Wednesday, March 31, 2010
I once read a story about an economist who was travelling through China and took the opportunity to attend a tour of a new dam being constructed. The tour was given by the town mayor, and when the two men came to a summit from which they could survey the construction in its entirety, the economist noticed for the first time the many hundreds of workers laboring with their shovels to move the earth. He remarked, "You know Mayor, you should consider purchasing some bulldozers and cranes for this project, it would go much quicker."
"Ah," said the mayor, "But then what would happen to the workers employed here? The way it is now these men enjoy a good wage and can provide for their families."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you were trying to build a dam," replied the economist. "If it's employment you want you should take their shovels away and replace them with spoons."
The lesson illustrated in the story is one of efficiency, perhaps the most fundamental concept of economics and one that technology is inherently bound to. My vision for technology is one in which increased efficiency, due to the use of technology in education, leads to transformative changes that increase academic oversight, opportunity, and achievement through an increased ability to differentiate and personalize instruction. In other words, I think technology should enable students to learn at their own perfect pace across all subject areas with whatever tools they want.
Any educator will acknowledge that the most difficult aspect of teaching is challenging all learners at their individual ability levels. At the post graduate level this issue is often addressed through criterion based assessments outlined in syllabi that inform each student what the requirements of the class will be. In this scenario it is often the less capable students who suffer from inadequate support, failing to meet the criteria for advancement in the allotted amount of time and forced to repeat or abandon the class.
Primary schools, in recent years, have taken the virtually inverse approach of "leaving no child behind". Until virtually every learner has grasped the concept at hand, the class is prevented from advancing to more difficult material. In this scenario, it is the most capable students who suffer.
Excellent teachers in either case can mitigate the harm inflicted through these systems by differentiating instruction. That is, by providing extra support to less capable students while simultaneously providing extra challenges to more capable ones. The trouble with differentiating instruction is that it is extremely time consuming, mainly because units of learning are not very scalable. There will be some overlap between what one group of students is learning and what another is learning, but in general, any increase in the sets of learners for a given unit results in a corresponding and equal increase in the amount of time it takes the teacher to design the unit. In addition, designing a unit for multiple sets of learners increases not only the amount of preparation for a teacher, but the amount of instruction, and the amount of assessment as well. The very best teachers may be able to maintain a three-tiered system of differentiated instruction across multiple units, but teacher-differentiated instruction on an individual student level is simply too inefficient to be feasible.
I believe that current, existing technology is capable of increasing the efficiency of this process to the point where it is viable to differentiate instruction at the individual learner level. Many districts are already using advanced technological tools and software to assess individual student abilities and target areas of weakness. The next step will be for them to utilize tools and software to design individual learning coursework. The popular language acquisition software Rosetta Stone already does an admirable job of this. The final step will be to design and utilize tools and software to deliver the coursework itself.Some may balk at this last suggestion that technology could replace a teacher, and it is true that there may never be technology sophisticated enough to replace the unique abilities of a human educator. It is also likely true that there will always be a place for subjective, human assessments of student work in areas like creativity, originality, and endeavor, especially given the recent calls for teaching "21st century skills". But I believe we can agree that to the extent technology is able to replace a teacher's work, it should.
Computerized assessments are a proven example. Arguments against non teacher-graded assessments abound: they are impersonal, the teacher doesn't see the students' work firsthand, it's difficult or impossible to assess the students' line of thinking, etc. These are not invalid arguments, but the bottom line is that computer-graded assessments are more efficient than teacher-graded ones. In addition, this increase in efficiency allows the assessments to be exceptionally thorough, and they open up a host of other benefits such as cross-referenced reports and comparative graphs that make the data easier for educators to understand and act upon. Contrary to hindering the teacher from learning more about their students, computerized assessments enable the teacher to learn more about their students' abilities than ever before because they can be done more efficiently than ever before.At this point in time, however, even the most advanced computerized assessments serve mainly to allow teachers to make curriculum decisions at the whole class level. The data aggregation extrapolates information from the individuals so that the teacher can make inferences about the class as a whole. In my vision for technology, the aggregation begins and ends at the individual learner level. Each student is instructed and assessed within their own optimized learning stream, without regard to their standing relative to their peers.
