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Technology not the cure-all for Michigan's classrooms

Flickr/Brian Flickinger

The Next Idea

Technological innovation alone doesn’t improve education. We often assume that the latest gadgets and software will change everything — that they will make things easier and better and solve larger problems. The truth is that technology is just one aspect in a larger web of cultural issues, and new breakthroughs by themselves will not have a broad effect on overall learning.

An example is when I worked with one of the country’s largest public school systems that wanted to incorporate computer-based training into its curriculum to improve functional literacy. The assumption was that access to a computer and technological competency would enhance the education of students who otherwise would have struggled. This wasn’t the case. The technology we brought into the classroom didn’t bring out the kind of fundamental shift that we expected.

Last summer, the Los Angeles Unified School District abandoned a $1.3 billion program to give an iPad to every student. The headlines screamed about how the clever youngsters got around the security measures to access inappropriate web content, but the hearings on the scandal suggest the challenges were much deeper.

Teachers treated the devices as electronic books while students where significantly more fluent in the possibilities of the technology. The classroom remained relatively the same: The bell rang to start and end the period; students sat at their desks; the teacher lectured; they were assigned homework and then dismissed. The opportunities to seamlessly connect, customize the experience, tutor the student in real time, or flip the classroom so that homework could be done during school hours were all lost because the perception as to what constitutes effective education remained unchanged.

Regrettably, I suspect the same will hold true for those school districts in Michigan that are introducing hand-held technology, a wide array of apps, and online courses like those of the Khan Academy to make the education of their students better, cheaper and faster. While some primary school test scores have slightly improved during the last decade, there is little credible correlation between the availability of technology and any significant progress in improving achievement scores or closing the alarming achievement gap.

I love new technologies and believe we should use them at every available opportunity, but these remarkable gadgets alone won’t bring innovation into our schools. 

So What’s The Next Idea?

How exactly can we start the kind of larger-scale cultural change that technological innovation on its own cannot bring about? The key is to use technology not as an end by itself, but as a means to reach something else. Here’s what I mean:

  • Fall in Love with the Problem; Not the Solution: Any new gadget simply dropped into a complex set of circumstances, such as a classroom, is most likely to be co-opted by them. Instead, try to work backwards to understand the underlying challenges and potential opportunities the situation presents. Run experiments with small diverse groups of students and teachers to see what works and what doesn’t, and most importantly, why. This will give you some understanding as to the underlying issues and an opportunity to develop some simple rules that can be applied en masse.
  • Stop Boiling the Ocean to Extract Gold: As Teddy Roosevelt put it “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Seek out early adaptors in your schools and provide them with new technologies. Work with them to find suitable applications and new uses, engaging them step by step and making adjustments as you go along.
  • What’s in It For Me?: For the most part, people are self-interested and tend to do what’s best for them and their immediate community. Deal with it. Highlight the rewards these new technologies provide the first users when introducing them to their peers. Most important, let the lead users develop a sense of personal ownership for these innovations and their management in the classroom. 

To use a bookish metaphor, technology is simply the binding and paper that contain the book as a physical artifact. While the narrative may be written on the pages in between, the real story is how we make sense of it all. The challenge is to move innovation beyond the technology to the desperate classrooms where it may first enable, and at last enlighten. 
Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

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