Inside Story

Coming, ready or not

Technology is going to drive the first revolution in schooling since the invention of the printing press, says Dean Ashenden. But it’s not just a matter of the machinery

Dean Ashenden 19 November 2013 4662 words

Teacher-centred instruction “is a hardy adaptation to the organisational facts of life,” according to educational researcher Larry Cuban.
Cathryn Tremain/The Age

IN THE unlikely setting of Perth in the early 1990s three colleagues and I set ourselves up as software developers. None of us had any significant experience or expertise in computing or business, but we did have a hot idea. School systems in Australia and elsewhere had at long last decided to introduce an outcomes-based curriculum, designed to allow each student to move at his or her own speed from the “mastery” of one outcome to the next. Our software would make the new curriculum work.

The problem in teaching to outcomes lay in keeping track of where each student is up to in each subject, and then finding “stage-appropriate” work for each of them to do. That’s where our software would come in. We called it KIDMAP to evoke the goal of giving the teacher a detailed record of each student’s latitude and longitude in every area of learning, and in case anyone missed the point we called our startup Mercator.

With the wisdom of hindsight I wish I had paid more careful attention to an American historian by the name of Larry Cuban. Cuban was the most prominent of a small group of scholars who had documented and explained what he called “constancy and change in the classroom.” From a Cuban perspective, outcomes and computers were merely the most recent in a long series of educational and technological fixes for the troubles of the classroom. Each had changed things somewhat, without really changing the way teachers (and therefore students) actually did their work. The brutal fact is that twenty or twenty-five students constitute a crowd, so teachers have to control and teach to the crowd. Teacher-centred instruction, Cuban argued, “is a hardy adaptation to the organisational facts of life.”

But that’s hindsight. At the time, we were on a roll. Within two or three years we had sold KIDMAP to the two biggest education departments in the country, a fact suggesting that their leadership hadn’t been reading Cuban either. On the strength of that improbable triumph – nearly half the schools in the country! – KIDMAP crossed the Pacific and landed in two “pilot” American school districts, one on the west coast, one in the east. We made enough of a ripple to find ourselves in Cupertino presenting our product to a significant fraction of Apple’s upper echelons (Apple was a niche outfit in those days). Should we bring in Steve, they wondered?

No, it soon emerged, we should not. Several of those gathered around the boardroom table gently informed us that we weren’t the first or only ones to have this bright idea, and that our version had all the limitations of its competitors. The content wasn’t there, teachers didn’t know how to do it, getting “outcomes-based” assessments into the software took too much time and effort, and school systems, for all their talk about “mastery learning” and “standards-referenced curriculum,” had little comprehension of what they wished for. Sure, there were problems of a software and hardware kind, but the real stopper was the orgware. This was the geeks’ version of the Cuban thesis.

It was one of those moments when the heart sinks. Our psychological strategy, naturally enough, was to talk about “teething problems,” including teachers who didn’t know how to open Word, classrooms with no computer or a machine that couldn’t run KIDMAP and Adobe Acrobat at the same time, and the odd bug in the software. (“Not a bug, madam, that’s a feature,” as our gallows humour had it.)

But the real problem was that when we asked system authorities to send us “outcomes-based” curriculum to load into KIDMAP they sent “outcome statements” so broad as to be meaningless, or so detailed as to be incomprehensible, and at either extreme cast in Educanto at its most opaque. When we asked for resources to link to each outcome statement so that teachers would have “stage-appropriate” stuff to give each student as he or she moved from one outcome to the next, we got a few PDFs, if anything at all. Every teacher-training workshop veered off into questions of educational philosophy and classroom management before we even got to morning coffee.

It was not just us developers of software for teachers who were in trouble. Software for students wasn’t doing so well either, a fact in which Cuban took fiendish delight. “Computers Meet Classroom: Classroom Wins,” he wrote in 1993, following it up with “Computers Make Kids Smarter – Right?” (1998); “Techno-Promoter Dreams, Student Realities” (2002); “Laptops Transforming Classrooms: Yeah, Sure” (2006); and, most recently, his book Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (2009).

