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Grading the New York Times on Education Technology

This morning, the New York Times had the latest in its occasional series, “Wouldn’t It Be Nicer If There Were No Technology in Schools” –wait, sorry, I read it wrong, the correct title is “Grading the Digital School.” The piece, titled “Teachers Resist High-Tech Push in Idaho Schools,” reveals that a new law in Idaho “requires all high school students to take some online classes to graduate, and that the students and their teachers be given laptops or tablets.” The effort, aimed at making Idaho a high-tech leader, may come at the cost of “tens of millions of dollars [in] salaries for teachers and administrators,” the Times alleges.

There are two problems here: the decisions that Idaho is making, and those that the Times is making. First, Idaho: I’m not sure the top-down mandate for a set of products and on-line classes was the smartest way to encourage the thoughtful integration of tech into the classroom. And if school systems take the money for the products out of the pay of the people expected to implement them, well, that doesn’t precisely set the plan up for shining success. I don’t quibble with the aim of making sure that kids don’t emerge from high school stunned and baffled by the sight of a tablet computer (though it rarely seems to be children who are baffled by digital devices). It’s just that there are better ways than Idaho’s strategy. Most fields (especially those involving public investment) have an established, healthy cycle of innovation that includes and in fact relies on the practitioners — think about how innovation in medicine involves doctors, or how innovation in aviation involves pilots. If you believe the Times, it sounds like while Idaho may have meant the technology as a relief airlift, it was delivered as a bunker-busting bomb.

But let’s not forget about the role of the New York Times here. I’ve puzzled before on this blog about the intentions of Matt Richtel, the Times’ Pulitzer-winning technology writer, who (full disclosure) was a friend when we worked together at the Oakland Tribune. To read the “Grading the Digital School” is to believe that education technology is a giant, undifferentiated conglomeration of everything from Smart Boards to computers running Microsoft Word to online courses that costs a zillion dollars, does nothing for kids, and annoys teachers. It’s not hard to find examples to support the case; in public education, as anywhere, some systems will make bad decisions, waste money, and irritate the professionals expected to do the real work. What’s missing is the crucial other side of the story: technology that translates into measurable progress for students, and meets the needs of teachers. This is the side that excites us, and that, happily, we see daily: technology that helps teachers group students more flexibly, tailor instruction more directly to the needs of each student, and focus their time and energy where it’s needed most. It’s a side of the story that needs to figure in school policy and budget decisions. As a former journalist, I know that newspapers are a whole lot better at describing the flaws of systems than their successes. But they are also capable of applauding innovation. If the Times continues to tell a one-sided story about education technology, the losers will be our kids.

5 Responses to “Grading the New York Times on Education Technology”

  1. Yes, the NYT is choosing less than exemplary case studies and overlooking the success stories like Rocketship, Carpe Diem, Grimmway Academy, Summit Public Schools and School of One. They are missing the opportunity to share the real potential blended learning holds to differentiate and personalize education—missing the opportunity to show how blended, technology and data supported instruction is the single greatest educational innovation American public school design has seen in hundreds of years. That is a lot to miss, but even graver is the missed opportunity for the NYT to explore the root failure of most educational technology efforts: the privilege technology is given over sound instructional design, and a failure to evaluate, select and implement technology and the instructional methods it supports, in a thoughtful and strategic way.

    If only the reporters would probe further they would find many school districts and reformers around the country, cannot resist focusing their discussion, and dollars, on experimenting with the coolest and newest technology and sidestepping investing in evaluation and training programs. With sincere good will but doe eyed fascination with the shiny technology, comes the desperate hope of superintendents facing budget shortfalls and despicable student outcomes that latest and greatest widget can be the miracle short cut solution they have been dreaming of. And so, thousands, in some cases millions, of dollars are sunk into tools, dashboards, databases, tables, boards and online curriculum and content with fingers crossed that it will all just work out and classes will be transported to the land of the Jetson’s where super cool technology makes everything possible. And the vendors and investors are praying on this desperation.

    The allure and promise of the new, wiz bang educational technology platforms is, sadly, where deep-pocketed investors are flocking and where savvy marketers are driving the naive but eager and well-intended education consumer. Amid the hype around online, technology enabled and blended learning innovations, the NYT articles have overlooked that these efforts are ultimately new instructional methods for which teachers and administrators are gravely unprepared to launch, unsupported to fulfill and unaccountable for absent strong evaluation plans. Few traditional state teacher-licensing programs are required to teach deep data driven instructional practices and fewer still teach practitioners how to use technology in a meaningful way. You cannot buy a jet plane, put an untrained person in the pilot seat and expect great results. Just as shelling out the cash to put a jet plane on the runway (to say you have a cool new jet plane) will not ensure it will take flight, so too is the increasingly common practice of simply introducing an online math program or using iPads falling woefully short of impacting student outcomes.

    Still, districts often invest far more in slick technology than they do in the critical teacher and administrator training, support and evaluation require to advance these new instructional methods. In too many cases, the technology adoptions, along with technology vendors and their investors, harbor the secret hope and belief that the technology will make up for all that under-qualified teachers are failing to accomplish. Smart foundations are starting to change this trend, but too few schools have access to the funds and guidance of philanthropy affords, leaving education consumers to navigate the vendor waters alone. When the quick tech fix does not work, in comes the NYT to report on the failing. Sadly, yes, they are missing the real story.

  2. alexander says:

    i can understand your being annoyed at the times’ coverage but it does play an important and constructive role in evening out the excess credulity and enthusiasm for education technology that other media outlets and many reformers seem to be exhibiting.

    glad you agree that the idaho implementation is problematic … a pro-technology orthodoxy is to be avoided at all costs; we need voices smart and brave enough to say what works and what doesn’t.

  3. I think groups like NewSchools Venture Fund need to make a better case disproving the thesis that investing in the kinds of technologies and projects they have advocated for decades has not proved a major contributor to the oft-cited data that educational spending has doubled in real terms since the 1970s without producing anything more than a marginal improvement in student attainment and achievement. We know that spending on English learners, special education, and education technology has skyrocketed in that time; some people want to be shown the payoff.

  4. Kelly Walsh says:

    Well said Jonathan! The NY Times pieces are certainly frustrating to those of us who realize that there is a tremendous potential upside to ed tech (for example, see some of the studies referenced in this article: http://www.emergingedtech.com/2010/07/collecting-studies-focused-on-the-impact-of-education-technologies/). Of course, I also wholeheartedly agree that there is often waste in ed tech spending, but find it hard to applaud the Times’ series due to what appears to be more emphasis on the negative, sensationalistic aspect of the topic than on the need to leverage tech as the tool it can be. More here: http://www.emergingedtech.com/2011/09/education-technology-is-an-enabler-not-a-magic-wand/. I pursued this further with this survey, seeking teacher’s perspective on this: http://www.emergingedtech.com/2011/11/the-education-technologies-that-educators-believe-can-have-the-biggest-impact-on-student-learning-survey-results/.

  5. Carl Shan says:

    Great points.

    I tend to find that the positive feedback edtech does get tends to be overrepresentative of a few players — Khan Academy comes to mind.

    There’s extensive hype around KA when it’s really only one of the many various innovations to have come out in the education field.

    Beyond depicting the successes of technology in education, I would also like to see more equity in the variety of successes covered.