Yesterday, I attended Google’s Big Tent Event in Hertfordshire. As an academic, I’m used to attending conferences at universities or Hiltons, not countryside resorts with helicopter pads. The event was held in a grand tent that could easily hold 500 people. It was well-insulated from weather and noise, carpeted, with an extraordinary sound and projection system, consistent and fast wi-fi, comfortable chairs, and to be honest, even the bathrooms were amazing. As I sat in my chair, discovering electrical plugs conveniently located under each seat, I couldn’t help but compare this temporary structure for Google’s few days of publicity events to public classrooms in their home state of California. I’ve conducted teaching observations in many elementary classrooms where 28 students share two or three computers, often less, because one computer isn’t working and a request to fix it may take days or months because budget cuts have resulted in limited staffing. I’ve lectured in university classrooms that either do not have a projector or the projector is broken and again, the fix will take weeks, months to fix because budget cuts have limited technical support. School-wide wi-fi is an unrealized dream at most schools. Even at the university level, a majority of classrooms in California do not have it. California schools’ permanent structures frequently do not have the insulation from weather or noise that Google’s amazing temporary structure boasted.
I wonder what could be possible if teachers had classrooms that functioned as well as Google’s Big Tent? If teachers had the technical and administrative support that benefited yesterday’s speakers, how could students’ learning experiences be improved?
Do the quality of bathrooms reflect the health of an institution? MP Jeremy Hunt may say yes. In his address to the Big Tent group yesterday, Jeremy Hunt drew connections between the vision demonstrated when developing London’s sewage system to current efforts to improve broadband infrastructure in the UK. The secret is the size of the pipes, apparently, and larger ones will ensure preparation for future data demands. Mr. Hunt used South Korea, who is #1 in OECD’s educational rankings, as an example of the success possible with super-fast broadband. While discussing funding models for the project, including private support, Mr. Hunt did not address what would seem an obvious part of the equation: education funding. UK schools have been hard hit by recent budget cuts, including canceling the Building Schools for the Future Scheme and recent £155m additional cuts in the standards fund. If the education rankings of South Korea are serving as justification for investing in infrastructure for faster broadband, it would seem that simultaneously cutting funding for education serves cross-purposes.
While much public debate surrounds the quality of education, often solely blaming teachers, the quality of educational environments, including support at the technical, facilities, and administrative levels need more attention. Let’s use Google’s Big Tent, rather than makeshift shelters, as a model for classrooms and start directing funding to supporting students and their teachers, rather than forcing them to make due without.
I’ve been traveling to Oxford for the past two years and in that time, I’ve gotten familiar with the City Centre area, in particular, the city’s homeless. For the most part, the same people show up at the same posts every day, with a few newcomers, but rain or shine, they’re there, selling the Big Issue late into the night.
Yesterday, walking home, I came upon a group of students in front of Debenham’s taking pictures as one student held out what appeared to be 50p and a homeless man reached for it. After a few students took the picture, the one holding out the money kept it rather than giving it to the homeless man. I was horrified. As I walked past them, I thought, this isn’t Disneyland, you’re photographing people who are suffering. As I made my way down Cornmarket Street, I overheard someone standing in another large group of students (I couldn’t place their age…somewhere between 16 and 18) say, “great! next we need to take a picture of a homeless person!” People in the group cheered. I noticed the girl talking was holding a sheet of paper, so I walked into the center of the group, snatched the piece of paper and demanded to know what group they were with. EF, the International Language School, which incidentally has pulled similarly unacceptable stunts in my hometown. Apparently, the students were on a Scavenger Hunt and one of the items to collect was a photograph of a homeless person.
I told the students that the people they’re photographing are suffering already and asked them how they felt about what they were about to do. Most looked at me blankly. One shrugged and muttered, it’s on the sheet. So, I asked, do any of you feel that this is wrong? Only two in a group of about 11 hung their heads. A few said, it’s part of the game. Of course I find the exercise offensive and wish on whoever wrote it that they could experience being down and out so that they’ll learn a little compassion. More importantly, though, it really bothers me that these students were ‘doing what they’re told’ without critically evaluating (1) the directive, and (2) its consequences.