Cuban’s thesis is supported by the findings of a recent meta-study of forty-five investigations into the extent to which digital technologies have made any difference to the “effectiveness” of schools and classrooms. In The Impact of Digital Technology on Learning, Steven Higgins and his colleagues survey the many forms of digital instruction and the difficulties of pinning down cause and effect in the ecology of schooling. They report that these technologies may bring an increase in effectiveness in some cases, but that increase may also be explained by the energy of the innovators rather than the innovation itself, or by the fact that the more effective schools are the first and best users of technology. For these and other reasons, they conclude, technology “enthusiasts” confront a “growing critical voice from the sceptics.”

Growing scepticism from the inside contrasts sharply with growing enthusiasm on the outside. In June of this year the Economist magazine made a bold and much-reported prediction: “New technology,” it declared, “is poised to disrupt America’s schools, and then the world’s.” The Economist would pack a punch even if it stood alone, but it doesn’t. Similar propositions have been advanced in influential US publications including the New York Times, Forbes magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post.

Once bitten I should be twice shy, but nonetheless it is my view that the Economist is much more likely to be right than the sceptics, not in consequence of “new technology” alone, but when those technologies are combined with educational ideas and techniques, financial imperatives, and political pressures. Indeed, a long, slow shift from one mode of educational production to another has already begun. Technology is going to drive the first revolution in schooling since the invention of the printing press nearly 600 years ago.

THE enabling factor is the machinery itself, different in three important ways from what KIDMAP depended on. First to arrive was the internet, a means by which any individual or group can reach any other as well as roam at will in the contemporary library of Alexandria. Second is a fusion of speed, portability, cheapness and ease of use exemplified by the touchscreen tablet. And third is the cloud, making all things digital more affordable and usable, particularly for organisations like schools.

The software is not as capable as the hardware, and its development is necessarily slower and more erratic. If we leave to one side applications that support administrative operations, software for schools has developed in two streams, “instructional” and “management,” the former designed for student use in the hope that more can learn more quickly, the latter directed towards much the same objectives, but via the teacher.

Both kinds of software have been transformed. On the instructional side, the old drill-and-practice routines of “computer-assisted instruction” and language labs have been joined by tutorials and mini-lessons of the kind popularised by the free, non-profit Khan Academy; by full-scale virtual courses of study that integrate video lessons, film clips, reading and exercises with assessment and feedback; and most recently by packages that deliver and manage extended sequences of complex learning.

The last of these combine “edware” – the educationists’ “developmental continua” – with “gamification,” the quasi-science of getting kids hooked and keeping them in “the zone of proximal development” as they advance from basic to competent to mastery. At its most sophisticated, gamification combines a carefully planned escalation of tasks and activity, guided and motivated by assessment, feedback and reward, with the capacity to switch students from one learning track to another depending on how well and how quickly they learn. It is “adaptive.” It is also social, again taking from the gaming industry its techniques of organising “players” into groups and teams to collaborate and compete.

The two streams of development, instructional and management, are now merging into “next generation learning platforms” or “learning ecologies,” to be deployed by a teacher operating, as one much-used analogy has it, less like a pilot than an air-traffic controller. The idea is that powered-up teachers will have “the curriculum” at their fingertips in digital form, together with a detailed profile of each student’s progress. The curriculum sets out the work to be done, standards to be reached, ground to be covered, or tasks to be completed, all linked to a wealth of “resources” for the student (everything from books to be read to semester-length courses of study) and for the teacher (lesson plans, teaching hints, assessment tools, guidance and the like).

Student profiles will be compiled not by the teacher after school but with data gathered from the students as they work, their every step forward, their every mistake and their every detour recorded effortlessly. (Coming soon: gaze tracking and pupil-

dilation measurement to indicate attention and comprehension.) These millions of pieces of information can be turned into insight with the help of the new sub-discipline of learning analytics, and made intelligible by 3D graphic displays. The idea is not so different from KIDMAP’s. The execution is light years away.

The traffic-controller image implies a clear division of labour between the controller and the pilots, but in practice the student will be powered-up too. So farsighted were we that KIDMAP allowed students to view their own record – with the teacher’s permission, of course. Soon students will be equipped by “personalised learning environments” to “manage their own learning,” as teachers have long wanted them to do. The lines between teaching and learning, between teacher and taught, will blur. To a degree not previously possible, students will be able to teach themselves, and each other. Learning can be crowdsourced.

