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Technology CAN Make a Difference

November 30, 2013

Over the past several months I have been concerned about the reflexive opposition to anything technological by many in the anti-provatization movement. There appear to be good reasons for opposing some forms of applied technology. Some K-12 and undergraduate on-line programs offered by for-profit enterprises are shady at best and tend to get unqualified support from those who want to slash costs for public education and break up unions. The use of computerized assessments to measure teacher performance through “value added” metrics undercuts the positive arguments for using computer technology to help measure mastery of content. The recent news about NSA snooping has also raised concerns about data collection in schools given the government’s widespread access to information that was previously thought to be secure and private. Finally, the use of “disruptive technology” to eliminate jobs and entire companies in the name of progress has those supporting the status quo on edge. I think technology has a defensible and positive place in each of these areas.

On-line learning may be the only way small towns can retain schools in the face of declining enrollments and rising cost for personnel, and may be the only way they can accomplish this without compromising the wide range of opportunities for the children who attend those schools. I’ve witnessed the positive effects of the Middlebury College on-line curriculum in rural Vermont where a geographically isolated K-8 school is now able to offer foreign language.  K-8 schools with fewer than 150 students cannot offer robust programs like those in larger comprehensive schools without the assistance of on-line courses supported by teacher-generalists who can provide periodic tutorial assistance when needed.

Using on-line assessments to measure individual student growth seems ideal to me: it provides a means of allowing students to progress at their own pace in skill development (e.g. demonstrating mastery of mathematical facts; grammar fundamentals) and the knowledge of fundamental facts (e.g. historical sequences; scientific facts; vocabulary specific to content areas). 

I have blogged frequently on the need for teachers to have information on student learning styles, progress in various content areas, and– perhaps more controversially– on background information from social workers and other agencies. (See “A Homeland Security Bill for Education”). The practical reality regarding the brouhaha over privacy and data collection: schools are already collecting sensitive information and have been doing so for areas. Based on my experience as a school-based administrator and superintendent I would advocate MORE data analysis and less word-of-mouth-in-the-faculty-room. I can recall many cases of misbehaving 9th grade students developing reputations that followed them through high school based on word-of-mouth in faculty rooms while their academic and discipline records demonstrated improvement. And, as noted in the article referenced above I know of many cases where schools would benefit from knowing about a child’s out-of-school challenges so that everyone could work together to provide wraparound support. Technology provides a means of gathering information in a format that makes it available “just-in-time” and easily read and interpreted. Arguably, schools are UNDER-using data analytics. Just as baseball teams have developed advanced metrics that help them identify the qualities that make a good team-mate (see the Boston Red Sox for a prime example) schools can work on ways to measure the soft skills and consequently develop ways to embed them into instruction or daily activities in school. Those of us who oppose the testing regiment can’t argue that schools shouldn’t rely solely on standardized tests unless we have other data points to use as the basis for evaluating students and/or schools…. for it is impossible to claim that what happens during the 6 hours students are in school cannot be measured at all.

Finally, disruption is happening outside of school in ways that might repel traditional educators and those, like me, who lament the trend toward  centralization of wealth to the hands of an ever smaller group of plutocrats. My take, as implied in earlier posts, is this: if schools don’t find a way to integrate and embrace technology and policy makers continue to rely solely on standardized tests parents will not only opt out of tests… they will opt out of school and do-it-themsleves. THAT is the real treat of disruption: for parents can form collectives to create their own schools that offer curricula to their children that are engaging and relevant to THEM.

We should not fear technology: we should find a way to use it to improve opportunities for all students. It can be the means for equalizing opportunities if used in the right way. Those who want a level playing field should accept that reality and help make it happen.

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