Thursday, January 10, 2008

Jack & the Magic School House

Is the technology school reform agenda is working as promised? Are we receiving an adequate return on investment for the substantial monies being spent on introducing technology into the classroom and has there been any fundamental methodological shift in how the curriculum is being delivered? In essence, where is the magic?

Once upon a time there was a poor woman who lived in a little house with her son Jack. Their worldly possessions consisted of nothing more than a milking cow. The cow had grown too old and was no longer suitable for milking so the mother sent Jack off to sell it.

Many public educators purport the need to shift our paradigm seemingly because the old public education cow’s milk has gone sour.

While traveling to town, young Jack met a stranger. "I will give you five magic beans for your cow," said the stranger. Jack remembered the admonition of his mother that it was important for their very survival that he strikes a good deal. This caused Jack to hesitate, but only momentarily as his thoughts soon shifted from his mother to the extraordinary powers of the magic beans.

In 1996, President Clinton proclaimed “The facts speak for themselves, children with access to computers learn faster and better…children master basic skills in 30% less time.” And so began an age of “techno-positivism” where those who weren’t comfortable with technology risked being labeled as illiterate or more accurately, computer illiterate (Robertson, 2005). In a national study conducted in 1998, 60% of Canadians viewed having a computer in the classroom as an important factor in achieving academic success, but in the same study only 27% of those surveyed considered socio-economic status as having an impact on learning (Robertson, 2005). The truly sad part of this statistic is that the survey did not even indicate what the classroom computer was being used for.

When Jack returned home with the magic beans, his mother was furious and reprimanded him sternly: “Foolish boy, what have you done? There were so many things we needed to buy with the money and now we are left with nothing.” Then, completely exasperated, Jack’s mother threw the magic beans out the kitchen window and sent Jack to bed without his dinner.
We all know how the fable ends. A magic beanstalk grows, Jack goes on a magnificent adventure, kills the evil Giant, and everyone lives happily ever after. How ludicrous can you get? I have no problems believing in giants, singing harps, or a magical goose, but my sensibilities are offended when asked to swallow that any seed will grow without being properly cultivated.

Sadly, in many cases, this is exactly what has been expected of public schools when it comes to the integration of technology in the classroom. Without proper planning, a suitable infrastructure, or appropriate training, educators are being asked to walk away from a century old method of teaching and successfully adapt to a new system (Bell, 2006).

However walking away is exactly what we will need to do with 80% of new jobs in the next decade, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, coming from positions that don’t presently exist (Rivero, 2006). In his October 14th essay posting on Page out, Rich cited Peter Senge who said that, “The industrial age assembly-line model for education has…produced generations of ‘knower’s,’ not life-long learners, people beautifully prepared for a world that no longer exists”.
The question then is how to cultivate the magic beans of technology in order to allow students to climb the beanstalk of lifelong learning. In her October 1st Page-out entry, Danelle outlined several impediments to technological integration including poor planning and implementation, low levels of technological literacy, hidden costs, standardized testing requirements, professional development, and teacher attitude.

Of these factors, I consider professional development and teacher attitude as paragons of inertia when it comes to shifting our educational paradigm to reflect 21st century skills. According to Vail (2006) the success of 21st century students is predicated upon the acquisition of a global awareness, as well as, communication, collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking skills.

Rivero (2006) outlined multiple factors to ensure effective professional development takes place:

Work collaboratively
Avoid one size fits all training
Teach communication and data translation skills
Don’t stand and deliver technology training
Provide guided activities and authentic problems
Must be ongoing
Increase teacher planning time

Many researchers have pointed toward pre-service teacher education as the vehicle for developing the skills and attitudinal traits necessary for successful technological integration in the classroom. Kay (2006) presented 10 strategies for facilitating the inclusion of technology in pre-service education which are summarized below. However, to date, there is no consolidated viewpoint on best practices for effectively introducing technology to pre-service teachers (Kay, 2006).

Integrated – Utilize technology in all pre-service courses
Multimedia – Technological case studies, online courses, and e-portfolios
Education faculty – Focus on supporting technology and teacher attitudes
Single Course – Stand alone course devoted to teaching technology in the classroom
Modeling – Transfers directly to classroom application
Collaboration – Partnerships between schools to develop technology rich learning experiences
Field-based – Hands on experience, highly recommended by NCATE
Workshops – Short, focused seminars
Access – Increased access for pre-service teachers to both hardware and software
Mentor Teachers – Work with pre-service teachers to apply technology in a relevant way

With the ground fertile and seeds carefully cultivated, is it reasonable to expect our learning outcomes to grow? If so, what type of harvest will our technological beanstalk yield? Cuban (2001) posited computers had little effect on learning outcomes or, in some cases, a negative impact. He believed this was due to a lack of clear understanding on how to properly integrate technology into our lessons. Kozma (2003), on the other hand, took the stance that integration of technology in the classroom would result in significant improvement in achievement scores, student attitudes, and general levels of comprehension.

Despite conflicting evidence on outcomes, the one thing we know for sure is that the use of technology in public school classrooms is on the rise. I see three available options educators have for responding to the technological wave of change:

Get out in front of the issue
Ride the wave
Brace for impact

Pub Ed...


Bell, M. (2006). Technoholics anonymous? Multimedia & Internet Schools, 13(4), 37-39.

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

Kay, R. (2006). Evaluating strategies used to incorporate technology into pre-service education: A review of the literature. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 38(4), 383-408.

Kozma, R. B. (2003). Technology and classroom practices: An international study: Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 36(4) 331-337.

Rivero, V. (2006). Providing the big picture. American School Board Journal, 193(9), 52-53.

Rivero, V. (2006). Teaching your staff. American School Board Journal, 193(9), 54-55.

Robertson, H. (2005). Black Magic. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(1), 90.

Vail, K. (2006). A tool for reform. American School Board Journal, 193(7), 14-18.

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