Saturday, September 17, 2011

Computers in education, or a stick in the sand?

I'm a big fan of Paul Akers and his Saturday show, the American Innovator, on KGMI. The show is leaving the radio station in a few weeks, but continuing in an internet format.

Today's show, with former educator Dr. Charles Schwahn, made me just cringe. The topic was about increasing kids' eagerness and willingness to learn. Dr. Schwahn's new book is "Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning". His premise is that we have the technology to customize learning for students of all ages, and that by using this technology, we should be able to increase our success rates in education.

I'm here to tell ya, 'Tain't necessarily so!

Dr. Schwahn DOES make the point that we need to meet the student at their point of expertise. Of course! We don't teach calculus to kindergarteners, and for that matter, we don't teach algebra to very many 6th graders. Experience, fluency with the pre-requisite material, and cognitive maturity are all necessary to learning. So is interest in the subject matter on the part of the student, which means there sometimes has to be an expert in front of the student who is passionate about the subject matter.

I'm sorry. That is NOT a computer. Drilling with a computer can kill interest. We HAVE some technology that can be used to diagnose a student's gap in understanding. It does not make learning more enjoyable for everyone, nor does it increase student success rates.

Disclaimer: I'm not going to dig out research and statistics. I'm going to tell you about my experience. Let's see if it corresponds to yours.

I LOVE technology. I wish this stuff worked better than it does. I have an iBook, an iPad, and an iPhone. I own my own video-projector for teaching. I have books on ebook, audio, and text books that can be highlighted and annotated. I'm excited about the possibilities. We bought our first computer in 1984. My husband has diverged into being a PC, out of sheer rebelliousness, I think. I am a Mac.

I've also taught students from pre-K to the graduate level, in a range of settings from public to private, university and community college. I was a substitute teacher in all kinds of classrooms for about 180 days. I currently work at the community college level and with homeschoolers. Their ability to innovate and individualize WILL CHANGE THE FACE OF EDUCATION if the educational community will permit themselves to look at it.

The problem is that we have an industrial manufacturing, conveyor-belt model of doing education. As Dr. Schwahn pointed out on the American Innovator show this morning, this method of doing things is exactly geared to getting the results they have always been getting.

What we need is a customer-service model of doing education. "What do you need? How can I help you?"

After all of the innovation, technology, learning styles theory, Bloom's Taxonomy, and training and re-training educators in crowd control and mass learning, education comes down to this: It the ability of one teacher to get in the face of one learner and ask "Which part didn't you understand?"

Students can cycle and recycle through computerized learning and never be asked this question. That is why mass individualized instruction via technology won't, WILL NOT work. Dr. Schwahn acknowledges that an expert teacher is an expert in the use of computer-aided education, that intervention at some point will be necessary, but I'm pretty sure that schools will buy technology with the hope that they will have to depend less on the warm-body instructor. Warm-body instructors are much more expensive than mechanical boxes, and require bennies and pensions.

Why do I think that technology is such an educational dead-end, when I'm so in love with technology?

In 1992 I finished my MA-Ed in instructional resources, or how to use technology in education. Granted, that was using 1990's technology. The color Mac hit the market about 1991. But I love technology, and have voluntarily stayed current with it, as I was when I went into the program.

I went into it hoping to learn how to write great instructional software. I came out thinking it can't be done. (What an expensive lesson that was!)

I spent many hours watching kids using a wide variety of technology. I did learn some things about what interested kids. It most definitely is NOT instructional technology.

I wrote some little programs to test my skills and my theory. One helped kids match the uppercase letter with the lower case letter. One helped them sound out or guess 3-letter words like 'run' or 'cat'. I also gathered up a few pieces of software that were already in publication and put them all in front of kids. They would get about eight screens (or pages) into the software, turn and look at me and ask, "What else do you have?" They. just. weren't. interested. Not any of them. Some of the kids saw my disappointment and humored me and went a little farther. None, not any of them completed any of the instructional packages, however short they were.

The software that DID catch their attention was the software that let them explore. Kid Pix is (a version still exists) to Adobe Illustrator what a tricycle is to a Porsche. You don't need instruction. You can't fall off. Kids would play with that for HOURS on end, but sometimes it was 15 or more hours of playing before they had a picture they wanted to print. In a school computer lab at that time, at a half-hour of lab time per week, that could be 30 weeks, or most of the school year, before something was produced. Not very efficient use of educational time.

