The false premise of tech in schools

So there are a few people leaping for joy because (*squeals*) Daniel Willingham has written an article about technology in education. Apparently it’s rubbish. Edutech that is, not the article. Though I have a few problems with that as well.

I do have a couple of issues when critiquing this article. Firstly, Willingham is presumably focussing his comments on the US experience and mine is all UK. So clearly there are differences but I think when you look at the article you will recognise that there are sufficient similarities to enable a view from my perspective. And secondly, my wife, with her Cognitive Science degree in hand has simply stated, “You do not argue with Daniel Willingham.” She does have a point.

So, wish me luck.

I’m going to pass over the hubris of “It’s time to admit we don’t know what we’re doing…” as I assume that was written by a sub-editor to attract clicks. So lets move straight on to the meat.

A small area of agreement in all this is, of course, the computer-driven whiteboard, on which my views are well known. I’m also not going to argue on the issue on handwriting. I broadly agree with the thrust of his comments and have said as much here. The matter of reading of screen based texts is an interesting one where even Willingham is limited to suggesting that comprehension of on-screen texts is “a little worse” than paper. Lets give it five years and we can revisit that one. As you might expect, I have a post on that as well.

Enough of the self-promotion and back to the article. On to paragraph two:-

We’ve already had one round of chagrined admissions. About 10 years ago, the common practice was buying hardware and dropping it into schools: Every student got a laptop, perhaps, or every classroom got a computer-driven whiteboard. Policymakers finally realized that such purchases don’t boost student achievement or create a new generation of programmers.

I think part of this is down to US/UK differences. In the US there is a lot more global purchasing by local school boards who then effectively make decisions for the schools as to how they should be equipped. In the UK, because of the autonomies that schools have had since the introduction of LMS (ironic, eh) there have been far fewer such initiatives. Purchasing and usage decisions have been in the hands of schools.

It is true that in the mid to late 90’s there was a considerable investment in computer equipment for schools. There were ring-fenced funds provided to school to purchase equipment (initially this was primarily desktops and only later were there laptops, both for students and for teachers). As I understand it the Willingham argument is that this investment has not led to any discernable increase in learning outcomes.

Whilst I can’t talk for the US experience, the purpose behind the investment in the UK was not around the development of teaching and learning. In UK schools the investment went predominantly into stand alone IT suites (rather than laptop programmes for every student – these are still exceedingly rare) where the timetable was mainly for ICT lessons. It was to ensure that students leaving schools were IT literate and able to move into an increasingly technology enhanced workplace. I would argue that in this there has been some success. Go out into the workplace and look around you.

So to criticise this investment on the grounds that it didn’t achieve something it didn’t set out to is a little unfair.

What I find interesting is that Willingham focuses on exactly the same thing that supporters of the use of technology in education are often vilified for – the equipment, the gadgets, the shiny things. As with most things, there is a small amount of truth in stereotype, but to be honest, it is a very small amount. When this technology was new there was an obvious focus on the “thing”. The bigger truth is that most users of educational technology, certainly those in the UK, have moved on from this to focus on the pedagogy and how (and more importantly, when) it can be enhanced by an appropriate use of technology. The dog is completely in charge here. The tendency is for technology to be used discretely for specific purposes where it has effect. Whilst there are a very small minority of schools where all students have iPads (other tablets are available) where this is the case I generally see them used appropriately under the direction of a teacher.

As for laptops, does anyone actually use those anymore?

Willingham does allude to this later in the article with the suggestion “Moving forward calls for different strategies, depending on whether a new technology changes how we deliver instruction or whether it changes the content itself.” My take on this is that users of edu-tech have already moved on. They are using different strategies. And they are reviewing what they do and amending their strategies as they go. Like good teachers do with every strategy they adopt.

I’m not sure if it’s Daniel Willingham who is behind the curve here, or if it is the whole of the US, and he is just commenting on that. To an extent, I think he, and others, are fighting the past. It is certainly the case that accepting his comments as universally applicable would be a mistake.


5 thoughts on “The false premise of tech in schools

  1. Hi Mike
    Thanks for reading my piece!
    I’m glad you didn’t see my argument as being broadly anti-tech…I sure don’t see it that way. My concern is with decision-making, and that may well be different in the US. I wrote the piece because so many teachers I encounter feel that tech purchasing decisions are made with minimal consultation with practitioners, who are then expected to incorporate new tech in their lesson planning. My real focus was on how those decisions are made; I suggest that the way that tech will intract with the human mind is taken to be self-evident. The three assumptions I mentioned are ones I probably would have made as well, ten years ago. I don’t mean to imply that ed administrators are dopey…but I do think they are incautious.

    Several people responded as you did, suggesting that tech experts are not so naive as I suggest. I’ve talked to plenty who are quite sophisticated on Twitter, but I’ve also talked with a lot (in schools and districts) who cannot provide straightforward answers to questions like “what were you expecting to improve? And how will you know if it’s improving?”

    I think the general answer “familiarity with tech” as you suggest here is a good answer to that question, especially in schools where students are unlikely to get that exposure at home. In schools with mostly wealthier kids, I’m less convinced.

    I recognize most of this is anecdotal, just my experience. If there are nationally representative data on these matters, I don’t know about them.

  2. You seem to be providing anecdotal generalizations here. While I’m not in the UK, I can tell you that Willingham’s analysis is bang-on in Alberta, Canada. Money is being spent on tech for tech’s sake. Kudos to you all in the UK if that’s not the case.

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