Monday, June 20, 2016

Making Technology Pay

"Is there really a difference in student performance with technology compared to without technology? My students seem to be doing just fine without it."

I guess that depends on how you define student performance and success. If success is measured only by a test score or by mastery of content, then perhaps students are successful without technology.

"My classes are always engaged and seem to do just fine without technology."

I guess that depends on how you define engaged. I think it's important for students to do things that reflect the world we live in, not the world we grew up in.

"I want to see the proof that technology improves learning before we purchase any new tech."

Whether technology improves learning or not isn't about the technology itself, but how teachers and students use the technology to improve learning. 

I hear many stories about failed technology initiatives in schools. The technology was not used to the fullest, or worse it was not used at all. The narrative is all too familiar. Little was done to gather input or get buy-in from stakeholders up front, and little was done to support the implementation after the fact. How many smartboards in this country are being used as glorified projector screens? Almost always, these types of failures are avoidable with proper planning and ongoing support. 

But is it really worth it to invest thousands for technology in schools. Is it reasonable to provide a connected device to every student? For years, I've asked my graduate students to think about technology purchases in their own schools. Did it really pay off to buy the technology? Did the technology allow something to be done that couldn't be done before? Was the total cost of ownership considered? 

After all, most studies I've encountered don't really support the idea that technology raises student achievement. Of course, student achievement in these studies is usually narrowly defined by test scores. One study I read concluded that technology even widens the achievement gap. It found that more privileged students tend to use the devices more often for learning, while less privileged students tend to use the devices for entertainment. 

In spite of these discouraging reports, I believe we need to look further before concluding that technology isn't worth it. As schools consider spending for new technology, there needs to be a clear vision of what success will look like. We need to really explore why we are doing what we're doing. In addition to the questions mentioned before, I would also suggest the following as food for thought.

1. Can we afford NOT to place up-to-date technology in the hands of our students?

Technology is how things get done in our modern world. We aren't preparing students for the world we grew up in. We aren't even preparing students to be successful in the world they grew up in. Our world is changing so fast, our students are going to have to be prepared for anything. That requires adaptability. And it will certainly also include adaptability with the use of technology. Those skills aren't measured on standardized tests. They are measured in authentic situations where real work is being done. 

2. Is technology being used in ways that give students greater ownership of learning? Does technology result in a shift in agency to the learner?

It's wise to think of technology in terms of value added. How does technology allow us to do something better than before? And, how is it allowing us to do something we couldn't do before? There are many ways tech improves things we do or allows for new things. But some uses of technology take learning to the next level. These uses are game-changers.

I would like to see technology being used to create big shifts in learning. One of the biggest shifts is to create more authentic, student-driven learning experiences. Technology is a game changer when it is used to shift agency to the learner. It's a game-changer when students take greater ownership of their learning.

So let's consider interactive white boards. They have some possibilities for student agency I guess, but they are probably used more often for direct instruction, led by the teacher. That doesn't mean we should stop using these tools altogether, but I do think we should strive for technology to be used in more authentic ways, where students are given voice and choice and are creating and solving problems.

The most powerful potential for a shift in agency is for students to have access to a connected device in a BYOD or 1:1 scenario. But access is not enough. Just like there are lots of interactive white boards being used as glorified projector screens, there are also lots of laptops being used as overpriced word processors.

To use technology to the fullest, we need leaders in our classrooms and schools who can facilitate a pedagogy that creates greater student ownership of learning. How we use the technology is the critical issue that determines whether the investment pays off or not. So whether you invest in iPads or Chromebooks or some other device, the key question to remember is how will this technology improve student learning?

Question: How do you know technology use is successful in your school? Is it worth the cost? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.

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