Shift – Rethink Technology, Testing, and Higher Education
Last week in Her Mind/Shift blog post Tina Barseghianv tackled which technology is worth investing in? She interviewed a few educators that I am familiar with. According to Chris Lehman principal at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia (who’s famous “Technology must be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.” quote I witnessed at ISTE 2011) the best technology is a web browser. I would tend to agree with him. Barseghianv’s post got me thinking again about the topic that I have often wrestled with – Are we efficiently and effectively utilizing technology in our schools?
I tend to think of technology in terms of before and after the rise of social media and smart phones. Five years ago a teacher that was using a projector and Microsoft Office was considered to be “tech savvy.” Today that idea is almost laughable. Why? Because those types of technology only make the teacher’s job of disseminating information easier but they don’t do anything for the student other than act as glorified overheads. A 21st Century approach to learning puts the right technology into the hands of students. This allows them to collaborate and create products. Merely memorizing rote facts and figures is replaced with “doing something” with the information you have garnered. Social media and smart phones have given people the ability to connect and share information in ways before not possible. The reason that Lehman thinks that a browser is the best technology is because many of these tools are readily available through a browser for free. Not only are they free in most cases but they are cloud-based further untethering users.
As stated in Barseghianv’s article,
“The promise of technology in the pursuit of learning is vast — and so are the profits. The SIIA valued the ed-tech market at $7.5 billion. With daily launches of new products promising to solve all manner of problems — from managing classrooms to engaging bored students with interactive content to capturing and organizing data, to serving as a one-stop-shop for every necessary service, choosing from the dizzying number of products on the market can be confusing.”
How are educators supposed to make sense of this? Often they don’t even have a say in which products are chosen because they are chosen at the district level far above their heads. However, we as educators do get a say in anything that is free. The ed-tech market is big business and often districts pay large amounts of money for services they don’t need. Sometimes contracts are signed as the results of relationships between administrators and vendors regardless of the need for a product. I don’t profess to believe all deals are shady but I do believe that District’s waste a lot of money. Many critics argue that the answer to better educated students isn’t more money and I agree. I don’t think it is more money we need. I think we need to spend the money we have more effectively. Instead of throwing “the next best thing” at educators and expecting them to train themselves, let them decided which technology to use based on their objectives and learning outcomes. Districts need to listen to teachers and educators need to listen to each other. Technology for its own sake is a waste and doesn’t necessarily make for 21st Century Learning.
The other issue raised in What’s Worth Investing In? How to Decide What Technology You Need is the idea that standardized testing and collaborative learning using technology don’t go hand in hand. According to educator, author, and consultant Will Richardson, whose book Why School, was recently released, “placing too much emphasis on test scores will eventually backfire.” The real problem with our educational system is that we have made testing the measure of student achievement. Why? Because testing is big business and it can quantify learning – even if that isn’t always the best measure. If we were totally honest education is at the mercy of The Testing Industry’s Big Four. In Maryland we give the High School Assessment exams (HSA). These tests have been the measure of student achievement for the majority of my teaching career. Maryland spent a lot of money to develop these tests with Pearson. My issue with these tests is that I have no idea what they measure. For example if I teach Biology and my students take the Biology HSA I have no idea how many questions they must get right to pass. The Social Studies HSA was completely done away with in 2011-2012 because of budget constraints and it is now back again a year later. Standardized tests like this allow Districts to claim rigorous standards yet often times the public doesn’t see those advertised standards scaled back after the initial announcement. When the HSA’s were announced all students were going to have to pass them to graduate. That never happened. The written portion (the harder part in my opinion) was eliminated a few years into testing and then the Bridge Plan was announced. If a student fails enough times they can do a project to graduate. This project is done with a teacher mentoring them.
Let me publicly say that my issue is not with standardized testing but rather with the idea that collaborative, project-based learning where learners are responsible for application of knowledge is a better measure of student achievement. As educators we need to reevaluate the types of things we spend our money on. Yes, ed-tech is big business, and not all ed-tech companies products yield a good return on investment. This is why we as educators need to work with each other to evaluate and share products that are worthwhile to achieving 21st Century Learning Outcomes. California’s stance with regard to digital text books is a step in the right direction. Of course big text book companies are against this because it will cut into the exorbitant profits they make. I believe we are headed for the day when the education that people receive is driven by free online courses. I am not even sure how I feel about the idea of higher education anymore. I say this as I am getting my second masters from Johns Hopkins but I feel like the price of college is no longer a good investment as it becomes harder for college graduates to find work. Is someone with a piece of paper smarter than a learner who learned via free online courses?