Fast or good? or Who’s in charge of ed tech innovation?

A recent policy brief by Noel Enyedy, posted at the National Education Policy Center, tells an interesting story about research on “computer-mediated learning.”  In reading it, I’m bothered all over again about the strange paradox of “educational technology.”  In his analysis, the evidence is weak for the benefits of computer-mediated learning of several kinds, including games, animations and other video products.

For example, Enyedy reviews literature about the effectiveness of digital systems for “personalized instruction,”  one of the many hopeful arguments in favor of large investments in school tech.  One version of  “personalized instruction”  is linked to “adaptive systems”: with the right systems in place, we can diagnose each child’s location in a learning progression, as she works in a digital environment which tracks her work, evaluates roadblocks and avenues of progress, and makes choices about how to display new tasks, information, or other scaffolding to get her from where she is to the system’s goal for her.    Other versions of personalized learning are less comprehensive in architecture, and leave more to the initiative and choice of the learner or teacher.  In any case, however, Enyedy’s meta-analysis of studies about personalized instruction suggests that only the most hopeful advocate could see much evidence of benefit.  He writes:

Studies conducted from 2004- 2009 showed a .008 increase in effect size when compared to studies that used technologies that were state of the art from 1997-2003. It is important to note as well that outcomes primarily reflected procedural (or how to) knowledge, not increased efficacy for declarative (informational) knowledge or strategic thinking. That is, improvements do not effectively yield the type of conceptual understanding, problem solving and complex thinking that the current economy requires.

Now, Enyedy holds out the possibility that personalized instruction might show more impact if implemented in a way more in line with students’ technology use outside of school — meaning mobile devices, mostly.   There is not much evidence that this strategy is the right way to go, but it is an avenue that he suggests we should explore.  He also points out (his discussion is thoughtful and I will not do it justice here!) that “personalized instruction” is not the same as “personalized learning,” in which the student has more control over pacing and sometimes other elements of the learning process. This can certainly be supported by digital tools, though it is also supported by books, libraries, teachers, study-buddies, and all the other tools that learners have used for “personalized learning” for the past several centuries.   His brief also includes some valuable suggestions to school systems about how to think clearly about their investment in technology if “personalized instruction” is a key benefit being sought.

But Enyedy’s brief points up the paradox I mentioned above: Given all the knowledge and skill that teachers must bring to bear in their difficult and subtle work with growing minds,   the relentless push to incorporate new technologies of indeterminate value into the classroom can’t be at bottom an educational choice.  One can dismiss critics like Larry Cuban as curmudgeons with Luddite tendencies (see his latest reflections on flashes-in-the-panaceas), but in a time of intense fiscal pressure on schools (and parents), and intense exploitation of the educational “market,” the lessons of history, and of research, seem like wisdom.  Teachers and other educators have no help from  anything like an FDA (however imperfect)  to enforce clinical trials of new technologies before they are advocated on the open market, or even mandated by policy; any very roughly analogous agency, like the Dept. of ED’s What Works Clearinghouse,  is all too vulnerable to the ideology du jour.

Ernst Mayr once opined that biology is uniquely complex among the sciences because it has to reckon with almost all the processes of the known universe.  Human society piles on yet more complications, and in education we see all the ingredients of human society in condensed and unstable form — full of potential, and also still full of mystery.  Our tools are far less complex than we are ourselves, and  it takes a long time to figure out what’s happening when we apply them.  (Most educators gratefully — thankfully! —  abandoned the birch rod as an educational technology a few decades ago, but it has to be said that the effects of corporal punishment were complex enough that a few people in our society can still argue that corporal punishment is an necessary expedient in the classroom.  Is that an educational judgment, or something else?)

How are you weighing the technology choices that face you?  What kind of evidence convinces you that a new tool is likely to be worth the investment to buy it and put it to good use?

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