Techno-sceptics sometimes forget that these are still very early days in the development of both software and content. Major educational publishers including Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have only recently swung their full attention to the digital future. They have been joined by industry giants such as Apple and outsiders like News Corp to take integration to its logical conclusion, tablets bundled with instructional and management software and proprietary content. Investment in educational technology almost disappeared after the global financial crisis but is now growing so rapidly that there is talk of a bubble. The Economist reports venture capital prowling around record numbers of startups (often based in Cupertino) with dinky names like Mathalicious, Chegg (homework help), Sharemylesson and Edmodo (share sites for teachers and others), Badgeville (gamification), Quizlet, Curriki (portal for free courseware) and DimensionU (interactive maths and science games). Apex predators including the big publishers and News Corp have swallowed specialists like Schoolnet (personalised learning), Wireless Generation (ditto), ALEKS (adaptive learning), and Bookette (online performance measurement). School-sector spending on ed tech in the United States is high ($17 billion per annum, equivalent to more than a third of Australia’s schooling budget) and rising. The inevitable hype and snake oil are finding their inevitable victims. Things will go on going wrong, and the current bubble may burst, but the surge is unstoppable.

MOST of this frenetic technological development is happening in the United States, and so is the most intense effort by schools and school systems to figure out what to do with it.

At one end of the spectrum is doing the same old thing in a brand new way: “projects” on PowerPoint instead of cardboard, googling instead of reaching for an encyclopaedia, using a keyboard instead of a pen, or an electronic whiteboard to do what could be done a century ago on a blackboard. Here the new technologies are not the least bit disruptive. They replace little and change less, except costs, which increase.

At the other end of the spectrum are “virtual schools,” which deliver a digital curriculum to students wherever they happen to be, sometimes supplemented by online tutors. Since most of the work of teaching is done in one time and place, the work of learning in another, a given amount of teaching effort can be made available to very large numbers of students (most spectacularly in the example of “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, enrolling as many as 160,000 students at a time in university courses). In consequence, virtual schools spend relatively less on staff and buildings and more on technology and content; and less of the staffing budget goes to paying teachers, and more goes to online tutors and technical and administrative support. In the upshot, the per-student costs of virtual schools are typically much lower than those of conventional schooling. The catch is that virtual schools – or at least many in the largely unregulated US environment – seem to be less effective as well as less expensive, and are really suited only to upper secondary students or to home-schoolers.

At various points in between these two extremes are myriad approaches, the most prominent of which are the “flipped classroom,” “personalisation,” and “blending.” The flipped classroom gives students “virtual” material for homework so that class time can be used for higher-order review, discussion and extension. Personalisation uses digital technology to provide each student with stage-appropriate work, something only the most exceptionally capable teachers could hitherto do.

In both approaches Larry Cuban’s resilient class has once again found a way to combine constancy with change. They retain the familiar infrastructure (the classroom), the usual personnel (one adult, twenty-five or so students), the standard routines (the lesson), and the established regulatory regime (numbers of students per teacher and numbers of lessons per day). They are an important step forward in addressing the other side of the coin of teacher-centred instruction, the problem of the baffled student, and to the extent that they succeed they will lift “effectiveness.” The trouble is that new costs are added to old. Digital technologies may be a lot cheaper per unit but in the aggregate they’re not. Even after offsets from BYOD (bring your own device) and savings from cloud computing, digital technology is expensive – expensive to maintain and update as well as to buy.

At this early stage, blended schools seem to get the best of both worlds. “Blending” can refer to anything from using online tutorials or courses within a largely conventional curriculum to systematically planned combinations of virtual and conventional instruction. One version of “rotational” blending sees students spend some of their working day in conventional groups in classrooms, and the rest in learning labs where much larger groups of students work on personalised programs under the supervision of a relatively smaller number of staff, perhaps including lab monitors or tutors working to a “leading teacher.” Another variation on the theme has students go through two or three rotations per day, each comprising a period of virtual instruction followed by class time for consolidation.

Early evidence suggests that at least some blended schools may be improving “effectiveness,” particularly for disadvantaged students, while keeping costs lower. As in virtual schools, both staffing and budgets are differently arranged, with more money spent on digital technology and content, less on staffing, and greater differentiation in responsibilities and terms and conditions for staff. One much-reported case is Rocketship, a group of publicly funded charter schools. Blending in a 450-student Rocketship school saves around half a million dollars a year, the savings “repurposed” in ways including professional development, and 20 or 30 per cent higher pay for leading teachers.

