Student Achievement Opinion

Why Has Ed Tech Made So Little Difference?

By Marc Tucker — October 13, 2016 7 min read
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Technology in education is a puzzle, and, for those who see the promise, a source of endless frustration. I’ve just returned from a big OECD-sponsored meeting in Jerusalem. The question on the table was whether education policy makers, technologists and entrepreneurs, working together, can force a breakthrough, a way of using technology in schools that will result in a real leap forward in the productivity of an industry that has seen no improvements in productivity in living memory, one of the few industries that seem to be impervious to the steady advance of digital technologies.

Long ago, in the 1980s, I spent three years studying the potential of new digital technologies for education. When those three years were over, I concluded that there was not much chance that they could or would change the way children were educated for a long time. I went off to do other things.

What was stunning for me as I read the excellent materials prepared for this meeting by OECD’s Center for Education Research and Innovation (CERI) was how little had changed. From the hopes expressed to the frustrations enumerated, it was as if I was in a time capsule. Despite truly groundbreaking advances in digital technology in the 30 years since I had done my research, nothing much had changed with respect to the difference it was making in the schools, or in my judgment, likely to make. Unless...but we’ll get to that.

A few stories about three pieces of software produced in the 1980s will set the stage. The first was a simulation of a search for dolphins in the sea. If memory serves me right, students playing the game were successful to the extent that they were able to master simple principles of navigation and make some equally simple observations about weather, water temperature, currents and so on. In the process of playing the game, the students learned a lot about not only dolphins, but also mathematics and physical science. The kids who got to use it were inevitably very excited, totally engaged.

The second piece of software, created by Marge Cappo, was stunning. She captured everyday phenomena like a child pedaling a bike down the road, and then, with the software, made it possible for the student to highlight the motions of the bicycle wheels in such a way that the abstract motion of the wheel as it moved traced classic curves on the screen that corresponded to the algebraic formulas that described these motions. It enabled the student to actually ‘see’ the abstractions of mathematics and connect those abstractions to the formulas that described them. This was mathematics come to life. I was certain that this software would revolutionize the study of geometry and algebra and make both accessible and exciting to students who had previously been baffled by both.

The third piece of software was a simulation of the dynamics of the systems that function in every city--from the subway system to the bus system to the water distribution system to the sewer system and so on. What was great about it was that the students could change the variables and see what would happen. With this tool, the students could study dynamic systems that affected them every day. We live, of course, amidst a vast collection of interacting dynamic systems. If the students could get a sense of what systems are and how they work, they could gain an understanding of one of the most important underlying ideas in science, engineering and life itself.

All of these programs were designed at the dawn of the digital age. You would think that programs of the kind I just described would be much more advanced, that they would by now be used everywhere in our schools and would have long ago transformed the way teachers teach and students learn. But that is not the case. Not at all.

The materials the CERI staff prepared for this meeting tell us that not only that there is no correlation between the investments countries have made in instructional technology and student achievement as measured by PISA, if anything, there is a negative correlation! How could this have happened?

Two other stories will explain it. The first takes place in Singapore in 1989. Singapore had topped the world in mathematics and science in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study rankings. When I visited that country that year, teachers everywhere told me I had to visit the new Singapore instructional technology center. This is the only time in all the decades that I have been visiting schools worldwide that teachers in a whole state or nation have pointed to educational technology when trying to explain their students’ success. When I visited the center, I was astounded. The United States was awash in digital technology. But there was no digital technology in this technology center. The building had a small video studio and shelves piled high with videotapes. Their production values were pretty amateur, but they did a great job of visualizing things that the teachers were trying to teach, things that they could not easily visualize for the students. Everything on those tapes was designed to support the Singapore curriculum. It did not need to be exciting, brilliant or stunning. They were very eager to use it because it helped them do what they were responsible for doing.

But dolphins, American teachers told me, were not in the official curriculum. Neither was navigation nor ocean currents. None of that was going to be on the tests. The curves described by a point on a bicycle wheel as the bike went down the road were beautiful, but those curves were not in the curriculum either, nor would there be any questions about those curves on the test. One could search the texts the teachers were supposed to use for all the courses they were supposed to teach and find no mention of sewer systems, systems for distributing electricity, fresh water systems or any other sort of dynamic system. Never mind finding anything about them on the test at the end of the semester.

But it goes deeper than that. It is not just a matter of alignment between what teachers have been told they are supposed to teach and what the technology can do in the hands of brilliant designers. Most teachers in most countries—certainly in most primary and middle schools—know very little about the curves described by a point on the bicycle wheel or the uses to which knowledge about such things can be put. How many elementary school teachers know anything about coastwise navigation or systems for distributing electricity or the crucial role that feedback plays in the control of such systems or the role that designed systems play in virtually every aspect of modern life?

When I began my study of instructional technology in the early 1980s, I was convinced that digital technology could unleash an enormous improvement in learning for very large numbers of school children all over the world. I still think that.

But that will not happen unless countries and states make very large investments in their teachers. Not, I might add, to teach them how to use technology. That will get us nowhere. Their lack of knowledge about how to use technology has never been the problem. It is their lack of deep knowledge about the doors that the technology can open that is the problem. Teachers will help young children develop an intuitive feel for the connections among algebraic formulas, abstract geometric forms and the rhythms of everyday life when teachers themselves understand those connections and see them in everyday life and marvel at them for their beauty and elegance. They will teach their students about the ubiquity of dynamic systems and the nature of their control when they themselves not only understand such systems and how they work but understand, too, the crucial role they play in the fabric of the lives we lead. Then they will be thinking like engineers, and that will enable them to help their students think like engineers. What I am describing is a very different kind of education—I am speaking of education, not training—than the kind that teachers ordinarily get. But this sort of change in their education is hardly all that is required. The whole curriculum must be rethought. And the standards to which that curriculum is set. And the way student performance is measured. And the things for which teachers will be held accountable. Only then will teachers be both able and willing to look at a brilliantly conceived piece of software that enables students to play with complex systems as a vital aid and not a distraction.

What I am describing is a change in the whole paradigm of the way education is organized in our schools. It is an education that is framed not so much by making sure the student is producing the right answers, but by making sure that the student is good at framing great questions and has access to the tools and the disciplines to get good—not necessarily the only right—answers.

Great technology will get us nowhere without great teachers, but great teachers will not be able to release their own potential, without the kind of technology I have been describing. But it will also take agreement on new goals for student achievement, new student performance standards, new curricula, new assessment systems, new forms of school organization and a fully professional conception of the role of the classroom teacher in the whole process of innovation. In my next blog I will describe what such a system might look like and what policy makers might do to bring it into being.

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