As I work my way through the first weeks and months of the changes in my life from “not working in a school” for the first time in over a decade and a half, what has become clear to me from out the outside looking in is the importance of collaboration and communication, not just between people, but @ the nexus of where people, communications and technology intersect. These three are ubiquitous and taken for granted anymore it’s hard to mention it without seeing trite, but this "taken for granted" bit leads me to the question in the title of the post- "Anyone have data that supports EdTech as a net positive for learning?
I will be the first one to feel my feathers ruffled by this question as I most recently left a position where I was the "Director of Digital Learning." Shouldn't I know? Well, I like most others, just assume EdTech offers a net benefit, but absent the need to feed the status quo this year, I have time for all the questions I've had and I'm free to follow them wherever the answers lead me.
I think it's important to say from the outset- I am a supporter of digital learning 100 percent. What I am not so sure of is the correlation between EdTech and digital learning. Most of the EdTech that gets talked about and implemented in the majority of schools I would term "digital teaching", not digital learning. What I am concerned about, and what I hope to come to a better understanding of is whether or not we’ve all allowed ourselves to slide into believing something about technology as its used in schools as to be something it’s really not. So since we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflection on experience, that’s what this first column is about- reflecting on over a decade and a half in the classroom and a few years at the end as a leadership team/administration member at a school.
Some of the struggles I had as a teacher, a coach and integrationist became clearer after becoming privy to the inner views of school leadership. Too few school administrators have much patience to do the kind of work developing a real digital learning program takes.
I am talking about all the loss at the interfaces, dealing with poor infrastructure, leadership of IT staff, there is a serious dearth of leadership for digital anything in your average school. Instead of every single aspect being considered, there is a lot of “default setting” engineering happening. It's an unthinking approach, proceeding mechanically, disregarding information and clues (we've had our 3 minutes for talk about tech in the staff meeting for this week, moving on now...)
NoI was fortunate to be at a school that employed at least some digital learning integration support and put a "tech" person on the leadership team, but there was much less team support for digital initiatives as there were for traditional "teaching and learning". And it makes sense, as even the best generalist administrators are not well versed in any kind of depth of insight regarding technology integration. That's okay-- it's just important to point out because there is a lot of decision making going on and diagnosing of issues happening with very little training or experience behind it in schools that are not on the forefront.
What do I mean exactly?
There is a lot of digital teaching going on, and a lot less last digital learning.
School “computing“ is most often efficient content delivery and assessment systems.
Only a small number of schools have the vision and support and expertise to roll out computers and tablets and have them function as powerful discovery and learning machines.
Why this matters is because digital learning, digital teaching, edtech and IT, etc., are all thrown around interchangeably and they are not the same. There is an "Edtechochamber" of tech industry types, evangelists and a small percentage of heavily tech invested coaches, admin and teachers who support the use of "Edtech" and everything gets megaphoned together. It's repeated in school marketing as all having to do with improving student learning. Combined like this, and marketed with such fervor, one presumes that there is true "game changing" technology being implemented and integrated, but a curious thing is- you never see any data supporting these claims about EdTech's ROI. So my question is simple:
Where is the evidence that any of it, (regardless of what it's called) provides a net benefit for student learning?
John Hattie's studies apparently show little to no effect on student performance. He is held up as a demigod in Education so I cringe a bit that even he says the effect is small/is not measurably visible. I would so love to see a deluge of studies come forward that I have simply missed. Anecdotes on a small number of classrooms aren't going to cut it. I want to see the data that shows that the integration that's being done in the majority of classrooms is a net benefit for "student learning". Not for teacher efficiency, (which doesn't mean the teachers repurpose the time on students of course!) not for delivering digital worksheets, etc.. Our language surrounding technology makes it all too conveniently easy for everyone to assume its benefitting after the implementation of devices/software, etc has been made and money collected.
If we can't measure the positive effects of "Edtech" on student learning, (because it's digital teaching, not digital learning) then what exactly are we doing to students in schools with technology? How do we know? I’m not convinced we’re getting what we think we’re getting, and I am open to hearing about what I am not seeing. The point is- without thought about the details, all of our tech systems are basically big dumb oafs.
I don't blame any lack of coherent technology ROI on teachers at all, but the comment made by someone I don't know online some time ago always struck a chord with me:
"It all depends on how teachers use it. We don't buy a chain saw for every teacher. If we did, a few teachers would do brilliant work with the chain saws, a few others would cut off their thumbs, and the vast majority would just make a mess.
Again, this is zero against teachers as most schools outright fail in preparing for and paying for the appropriate professional development and support it would take to be proficient at all the tools and platforms thrown at them year after year, but the facts remain that most schools aren't very good at technology in terms of supporting digital learning.
I just wonder how much we've all drank the kool-aid because of the incredible utility and frankly amazing devices present in all of our lives outside of school. Surely, they will be beneficial in school, right? Hmmmmm...
Absent the pressure of a school environment forcing more "digital teaching" in the guise of learning, my mission going forward is to determine what kind of digital learning would most positively impacting students. My next post will focus on the particular steps I am taking to reclaim digital learning from being lumped in with "EdTech" in my own work now that I am no longer in a school. Thanks for reading, let me know what you think!