Rocketship and some other blended schools are extending rotational blending into “flex.” The classroom and the lab are traded in on something more like a workshop or studio (or a Qantas Club lounge), a linked series of spaces allowing easy movement, and equipped for work by individuals and groups of students and adults formed according to task, need and capacity. A quite different mode of educational production is beginning to take visible form. We might borrow from Cuban to say: classroom versus computer, computer wins.

OF COURSE, it’s not really the computer that wins. A combine harvester will not make medieval strip-field agriculture more productive, yet an assumption of just that kind can be found in many ways of using (and researching) technology in schooling. When computers are added to classrooms and nothing changes the conclusion is that technology doesn’t work. In fact, it is schooling’s strip-field system that is not working.

Learning can usefully be thought of as a form of production through the work of young people and adults. The digital technologies are now capable of doing in schooling what technology has been doing elsewhere for centuries: they can reallocate, amplify and, above all, substitute for labour. Machines can now do some of the work that once required a teacher, and they can allocate other aspects of that work to students. They cannot substitute for the labour of learning, but they can change how that work is done, and they can help improve its organisation so that more of it is done in an optimal way at an optimal time.

That will happen only if and to the extent that labour is actually reallocated, reorganised and replaced. That is what blended and, more dramatically, virtual schools are doing. These schools are exploring ways of combining time, space, effort and tools both different from and disruptive of the class and the classroom.

It is significant that most of these explorations are being made in schools and groups of schools started from scratch. Another effort of the imagination is needed to change what already is into what can now be. That will include dismantling what Cuban calls the “organisational facts of life,” a dense lacework of struts and stays, many installed during the long boom of schooling, which holds the class and the classroom in place: ways of framing and sequencing work (“the curriculum”); the habits of mind and expectations of parents, students and teachers; physical infrastructure; budgets committed to paying a largely undifferentiated and tenured workforce; and the close regulation of the daily work of teachers and students via industrial negotiations and agreements.

There is little evidence to suggest that those responsible for steering Australian schooling have yet grasped the scale and interconnectedness of policy needed to exploit rather than merely “adopt” the digital technologies. A recent investigation into investment in learning technologies in one state found that considerable sums had been wasted because the government, lacking a “clear plan or framework,” had left departmental staff and school leaders with “little guidance on how future learning technologies initiatives can be appropriately planned and integrated.” The recently departed federal government sprayed $2.1 billion on the naive idea that the “digital revolution” could be prosecuted by putting more computers into schools. The incoming federal government has eschewed any talk of “revolution,” digital or otherwise, and has reasserted the traditional role and authority of the teacher in the classroom. Many of those actually responsible for running schools know that there’s more to it than buying computers or depending on the good old teacher, but tend to think of “technology” as just another item in a long to-do list, mainly a question of infrastructure and digital content.

Techno-enthusiasts make equal and opposite mistakes, illustrated by Beyond the Classroom, a report commissioned by Peter Garrett when he was federal education minister. The report is valuable in its sense that something very big is at hand, but troubling in its enthusiasm for any and all things digital and in its inability to be clear about the purposes or limits of the new technology, or about the priorities and sequence of its implementation.

A prerequisite to effective policy is getting clear about what the digital technologies are for. They are to some extent for themselves; like cars, they are something young people need to learn to drive. They are a boon to school administration and a school’s interaction with its community. And since the digital technologies are the ocean in which our fingerlings swim, they are of value in making schools seem less out-of-touch. But these are second- or third-order educational considerations.

The “twenty-first-century skills” case is more compelling, but easily overstated. The argument put in Beyond the Classroom is that skills or capabilities such as “creativity and imagination, critical thinking, problem solving and decision making, ICT literacy, and personal and social responsibility,” are central to the “twenty-first-century workplace,” and schools must therefore “harness the transformative potential of digital technology.”