There are obviously many hurdles to reform on such a scale as this. Political will, funding, and even the wisdom of such drastic changes would all need to be determined before moving forward. But as with many of the world's most intractable problems, the existing culture surrounding education in America may be reform's single biggest adversary.
Americans are accustomed to an educational system that is organized around time. Whether the time is the school year, the semester lengths, the periodic breaks, the length of the school day, or the age of the students in a grade, the entire educational system has been organized around it. An individualized approach to education would deemphasize the role of time, and instead emphasize the role of accomplishment. In my vision, instead of asking certain students to accomplish either more or less than other students in the same amount of time, we would ask all students to accomplish equally, even if it took different amounts of time. Such an paradigm shift is unlikely to be easy for Americans to adjust to, but it has already begun to happen in the business world.
Many successful businesses, Google being perhaps the most famous, are renowned for their commitment to accomplishment rather than time. Their employees are not subjected to time cards, 30 minute lunches, or even a steadfast start to the working day. In return, however, employees are held accountable for their accomplishments (or lack thereof) and expected to be productive during their time on the job.
Globalization, in emphasizing the relativity of time, has succeeded in shifting the paradigm as well. In a world where executives are frequently in meetings with individuals in other time zones and much of the Muslim world takes weekends on entirely different days of the week, a rigid adherence to the eight hour day and 40 hour week is competitively disadvantageous.
Finally, technology itself has affected the way the business world regards time. When business trips were the norm, time was an abnormal concern only with respect to jet lag. With the advent of conference calls, video conferences, and mobile phones, business meetings no longer necessarily coincide with traditional business operating hours, and instead of being defined by the clock, the modern businessman's climate is defined by the accomplishment of tasks.
Therefore, there is reason to believe that such a paradigm shift in educational culture would be possible for Americans to accept. What circumstances would have to arise to allow such acceptance is unclear, but given that competition was the main motivator in the business world, it seems reasonable to assume that it would be the same in education. Where that competition comes from then becomes the question, and while there are many, even at the highest levels of government, who are trying to manufacture competition in education through the establishment of charter schools and voucher programs, I believe that the majority of the competition will come from outside America's borders.
My tenure as an Edtec graduate student at San Diego State was one of best times of my life. I took the trolley to campus and read books for pleasure on the ride. I got a graduate assistantship in the College of Education and learned how to repair computers and train faculty to utilize technology in their classes. I even got to oversee a distance learning class for one of my professors, where half the class participated in person with microphones and a camera that I controlled, and the other half participated through webcams and their computers at home. Perhaps my best experiences during that time, however, were the two trips I took to China to see and learn about the implementation of technology in education across that country.
My first trip lasted nearly two months, that time being split between a few days in Shanghai, about a month in Shenzhen (near Hong Kong), and the remaining weeks in Beijing. The internship was the result of a collaboration between SDSU and Beijing Normal University, and I was assigned a mentor in Shenzhen, a fellow Edtec graduate student, to shadow and learn from. Together we traveled across the city to see "experimental" schools whose express purpose for existing was to be testbeds for technological innovation in education.
I had spent the preceding school year working in what was my first teaching position: sixth grade math and science teacher at High Tech Middle School. HTM is affiliated with the highly respected High Tech High consortium of charter schools centered around project-based learning and abundant technology use. In my classroom, in 2004, we had enough laptops for a 1:2 ratio of computers to students, but it was easy enough to borrow a set of laptops from a neighboring classroom to allow a true 1:1 ratio when needed. This experience made me believe I was prepared for whatever innovations I would see in China, but I was wrong. Nothing I experienced at HTM compared to what I saw in China. Indeed, in the six years hence I have yet to see anything in American education compare in scale or maturity to what I saw being done there.
