Monthly Archives: February 2010

using educational technology in support of the status quo

or, don’t mind me, I’m having a pessimistic day

Schools, god love ’em, are abysmally bad at embracing new technologies. But they’re not, you know, equally bad at embracing all technologies. Some technologies get taken up right away.

The mechanical pencil: Immediate integration. (And Algebra teachers everywhere gave a holler of joy.) The word processor: once it got cheap enough, it got glommed onto by administrators. The increasing popularity of its successor, the desktop computer, was inversely proportional to its cost. Suddenly, there emerged a need for teachers to provide students with basic computing skills  (and Mr. Towers, my 6th grade Computer teacher, gave a holler of joy). This included basic proficiency with word processing programs, and some computer teachers squeaked in some instruction in Logo or similar programming languages. Dry erase boards. Printers and copiers.

These are, of course, technologies that do not challenge the established norms and practices of the educational system–they are, as Joshua Danish recently put it, technologies that help us to do more efficiently what we were already doing.

Which explains, in large part, how new technologies are so often twisted all out of context, the meaning wrung out of them, when they’re brought into schools. In their natural habitats, discussion forums can be some of the most rollicking, crazy, intellectually challenging, capricious and unpredictable spaces for intelligent discourse, places where people get so excited about discussion topics that they’re willing to fight dirty if that’s what it takes to win an argument. In schools, discussion forums are often used as IRE spaces, where students respond to simple questions and, to fulfill class participation requirements, post three comments that amount to “I agree.” YouTube operates on the premise that open conversation, even at its most inane or vicious, is an essential component of an engaged, broad community; SchoolTube, its educational doppelganger, offers a limited number of canned “comments” in a dropdown menu, with no apparent option for adding a personal note of any sort. (There is value to this approach. In the wild, when you encounter a flame war in a discussion forum, you can close a tab and go elsewhere. If we require student use of an online network, then we’re also responsible for protecting learners from forced exposure to trolls.)

I struggle over how to feel about new educational technologies that demonstrate gains in learning. Teachable agents, intelligent tutors–some of these technologies have proven to be quite effective in helping kids master difficult content. But to do this, these tools work within the established constructs of the institution. Here’s how Kenneth Koedinger and Albert Corbett describe the premise behind “cognitive tutors,” computer programs designed to aid instruction:

Cognitive Tutors support learning by doing, an essential aspect of human tutoring…. Cognitive Tutors accomplish two of the principal tasks characteristic of human tutoring: (1) monitoring the student’s performance and providing context-specific instruction just when the individual student needs it, and (2) monitoring the student’s learning and selecting problem-solving activities involving knowledge goals just within the individual student’s reach.

Which is a fine and laudable set of goals, except for the fact that these Cognitive Tutors monitor performance and learning on school-based, decontextualized activities, offering tutoring on math problems like, for example, how to solve the equation 3(2x+5)=9:

This sort of technology works beautifully in support of overloaded teachers who can’t provide individual instruction for students. In this respect, it’s a useful technology, and one that I’m sure leads to gains on, for example, standardized tests. Maybe this sort of technology even works for the kid who’s a fantastic scorekeeper at the bowling alley but flounders in math class. But it seems to me that what this technology teaches, more than anything else, is how to “do school”–how to perform well on bizarre, decontextualized math problems–without actually making explicit why doing well on bizarre, decontextualized math problems is valued.

Cognitive Tutors, in other words, don’t really extend much of a challenge to the status quo; they just help schools do what they were already doing, just a little bit more effectively. In their recent book, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America, Allan Collins and Richard Halverson write about schools’ three-pronged approach to tamping down innovative technologies: condemn the technology, co-opt the technology, and marginalize the technology. According to Collins and Halverson, any innovative technology that gets taken up in schools must first have the innovation squeezed out of it. I wonder if intelligent tutors aren’t just another example in support of their skepticism.

Sigh. Don’t mind me. I’m just having a pessimistic day. Here’s a diagram. Click on it to see a larger version. You can also see a .pdf of the diagram here.