A consistent theme in literacy research is an idea that critical engagement is an essential component of citizenry. Part of understanding an idea or concept is questioning it, determining how it fits with prior experience/knowledge, and forming an individual apprehension of what it means. Low literacy, then, is an inability to actively engage with a concept, either because of lack of access to information or low comprehension of the concept or its implications. In the case of The Scavenger Hunt, the students seemed to not critically engage with the assignment or compare it with what they know about human rights or respect for others.
So, while EF certainly failed their students in this assignment, I wonder why these teens haven’t learned this skill in school, from their parents, or just through life experience. I understand that peer pressure or group think were at play and there’s a lot of directions from which to approach this disgraceful act. I think it stands as a strong example of the consequences of a failure to critically engage.
Incidentally, when I pointed out the offensive nature of their Scavenger Hunt to the two EF leaders, they immediately tracked down as many students as they could to ask them not to complete that portion of the assignment. They hadn’t read the assignment before handing it out…
Started as a way to tutor his cousin, Sal Khan has developed an extensive library of online lessons in subjects ranging from Math to Science to History. While most online learning approaches are stuck in either the lecture format or the impersonal slide delivery (or worse, just a list of readings), Sal found a way to personalize the learning experience.
When I was in high school in the late 80′s — early 90′s, it seemed that the U.S. education system was an abysmal failure — after all, weren’t the Soviets and the Chinese students scoring higher in math? Today, headlines still decry our education system as a failure. In a recent op-ed piece published in the New York Times,“One Classroom, From Sea to Shining Sea,” Susan Jacoby advocates for a national system with a standardized curriculum, standardized teacher training, and standardized funding. She states that our system has outgrown its antiquated independent heritage.
Funding. It’s difficult to discuss problems with our educational system without discussing funding. As a California resident, I’ve watched funding drastically diminish with, among other things, the passage of Proposition 13, the Enron scandal, and our latest recession. Education is not a funding priority. Regardless of curricular referendums, standardized testing, and increased accountability for teachers, without consistent and ample funding, our schools will continue to degrade. Without realistic budgets for classrooms, teachers, and materials, we are expecting the impossible from our schools. Even as a university teacher, I have often purchased supplies for my students and classroom. Under the best conditions, teachers labor with limited support. Imagine spending 6 hours in a classroom with thirty 12 year olds (those of you with pre-teens understand the challenge of an hour with just one), five days a week. While competing for their attention and attempting to manage the classroom chatter, now imagine that class days are longer due to budget cuts, or you’ve had a wasp’s nest near the outside classroom door for six months, despite several requests to have it with removed, so you need to keep the door and outside windows shut. Now imagine that most of the toilets don’t work because the district has had to cut a majority of its maintenance staff (I’m describing a colleague’s actual experience in a Southern California school district). These externalities are rarely part of discussions about our education system. Instead, let’s talk about standardized testing and holding teachers more accountable.
Education isn’t simply something to criticize. We all have a stake in its success. We choose. We choose to prioritize other issues, vote against bond measures, argue the intricacies of esoteric tax rules, and then blame our teachers, their training, or some other indefinable scapegoat for our failure to adequately educate our future. Let’s put our energy into figuring out an ample funding scheme for our schools, giving teachers and students the resources they need, create a climate of success and then re-visit questions of standardized tests, national curricula, and teacher accountability.
A colleague of mine recently asked for reading recommendations in the area of Educational Technology, and I started thinking about the trail I followed (a la, Vannevar Bush) to arrive at my current notions of the field.
I taught college composition from 1998-2003. Some of my colleagues were teaching Dreamweaver or FrontPage in their composition classes. By teaching, I don’t mean that they were teaching how to communicate on the Web as much as how to use the programs, in other words, they were spending class time showing what each button of the respective programs did. In essence, their courses were software instruction classes instead of writing classes and, in my opinion, the students’ writing suffered.