In Shenzhen I saw incredible, systemic innovations being applied across multiple schools. Entire primary school lessons incorporating flash-based interactive modules were delivered by teachers to classrooms of fifty or more students, each with their own computer built into their desk. Familiarity with the routines were self-evident, and teachers took pains to extend the lesson beyond the computer screen by instructing students to pair up and peer evaluate one another, or put on their headphones and repeat out loud the words they were learning from the flash modules. Confident volunteers were invited to recite points of the lesson from their seats or from the teacher's control podium at the front of the room, and when the lesson was all over, students as young as American kindergarteners gathered up their belongings and scurried off to their next subject-based class.
In Shanghai I saw lectures by college professors, both live and recorded, streamed to mobile phones with audio and the ability to pause and rewind. Then I was shown on the same mobile phone, a live camera view of the room directly adjacent to the one I was standing in. What Americans might mistake for security cameras were being used to record and broadcast lectures across a mobile network.
During my second trip to Beijing, about a year after the first, I attended a conference where Edtec graduate students from Hong Kong showed me a farm-centered Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing game they had created. Americans might recognize it now as similar to Farmville, the popular social game within Facebook. The difference, of course, is that China's version was designed to be implemented in the classroom and teach economic concepts, whereas Farmville is seen to be mostly a good way to waste time and spam your friends' Facebook feed.
As blown away by all this as I was, the most impressive aspect of the innovation I saw in China was not the technology itself, or even its use. It was instead the collaboration across the technology that struck me as being so far beyond anything in America. The technology alone served to simply link the different participants together, to make the work of one body accessible to a different body.
The farm-centered MMORPG was designed by Edtec students in Hong Kong, but coded by computer science majors at the same school, and implemented by teachers across the country. The lectures being recorded in Shanghai were archived and made available to universities across the country, specifically the underserved and more rural eastern provinces. The flash-based modules the teacher in Shenzhen used were designed by a Beijing Normal University Edtec graduate student and stored in a database of similar lessons. The system of collaboration even included me, a lowly foreign intern. My job in Beijing was to transcript the English flash-based lessons and input their entire text into the central database so that any teacher across the country could search for any given lesson by title, subject, or keyword.
Today I work at a different charter school in San Diego, teaching fifth grade and also overseeing the entire IT infrastructure of the organization. Over the past four years we've made great strides in providing our teachers and students with access to technology. We've moved both the student body and the entire faculty, staff, and administration over to Google Apps for Education. We've provided every teacher with a laptop and projector cart with document camera. We've installed WiFi across the campus and bought some netbooks that students can check out from the library. I'm proud of the progress we've made, but we're still years away from utilizing technology to the extent that those schools in Shenzhen were, and that was over five years ago now.
The most depressing thought for me to ponder though, is the fact that many of my fellow teachers don't utilize the technology we've given them at all. Several, especially in the lower grades, don't even know how to operate the projector cart adequately. If we, a small, unencumbered charter school, can't collaborate effectively across even the few grades we serve, how will we, as a city, state, or country collaborate to the extent that China has been for years?
My personal hope for this degree is that it will lead me towards acquiring the knowledge and understanding needed to begin to answer daunting questions like the one I've asked above. I know that without the ability to address these sorts of problems, my vision for technology, much less more audacious visions, have no chance of coming to fruition.
I'm in the midst of interviewing for a position with the San Diego County Office of Education, and I hope to work with districts there to not only help them effectively implement technology within their own schools, but also help them implement technology effectively between their schools, between districts, and even between educational realms. I could see myself working within this specific office for the rest of my career, but not if I don't have the skills and understanding to be a productive member of the team.
I want to become an agent of positive change in America's system of education. I believe I have seen the future of education: the entire system working collaboratively, from postgraduates to preschoolers, helping one another become more accomplished learners and better citizens. I hope an Ed.D in Learning Technologies will introduce me to new possibilities for implementing technology in education and that it will introduce me to new people with the same passions as myself, but I also hope it will help me reach this goal of being an effective and positive agent of change within the system of education itself.
America may no longer be the global leader of public education (if it ever was) but that only means that our current path forward has been more clearly laid out by the current leaders than it would have been otherwise. I, for one, am anxious to get started down that path.
Respectfully, Joseph Hartman