innovation is securing enough “buy-in” from the teachers who will be using the tools in their classrooms. Certainly it is unrealistic to expect that 100% of the teachers will be in favor of any change of this magnitude, but as I look at the research on diffusion of innovation--particularly in the work of Everett Rogers, it seems to me that the District could have taken a more thoughtful approach. As Rogers indicates, certainly there will always be a small fraction of “innovators” always looking for the next big thing; this corresponds to the small group of teachers always willing to take the risk to try out a different approach or a new technology in the classroom. And, given the successes of those initial innovators, there will be other early adopters excited about the possibilities new technologies can afford. Beyond these small, initial groups, others may be interested but even more cautious about such a shift of culture. These early majority teachers and their late majority colleagues are likely to get on board once they see a proven benefit--and assuming adequate training is provided. And, certainly, there will always be some laggards who actively resist change. 

When the District simply mandates that a full-scale change in technology is going to happen, they should not be surprised that a majority of their teachers feel ill-equipped to cope with the demands of the new technologies. All indications point to the fact that the teachers themselves had only a short time and very little training to acclimate to the new devices. And while the relatively small groups of innovators and early-adopters would likely not have any trouble getting up to speed, this leaves a large proportion of teachers floundering  or even actively resisting the change. If it is true, as reported, that teachers had only a few days of training

My continuing question for the District is this: “How are the iPads going to be used?” Is the iPad just the sparkly, 21st-century version of cardboard flashcards to practice arithmetic and spelling? Is the iPad thrust into students hands with no clear explanation and guidance for appropriate use? Is the iPad mandated to teachers as a learning technology without appropriate support and targeted professional development? If the intention is to transform teaching and learning by using these devices to extend learning beyond school walls, beyond school hours, beyond pencil and paper and textbook (digital or not), I believe good may still come out of this billion dollar educational gamble.

No comments:

Post a Comment