I came to composition instruction fresh from industry, where technology was a tool to get a job done. I wondered how, as instructors, we could use technology to fit our needs, rather than the other way around. This, I found, was not a popular approach in my department. Once I entered grad school, I signed up for the main listserv in the field of computers and composition and made a disappointing discovery — they, too, were focusing on how to fit their lessons around the technology. In fact, in 2005, I attended one of their conferences at Stanford and spent three or four days completely frustrated by the focus on technology, rather than writing. Who cares about Drupal or Flash if the students can’t write?
At that point, Larry Cuban’s Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (2001), addressed my concerns. While Cuban is skeptical about educational technology, he also reports on successful use of ed tech, and that’s what interested me. In particular, he described Esperanza Rodrigues’ preschool classroom at Benjamin co-op, in the Bay area. In teaching students about shapes, Rodrigues blended strong practice using both offline and online techniques, seamlessly moving between using and not using technology to enhance the learning experience. By strong practice, she had a clear lesson plan and learning goal, she engages the students in the learning process, reinforces the lesson and pushes them beyond their comfort level to a new understanding. In my opinion, Rodrigues demonstrates best practice in using technology in education — she uses it as a tool to enhance a strong lesson plan, it is not the main feature and she has not formed her lesson to fit the technology.
A few months later, I read Richard Mayer’s (2001) Multimedia Learning for the first time. I was happy to discover he was at UCSB and started attending his classes. Multimedia Learning establishes clear, rigorous methods for measuring whether learning occurs in multimedia environments and whether the technology enhances or detracts from the learning environment. Mayer offers research-based recommendations for designing learner-centered multimedia environments. [Note: Rich Mayer is my advisor. My research, thinking, and teaching have very much benefited from his mentorship.]
Around that time, James Paul Gee (2003) published What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, which approaches the question of technology and learning differently from Mayer’s text, but nonetheless makes very strong contributions. I was most interested in Gee’s claims about why video games are so compelling. The main take-away messages for me in terms of effective ways to incorporate technology into learning environments were the concepts of active learning (see DH Jonassen for more info), pushing students beyond their zone of proximal development (see Vygotsky for more info), and allowing for risk taking by making the consequences for failure low.
I became increasingly interested in student classroom engagement and wanted to compare engagement in classes that taught the same lesson, but one used the learning concepts I was studying and one did not. My colleague Doug Bradley and I developed a learning simulation in which we incorporated Gee’s and Mayer’s ideas. Not surprisingly, in classes where computers were available, but not used, students had high levels of disengagement, using the computers for off-task activities such as ESPN, shopping, and entertainment (we conducted this study before Facebook was popular). In the classes where we used the simulation, off-task activities were minimal, indicating that students were highly engaged (abstract available on ERIC).
In her recent interview on Frontline, Sherry Turkle said “The point is we’re really at the very beginning of learning how to use this technology in the ways that are the most nourishing and sustaining. We’re going to slowly find our balance, but I think it’s going to take time…” She said that technology is neither good nor bad, but it is powerful. When considering the history of reform in education, we’ve jumped from one promising method to another. I agree with Turkle that the key is balance. We should prioritize learning and engage teaching methods that will best enhance the learning experience.
My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Zahn, passed away over the weekend. As I was remembering his class, two things stood out. First, he led our choir and always included Beatles’ songs, even at Christmas. We must have been a sight, a group of 11 year-old girls singing When I’m 64. Thanks to him, I’ve always wondered about the Isle of Wight, but I digress… Second, and actually more importantly, he taught us presentation skills.
The major project of our sixth grade year was a presentation on a European country. Mr. Zahn eschewed the standard pre-Powerpoint presentation format of reading from a ragged notebook page. Instead, he taught us to use notecards, to practice, to incorporate color, visuals, costumes, food, and stories into our presentations. The next year, our school would get their first computers and the following year, my parents purchased our first home computer. Powerpoint would first be released, in black-and-white, a year later. At this point, we had posterboard and our imaginations.
In preparation for our presentations, he first discussed the content. We needed to know our countries backward and forward. We should thoroughly present details of the country following his guidelines (history, traditions, major cities, population, etc.). Then he educated us in the need to engage our audience. Mr. Zahn’s background was in theater and music. He discussed the importance of visuals. At the very least, everyone should include a map, flag, and some representation of traditional costuming of our chosen country. “A” students, he said, wore costumes and transformed the classroom into the country for the day. He said we shouldn’t just rattle off facts about the country, but instead tell its story.
