Friday, June 16, 2017

Fractious Guardian debate: Tech in schools – money saver or waster

7 reasons why ‘teacher research' is a really bad idea
The Guardian hosted an education debate last night. It was pretty fractious, with the panel split down the middle and the audience similarly split. On one side lay the professional lobby. who saw teachers as the only drivers of tech in schools, doing their own research and being the decision makers. On the other side were those who wanted a more professional approach to procurement, based on objective research and cost-effectiveness analysis. What I heard, was what I often hear at these events, that teachers should be the researchers, experimenters, adopting an entrepreneurial method, making judgements and determining procurement. I challenged this - robustly. Don’t teachers have enough on their plate, without taking on several of these other professional roles? Do they have the time, never mind the skills, to play all of these roles? (Thanks to Brother UK for pic.)
1. Anecdote is not research
To be reasonably objective in research you need to define your hypothesis, design the trial, select your sample, have a control, isolate variables and be good at gathering and interpreting the data. Do teachers have the time and skills to do this properly? Some may, but the vast majority do not. It normally requires a post-graduate degree (not in teaching) and some real research practice before you become even half good at this. I wouldn’t expect my GP to mess around with untested drugs and treatments with anecdotal evidence based on the views of GPs. I want objective research by qualified medical researchers.
En passant, let me give a famous example.Learning styles (VAK or VARK) were propulgated by Neil Fleming, a teacher, who based it on little more than armchair theorising. It is still believed by the majority of teachers, desoite oodles of evidence to the contrary. This is what happens when bad teacher research spreads like a meme. It is believed because teachers rely on themselves and not objective evidence.
2. Not in job description
Being a ‘researcher’ is not in the job description. Teaching is hard, it needs energy, dedication and focus. By all means seek out the research and apply what is regarded as good practice, but the idea that good practice is what any individual deems it to be through their personal research is a conceit. A school is not a personal lab – it has a purpose.
3. Don’t experiment on other people’s children
There is also the ethical issue of experimenting on other people’s children. I, as a parent, resent the idea that teachers will experiment on my children. I assume they’re at school to learn, not be the subject of the teachers' ‘research’ projects in tech.
4. Category mistake
What qualifies a teacher to be a researcher? It’s like the word ‘Leader’, when anyone can simply call themselves a leader, it renders the word meaningless. I have no problem with teachers seeking out good research, even making judgements about what they regard as useful and practical in their school, but that’s very different from calling yourself a ‘researcher' and doing ‘research’ yourself. That’s a whole different ball park. This is a classic category mistake, shifting the meaning of a word to suit an agenda.
5. Entrepreneurial
This word came up a lot. We need more start-ups companies in schools. Now that’s my world. I’m an investor, run an EdTech start-up, and, believe me, that’s the last thing you need. Most start-ups fail and you don’t want failed projects crashing around in your school. But it “teaches the kids how to be entrepreneurs said one of the panel”. No it doesn’t. Start-ups have agendas. Sure they’ll want to get into your school but don’t believe that this is about ‘research’, it’s about ‘referral’. Wait, look, assess, analyse, then try and procure.
6. Teaching tech bias
Technology is an integral part of a school. But it is a mistake to focus solely on ‘teching tech’. There are three types of technology in schools:
School tech – general stuff, website, admin, comms, internet access….
Teacher tech – teacher aids – whiteboards, assessment software…
Learner tech – autonomous learning software
The assumption is that the main issue is Teacher tech. I’d argue that the other two categories are more important. Far better to get your basic, infrastructure sorted, that some blue-sky augmented reality project in the classroom.
7. Professional procurement
Procurement is difficult. Too often education suffers from ‘device fetish’ buying devices not solutions. The failed tablet debacle is the perfect example. Professional procurement means starting with the question ‘to what problem is this a solution’ then assessing the options, doing your homework on background evidence and research, a detailed cost-effectiveness analysis (this is tricky) and a change management plan that includes training need and solutions. This is a skilled job and few schools have the professionals with these skills. Yet this is what the Governors and senior managers should demand. Alternatively, procurement should be done at a higher level, for groups of schools, just as JISC has a defined product set which it recommends into Higher Education.
Back to the debate
The title of the debate was Tech in schools – money saver or waster? The answer, of course, is ‘both’. Technology is always ahead of sociology or culture, which is always ahead of pedagogy. This means that culture always trumps strategy. A school, almost by definition, is a difficult environment for technological change. It’s funding, procurement, management structure, job roles, classroom structure and teaching culture can (not always) work against the use of technology. Teachers deliver learning largely in classrooms, which is a one to many teaching environment, largely unsuitable for technological disruption, so it is not surprising that technology is a difficult fit in schools, a circular, ‘individualised’ peg trying to get squeezed into the ‘one to many square’ that is the classroom.
Tech always been in schools
Tech has always been in schools. From the dawn of civilisation, the earliest caches of clay tablets and pottery shards show people learning how to write and draw. Writing, pens, pencils, erasers, clay tablets, paper, books, bells, canes, leather straps, slates and blackboards; each of these has had a profound effect on what is taught and how it is taught. Writing is a skill that had to be taught in schools, with pencils and erasers mistakes could be erased and corrected, slates were sophisticated as assessment devices (Lancaster method), paper/papyrus/bark gave us the ability to publish and store our thoughts, books gave us fixed texts that could be taught, printing brought scale to resources, bells regulated the timetable, hideous instruments of punishment regulated behaviour and the blackboard made teachers turn their backs on learners and broadcast fixed knowledge. We forget that all of these have pedagogic affordances. Technology has always influenced teaching and learning. So the idea that it should not be used is ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean that all technology should be used.