Another piece I designed made use of a laser disc, which functioned like a CD but was the size of the old vinyl records. It had hundreds of digital photos and some video clips of animals. I created a piece of software that sorted these alphabetically, and titled the piece "Alphabet Animals". A page would be presented with a list of animals that started with a particular letter of the alphabet, for which there were photos or video on the laser disc. The student would click on the thumbnail, hear a pronunciation of the name of the animal, and the disc (hooked up to a separate TV monitor) would show the photo or play the clip. Kids went through EVERY ONE of those animals from A to Z. There wasn't any way to measure what they'd learned, however.

Research and reading I went through showed a similar experience with older students. Instructional technology worked best with adults, and when the subject matter was VERY narrow. But everyone liked to explore. A very few games were somewhat successful, like Number Munchers, which had a Pac-Man format. But nearly every year in the '90's there would be a new piece of software to help students learn Algebra. These would last a year and then disappear. Friends who were homeschooling tried them, and discarded them, and came to me for math help.

I got myself evicted from the computer lab at the school my kids attended. There was a very expensive and very awful program by the Josten's company, designed to teach lessons in math and English to kids from K to grade 8. I observed about 90 minutes over my kids' and their classmates shoulders, and wrote a lengthy critique of the software. The district decided I should not be in the computer lab because I might sabotage the software. I didn't have to do anything. It was really, really awful! And taxpayers in the district had spent a lot of money on the software. This is how instructional software is implemented in conveyor-belt education.

Not much has improved since then. Learning software packages have uniformly come and gone. But what has survived and grown is the software that lets people explore. Google. And you can't measure what is learned! (Do you have to, to create a life-long learner?)

On the adult level, completion rates for distance learning courses are typically about 50%. Not all who complete a course pass the course. That's much worse than our current educational conveyor belt. Typically about one-third of students fall off that conveyor belt and fail to finish high school in a K-12 setting.

Distance-learning courses are often no more than a syllabus online, where students slog through lectures posted online, complete exercises from a book, and perform as individuals much the way they would in a large college lecture hall scenario. Not much online learning is student-interactive. Getting students to interact is a challenge, even to interact with each other in an online course. Many choose online learning because they prefer anonymity. We find, however, that they do better in online courses when they can collaborate, and we design tasks to get them to collaborate. Many students balk at that, preferring their Facebook page for that activity. Hmm.

I teach a distance-learning pre-calculus course, using an online software delivery system called ALEKS. It is absolutely as good as it gets. ALEKS is VERY good at diagnosing what a student doesn't know and making a student learn it. Students must perform a task three times in a row, perfectly. The company is doing an excellent job of diversifying the delivery of their product, filling in gaps, making the product as complete as possible. It really is a great way to refresh and polish math you may have taken years ago.

However, after four terms of teaching a course with ALEKS I find that my completion rates are no better than for any other distance learning course, and not all who complete pass the course. Students who collaborate online and offline do better. I have learned to make students go do the free, 3-hour trial that the company offers to see if they can learn this way. About half turn away. Still, only about half of the students who begin the course finish, and not all pass. I think this is as good as it gets for computerized instructional technology. If you absolutely must take one more math course, then ALEKS might be a good way to get that course out of the way. That's the best recommendation I can give the best instructional delivery system I have found.

This raises all kinds of questions about the best way to use instructional technology. I can sit back and listen to all of the arguments, all of the ways that the institutionalized conveyor-belt educators are trying to implement instructional strategies, and it still comes down to this:

Education happens when one teacher gets in the face of one learner and asks "Which part didn't you understand?"

That's a very low student-teacher ratio. It can happen in class sizes of less than a dozen students. I find my personal limit is about eight.

At ZLO, where I meet with homeschoolers for classes, we find we can actually deliver a year's worth of curriculum in two, 75-minute meetings per week, for 36 weeks. We use warm-body instructors, and we've learned that technology must be what instructors know how to use. It's up to the instructor to discover, learn, purchase and use devices and software they think can improve their educational delivery. Most K-12, well, probably K - university instructors would feel like they've died and gone to heaven in this setting. It really does work.

Summary: Don't dictate technology to education. It's not the technology that's important at all. What makes education soar for a student is an instructor who is passionate about what s/he knows, is eager to make it accessible to students, with the freedom to teach the best way s/he knows how, whether it's a stick in the sand or a projected image.