The popular countries — England, Ireland, Scotland, and France — got picked quickly. I chose the USSR — in the late 80′s a controversial choice, but my grandmother had just traveled there, so I knew I’d have plenty of visual aids. It was rumored impossible to receive a 100 percent score on the country presentation — Mr. Zahn didn’t even give one out each year, so the bar was set high. In addition to using an entire red posterboard for the flag (some kids brought in homemade flags and costumes), I borrowed some of my grandma’s photos and created a collage. We ordered pumpernickel bread with honey butter from a local bakery (not quite borscht, but more palatable to 6th graders!). As I was preparing, Julie Phillips delivered her presentation on Ireland. She arrived dressed in costume, with a wand-like pointer. She was well-practiced and delivered a highly polished presentation. Her posters were impeccably designed and featured cut-out pictures from travel magazines. Julie received the coveted perfect score.
As we watched the presentations, Mr. Zahn would point out what made the use of visuals strong — how color maps were more effective than black and white, how labeling the capital helped us see it better. He commented on students’ use of notecards or memorization. He used Julie as an example of memorizing her presentation, but practicing it enough that it sounded natural and not like a recitation.
My dad and I kept brainstorming about ways to make my presentation unique. We wanted to show the richness of Russian culture despite the Cold War tensions. We decided we should play music in the background — something none of the other students had done (my presentation was last, since I’d chosen such a large country). So, on the day of my presentation, I passed around food and brought in Russian dolls and wooden cart-type toys for my classmates to check out. When I started discussing the Russian Revolution, I played music softly on the record player and discussed, as students were avoiding eating the pumpernickel, the lack of food, the cold winters, etc. In hindsight, it was my first multi-media presentation!
Before Powerpoint, Mr. Zahn taught our sixth grade class the importance of presentations, with an emphasis on engagement. He said that presentations were mostly informed performance…we needed to know our content and thoroughly prepare, but also engage our audience through story and visuals. Mr. Zahn followed a social constructivist method of teaching; empowering us to own our content by teaching it to others. We actively participated in the subject matter of the class in nearly every subject. He modeled for me what good teaching is: engaging students and empowering them to take control of their learning experience. Without realizing it, I’ve carried those lessons into my academic career and shared them with colleagues and students.
Great news about online learning from the Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning report released by the U.S. Department of Education in June — students perform better in online environments than in traditional face-to-face instruction. But, how do we know this? The study is based on a meta-analysis of roughly 99 studies published between 1997 and 2008. What is unclear from the report is (1) what types of learning were measured in the included studies — comprehension, retention, transfer, none, all of the above? (2) duration of studies — were these effects consistent over time? (3) how learning was measured — e.g., multiple choice, essay, one test or multiple tests? Most importantly, the report says nothing about the consistency of measures across the included studies.
The majority of studies considered in the meta-analysis were split between undergraduate education and graduate schools or professional training programs. Professional training programs cover a broad area of learning, much of which has been shown to benefit from online education. Therefore, the inclusion of professional training programs may positively skew the results.
Interestingly, although much of the publicity surrounding the report applies the findings to K-12 learning environments, only 5 of the 99 studies focused on K-12 students. The majority of the research considered learning outcomes for college students, graduate students, and adults enrolled in professional training programs (participant ages ranged from 13-44). By its own admission, “most of the studies were modest in scope,” with sample sizes ranging from 16 to 1,857 (less than 5 of the studies had sample sizes over 400). While effect sizes were weighted based on sample sizes, these low sample sizes are worth noting when applying the findings to practice.
Search for Conclusive Evidence
Meta-analysis serves as an informative first pass, but should not be the final destination. National studies that systematically measure effects of technology engagement on learning over time, such as the UK’s CIBER report on the “Google Generation’s” information use or “UK Children Go Online,” provide strong examples for large-scale evaluation of the effects of technology on learning. The results of the Department of Education’s meta-analysis should not result in wholesale adoption of online curricula, but instead inform future large-scale comparative studies of online education.