With the partial exception of ICT literacy, however, the skills listed are cognitive and social, not technical. The digital technologies are an important new means of acquiring these skills and a new context of their use, but the skills or capabilities are not new in and of themselves, and they are certainly not new to schools. For at least fifty years teachers have tried to teach what are variously called “cross-curricular,” “generic” and “meta-cognitive” skills, most of them very like what are now referred to as twenty-first-century skills. In any event, skills or general capabilities can’t be learned in the abstract, and they are by no means the only things that schools are there to teach. “Skills” can only be acquired in and through learning “content” of intrinsic value. In the digital as in the pre-digital world, students must wrestle with, acquire and think about facts, events, formulae, theories, people, stories, poems, equations, and realities of many kinds.

Contrary to much digital advocacy, the digital technologies are tools to be used rather than instruments to be played. The main point of getting them into schools is not to prepare students for the twenty-first-century workplace but rather to exploit their potential as new and more productive means to the old educational end of getting young people, irrespective of postcode or genetic inheritance, to emerge after twelve years of schooling well on the way to being paid-up members of a rich intellectual, artistic and material culture.

And, contrary to much digital scepticism, these are seriously new means. Digital technology has no precedent in schooling except, perhaps, the invention of the printing press and the development of writing millennia before that.

The sheer novelty of technology-enabled change in schooling leaves the movement around it poorly equipped to work out what to do. Its language can win most arguments about ends, but it is practically clueless about the new means. It simply doesn’t notice the necessary things, or looks in the wrong direction altogether.

The currently dominant idea of “effectiveness,” for example, pays no attention to costs or to the relationship between cost and effectiveness, and its “what works” doctrine assumes that what has worked in the past will work into the indefinite future. In a similar way schooling’s focus on lifting “teacher quality” assumes that “the class” is here to stay, and that the only road to improvement is through the skills of just one of its twenty-six members rather than re-engineering the work of the other twenty-five.

Schooling could usefully borrow at least two ideas developed over centuries of experience of technological change in other areas of human activity. The first is the idea of workplace reform. That reform should start not with the work of teachers, as is so often assumed but with the work of the real producers, the students who comprise well over 90 per cent of schooling’s workforce. “Workplace reform” is an embracing concept, and a strategic one. Beginning from a view of how students can best be enabled to produce learning of the most valued kinds, it takes in everything from the content and organisation of the curriculum to workplace architecture to staffing structures and industrial relations to budgets. It makes possible thinking about an orderly, coordinated and sequenced process of change – big plans, small steps.

That process should be guided by a second conceptual borrowing, the idea of “productivity.” Often used as a euphemism for cuts or for working harder, productivity should be understood in educational as well as budgetary and industrial terms. It can require technology to earn its educational keep. “Productivity” insists that there is no intrinsic virtue in technology. It presses systems and schools to ask the question: which of the combinations of time, space, effort and tools available to us at this particular point in time is most likely to do the best educational job? Often, particularly in the near-term, the answer will be the relatively low-tech option of “blending,” using online tutorials, lessons and courses to provide students with more doable work and to free up teachers.

WORKPLACE reform directed at exploiting digital technology is likely to be both more and less disruptive in schooling than in other industries. More, because the classroom is so heavily entrenched and extensively defended, and because technology- enabled change is foreign to almost all involved. And less than in, say, agriculture, or higher education, because schooling is necessarily custodial, and social. Kids need to be looked after, and they need to be with other kids and with adults to grow up.

Technology-enabled workplace change will be resisted by at least some of the interests and institutions that prospered in the long boom of schooling as well as by schooling’s structures and culture. But sooner or later, well or badly, in ways that address need or reflect advantage, it will happen. It will be driven by governments looking to get off the treadmill of spending more and more in order to stay in much the same place; by the discrediting of the class-size reduction strategy and, in due course, the teacher-quality agenda; by big business; by competition between schools, systems and nations for “performance”; by the mysterious infection of every sphere of life with the digital virus; by the educational ideals of policy-makers and teachers; and by teachers’ long-thwarted professional ambitions. What is open for determination is the extent to which “policy” can use these complex vectors to do what my Perth colleagues and I, and many, many others have tried to do so that schooling is less inclined to purchase the success of some learners with the failure of others. •

I would like to thank Bill Hannan, Mal Lee and Sandra Milligan for their help in the preparation of this article. Needless to say, responsibility for it is mine alone. Thanks also to my KIDMAP colleagues, Russell Docking, Sandra Milligan and Paul Williams.