Device fetish
Unfortunately, with the rise of more autonomous technology, the new causes friction when it rubs up against the old. The first computers were calculators. These changed the pedagogy of maths, in that technology itself had agency and could do more than act as an aid – they could actually calculate faster and more accurately than a human. There was a great deal of angst about this when introduced, as it was though that they would turn our children into unthinking idiots, unable to do mental arithmetic. What actually happened was a recognition that the tech was a feature of the real world and had to be accommodated.
Subsequent computer devices have, of course, been subject to the same charge, but this was not the main problem. With computers, tablets and mobiles ‘device fetish’ took over. The device was everything, so education institutions bought them by the skip-load and parachuted them into schools. Procurement was too often about the device and not the delivery of teaching and learning. Just as counting bums on seats is to focus on the wrong end of the learner, so devices focus on the wrong end of the problem. A device is a peripheral that hangs of a network and as the internet and streaming has become the norm, so devices have become less important. It was always the case that doing things was more important than the delivery device, yet far too little attention, analysis and procurement efforts went into the software, as opposed to hardware.
Device fetish: Keep on taking the tablets
The tablet Taliban, led by Apple, insisted on kids being given what is essentially a consumer device. Tablets have poor affordances – difficult to write at length, code, create graphics and so on. There is even evidence that they slow up progress in writing, as touch-screen makes you write shorter sentences with a higher error rate. Poor procurement, higher than expected insurance costs, difficulty in networking, poor internet access and a paucity of teacher training and software meant that many did not last. Some were disastrous, especially in the US and many swapped out tablets for laptops.
What is far more useful is a strategic look at technology across the school – with school tech, teaching tech and learner tech. Too often the emphasis is on teaching tech, hence the huge spends of whiteboards, tablets and so on. Far less attention is paid to administration and learning tech, which is where, I believe, the efficacy really lies.
School tech
Your website is important as it represents the school to the outside world. Do you have email and comms so that parents and others can contact the school? Do you have a social media presence? Administratively, student support, finance, timetabling, absences and a host of other functions need software to function. Try writing policy documents without a word processor or doing the budget without a spreadsheet. I’d include here the use of tech in teacher, admin and governor training. Modern Governor is used in many schools as a 24/7 training tool for Governors. It’s one of the best spends on tech in school, as it brings all Governors up to speed on their roles and responsibilities. Teacher training should also be considered as should training for other staff. There’s even good online training for catering staff.
Teaching tech
Beghind the scenes, lesson planning and sharing can use technology. Teacher training can be revolutionised by technology – from twitter as CPD to VR as a feedback mechanism for inexperienced teachers. The blackboard and whiteboard are largely teaching technologies. But for me, tech is often best applied outside of the classroom, in the hands of learners not teachers. There is a natural bias towards teaching tech, such as whiteboards, but they have been shown to be of limited efficacy and value.
Learning tech
In the long-term, this is by far the most important. Tools such as word processor, spreadsheet, powerpoint, graphics packages (2D & 3D) and databases are a vital form of technology in schools, as they are mainstays in the real world. They must be made available to learners.
Learning resources, such as Wikipedia and a mountain of Open Educational resources
Corrective software is another, tools that identify errors in spelling, grammar, structure and style. This now includes adaptive software that personalises learning. Then there’s assessment software, that can set tests, formative and summative, as well as mark. However, I’m not such a fan of marking. When as a parent did you ever set your child a test or mark them? It turns schools into unnecessarily competitive environments, where there are winners but also, and more destructively even more losers. The focus here should be on effortful learning – blogging, writing, doing things, projects, providing support on independent learning – what used to be called homework.
AI is here
The new tech kid on the block, takes us away from devices, towards software that learns while it delivers. AI now helps us create, curate, consolidate, deliver  and assess learning. Of course, it’s not such a new kid, as every learner on the planet with internet access uses Google to search and find things – and Google is pure AI. In fact AI is the new UI (User Interface) as most services you use online, Google, email, social media, Amazon, Netflix – are delivered using AI. AI is also revolutionising interfaces for learning. Siri, VIV, Cortana and Alexa are bring voice and dialogue into play, reintroducing something that was lost in learning – Socratic dialogue. But this time Socrates is smart software.
Tech is transgressive
Lastly, tech sneaks into schools whether you like it or not. Kids will have smartphones – almost ALL of them. Kids will have laptops, games consoles, smart TVs. Tech is cool. School is not cool. They will game the system. This poses real challenges. Audrey Mullen made a name for herself when a high school student in making some apposite and powerful recommendations for tech in schools. She abhorred iPads, told teachers to “Save us from ourselves” and ban mobiles from the classroom, and made an appeal for solid administrative software that delivered good services and content. Even teachers have been known to sneak in tech for predatory purposes in schools, the cameras in the toilets, child porn and so on. I’m not against the banishment of the use of tech in classrooms. Classrooms were designed for one on many teaching, not tech. Young people see technology as subversive and transgressive. They will game it.
Every school should have a digital strategy. This needs to cover school, governor, teacher and learner tech. There needs to be some reasonable effort made to define and plan for tech in schools then implement professional procurement. If we leave it to erratic, personal, teacher-led ‘research’ (which is not really research at all) we’ll continue to make the same mistakes. History will repeat itself and education will not benefit from technology in the way, I believe, it should.


