Last week I posted an introduction to Larry Cuban’s current, “live blogged” research on technology integration. By the time I’d written that post, Larry had already posted some classroom observation notes from several different subjects — AP history, AP physics, intro Bio, Spanish, and others. I was looking especially for cases of STEM classes, but of course couldn’t help scanning the others. I have to say that I was hoping to find, in AP US History or Spanish or AmLit, some stellar new approach to the subject that clearly was an improvement on earlier technique, impossible without the computer. IMHO, there were no such surprises, alas.
I hasten to say that I am not judging the teachers here — Larry pays attention to the students’ attention during the class sessions, and notes whether there are students “off task” or perhaps distracted by Internet access. There are really few instances of this. The students are paying attention, engaged or at least cooperative, almost all the time. So the classes are “working.” When students use computers for language drill, for example, or to write their answers to a “document based question” in US History, the technology perhaps affords a small improvement in efficiencies of various kinds. Yet the work that they are doing — reading, writing, practicing, etc., — are bread-and-butter tasks that get done in classrooms that have no technology at all — well, except for paper and writing instruments, books, perhaps audio recordings…
In the bio class, the students do a lot of visualization and model-building as they learn about DNA and related subjects — but it’s done in the head, or with pencil and paper. The principal digital technology used is the whiteboard, and it is used essentially as a screen for projecting slides presenting some content, guidelines or supports for activities, etc. The students also post analogies they have constructed for chromosomes, genes, and DNA, and can look on the class website to see what other classes have suggested as analogies. This seems engaging enough, and the work is going on in the students’ heads — reasoning and imagination — where it has to happen in the end anyway. The technology is not obtrusive, and appears to me to be mildly helpful, but not irreplaceable.
Perhaps the most demanding task using digital technology was reported in the Physics class, and involves creating student reports as simple videos. For example, in the physics class, the teacher
segues to [the] second and last activity of the 90-minute lesson: students making instructional videos to show how the class, divided into pairs and trios, will solve problems about different projectiles’ velocity, range, etc. that teacher had assigned to them.
Teams of students will be given a problem to solve; they need to solve it, and then create their instructional video about how their solution. All these videos will be posted online, so that the students can use them in preparing for the unit exam.
For the next seven minutes, Hine, standing at the white board in the front of the room, reviews each of the five steps in making a problem solving video: diagram their solution of problem, write the necessary formulas, do the story board, take photos of what they have done, where they put their names, and doing voiceovers…
The teacher here is doing some tech support, for a generic technology which of course they can use in other contexts as well (and maybe have). And here I want to flag a consequence of technology integration as it seems to occur in the wild: tech support becomes a pretty large part of the teacher’s work. For example, earlier in this same classroom, an activity involved students reviewing each other’s lab reports posted in a class area on-line, and do some peer-to-peer critique using a shared rubric. The reports in digital representations are (I expect) probably legible because typed, and accompanied by data representations of some kind, and perhaps photos taken during the lab, etc. So there will be some benefit in having them in online form. But again, tech support is needed:
Accessing the rubric,,,from the mixed set of devices and operating systems students have such as Apple tablets, laptops, Windows and other devices including Chromebooks, is cumbersome. The district mandated a Bring-Your-Own-Device program two years ago and students bring in Apple, Google, and other devices. The school makes available Chromebooks to students who lack a tablet. Each type has its own operating instructions and sharing documents from one device to another becomes an oft-repeated procedure in the class.
Hine gives three sets of step-by-step directions to students with different devices. Expressing frustration , the teacher gives another set of directions for students using Chromebooks. In asking students to share lab reports across computers, Hine gives more instructions for how students can share.
Obviously, these are single observations in each class. Over the course of the year, the classrooms are likely to show a broad variety of activities, participant structures, learning tasks, and tool use (digital and otherwise). These vignettes, however, are just what I would expect to see, on any random drop-in on a science classroom these days. The technology is there, and is used naturally for writing and communication. The activities do not seem to me to be different in kind from activities in a classroom from 25 years ago — you may say that making an instructional video is an advance, or at least a notable difference. I’d be interested to hear, in that case, how it differs from the team of students working up the problem, and presenting it to a class discussion viva voce? The benefit of re-use (posting the videos for others to refer to) is also of interest, but again there are interesting questions to ask about how to support students’ learning from each other in substantive ways.
Perhaps these quotidian uses of technology are beneficial because digital tools and environments constitute something of a common language in our culture these days. Moreover, they might (when one is in an optimistic mood) constitute the tip of an iceberg — and below the water (or out of sight of these observations) there are the spectacular, deep, breakthrough things — spreadsheet modeling, student inquiry driving digital data collection and analysis, collaboration across classrooms or schools, access to remote instrumentation…
But all those exciting possibilities represent pedagogical and curricular innovations, towards scientific inquiry and authentic practice, which (with the necessary teacher supports and administrative arrangements) are still the critical, rare, precious ingredient of school reform worth the name.