Matthias Giger said...

While I can relate to most of what you have written in your post and why what you say might hold true for the situation in the UK, I must at least partially disagree from the perspective of my own situation in Switzerland.

I'm working in a school who has recently adapted 1:1 computing with notebook like devices. As many schools having done such a step we are still in need of on overarching concept. However, as much as we try we are at a loss when it comes down to what you defend as research for several reasons:

1) The research done at our local institutions is often not relevant or representative. It is not relevant because it doesn't concentrate on the issues we face in daily teaching. As a teacher, I'm neither interested in the so-called benefits of mixing students of different ages into one big pot and teach them all together, nor do I want to learn more about debunked learning style concepts. What I am interested in is the science of learning, how to practice and train best, which approach might be the best in teaching subject X. All topics which sometimes seem to be below the dignity of some "researchers".

2) Proper research is sometimes blissfully ignored by our "research" institutions because somebody else has put his/her name on the publication. Up to now, there is much artificial debate about foundational findings of learning science which have been replicated over and over again in classrooms but don't seem trendy enough to teach them to teacher students or even communicate them to teachers.

3) A lot of research is based on fancy statistics - whether the methods are really understood to the people using them: Who knows? - and ridiculously small numbers of students. Why should research basing its conclusion on 50 students be worth more than my anecdotal experience of 1000+ students I've taught over the years? Much of the research done in education regrettably seems to be as valuable as the salmon in the brain-scanner.

4) Regarding our tech situations the research institutions haven't started useful for us. While we are using such devices daily - maybe sometimes in a way which could be improved - the experts are still discussing rather fluffy concepts based on little practical experience with students. Even more, in the few training sessions they offer (based on their research) little takes place of what you might consider worthwhile covering in “computer” lessons. Instead we are introduced to apps and gadgets that at best only provide a short thrill or in many cases are so bad, that only teachers with no tech background at all might consider them worthy.

From all this, I conclude that we need teacher "research". As you rightly mention not by every teacher but at least by some. Some teachers have training in research at least up to the standards of the type of research I’ve described above. And teacher research doesn't always have to be sophisticated. Very often it is enough for local conditions to improve to use simple tools as feedback evaluation and A/B-testing. Because most teachers are mainly interested what is of importance to their students not all students, there isn’t much need for sophisticated statistical knowledge. What those teachers need is a set of tools to look at evidence and those tools are generally well-know and tested. Therefore, unlike real research which tries to widen the boundaries of our knowledge, teachers are interested in practical results of what might be called active research. Those results don’t need to be generalised and they are good enough if they fulfil local needs.
Teacher research is not a fancy of some over-enthusiastic nerds it is simply self-defence against research done not in the service of science but simply to get attention in an ever more competitive publication cycle.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks for the feedback, First you are using notebooks (not tablets) - a sensible approach based on research and evidence. Research at 'Local' institutions is not really my point. Research is not a geographically bound issue. Good research is objectified and of high quality with good sample rates, good controls, good hypotheses and good data gathering and analysis. You mention 'Learning Styles' but this is a myth perpetuated by teachers. the research is clear - and almost universaly ignored. Learning styles were never based on research, they were armchair theories. In one case (VAK) simply invented by a teacher - Fleming. There is a ton of research on the 'science of learning', I have spent a lifetime reading and teaching the subject. The problem is that much of the 'science' of learning, especially in cognitive psychology is ignored by teachers, who buy into social constructivism and ignore the 'science'. I don't recognise 2). at all. You can't attack stats on one hand and then say that your group, that is quite simply the total number of students you've taught, is relevant. This is about representative samples, not the kids you just happen to teach in one Swiss school - which may be a wildly skewed sample. I'd be happy to read any of the 'teacher' research you mention but as someone who has had to review papers from this source, all I can say is that it's larglly been unpublishable.

Shane said...

Love the breadth and depth of this piece. Re: whether teachers should be the ones responsible for making decisions about learning methods and tech in the classroom - I would agree with you that they are not necessarily skilled or well-positioned to do this (nevermind the fact that it would lead to huge inconsistencies across a school, let alone across schools plural).

*But* I can also see why teachers would want to take on these tasks rather than be endlessly frustrated with the equally-ill-equipped decisions of other (managerial) staff in schools who a) are unlikely to consult with them or make them part of the process and b) are also unlikely to be skilled enough in all the jobs required.