04 September 2011

Faith-Based Education and a Return to Shop Class

Today's NYT has a lengthy front page article that wonders why investments in classroom technology do not lead to better educational outcomes among students:
To be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.
In 2008 Dick Nelson and Dan Sarewitz had a commentary in Nature (here in PDF) that eloquently summarized why it is that we should not expect technology in the classroom to reault in better educational outcomes as they suggest we should in the case of a tehcnology like vaccines.

They introduce three rules for technological fixes as follows:
For some social problems, scientific research and technological innovation deliver significant progress, while for others, such activities lead to little if any improvement. Remarkable advances have been made in disease reduction through vaccination efforts, for example. But the story for literacy is different. In the United States, nearly a half century of research, application of new technologies and development of new methods and policies has failed to translate into improved reading abilities for the nation’s children1.

Although vaccinating children and teaching them to read may seem so different as\ to make them incommensurable, they are similar in several important respects. Both are carried out by trained professionals in a\ controlled environment using the standard tools of their respective trades. Notably, each has been, and continues to be, the subject of considerable research. But the reasons why progress has been so uneven point to three simple rules for anticipating when more research and development (R&D) could help to yield rapid social progress. In a world of limited resources, the trick is distinguishing problems amenable to technological fixes from those that are not. Our rules provide guidance\ in making this distinction . . .

Both vaccinating and teaching involve skilfully produced artefacts. But unlike vaccines, the textbooks and software used in education do not embody the essence of what needs to be done. That is, they don’t provide the basic ‘go’ of teaching and learning. That depends on the skills of teachers and on the attributes of classrooms and students. Most importantly, the effectiveness of a vaccine is largely independent of who gives or receives it, and of the setting in which it is given. A health-care practitioner (unlike a teacher) doesn’t usually have to figure out what will work on a case-by- case basis — no matter if the child is rich or poor, if he or she speaks English or Mandarin. The vaccine captures the basic go in a technological artefact, distinguishing it from the teaching of reading.
The three rules for a technological fix proposed by Sarewitz and Nelson are:
I. The technology must largely embody the cause–effect relationship connecting problem to solution.
II. The effects of the technological fix must be assessable using relatively unambiguous or uncontroversial criteria.
III. Research and development is most likely to contribute decisively to solving a social problem when it focuses on improving a standardized technical core that already exists.
Obviously technology in the classroom fails with respect to each of the three criteria: (a) technology is not a causal factor in learning in the sense that more technology means more learning, (b) assessment of educational outcome sis itself difficult and contested, much less disentangling various causal factors, and (c) the lack of evidence that technology leads to improved educational outcomes means that there is no such standardized technological core.

The NY Times reports:
This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.

Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments.

“The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an investor in educational technology companies. When it comes to showing results, he said, “We better put up or shut up.”

And yet, in virtually the same breath, he said change of a historic magnitude is inevitably coming to classrooms this decade: “It’s one of the three or four biggest things happening in the world today.”

Critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills — like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools — at the expense of math, reading and writing fundamentals. They say the technology advocates have it backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later.
In this case, the evidence would seem to show fairly conclusively that the critics are right. Yet, despite the lack of evidence for the efficacy of technology in the classroom, the lack of data has not been an obstacle to developing a long-term love affair with the promise of technology.
In 1997, a science and technology committee assembled by President Clinton issued an urgent call about the need to equip schools with technology.

If such spending was not increased by billions of dollars, American competitiveness could suffer, according to the committee, whose members included educators like Charles M. Vest, then president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and business executives like John A. Young, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard.

To support its conclusion, the committee’s report cited the successes of individual schools that embraced computers and saw test scores rise or dropout rates fall. But while acknowledging that the research on technology’s impact was inadequate, the committee urged schools to adopt it anyhow.

The report’s final sentence read: “The panel does not, however, recommend that the deployment of technology within America’s schools be deferred pending the completion of such research.”
A 2010 review by the US Department of Education (here in PDF) found very few systematic studies of the role of technology in K-12 education.  WHat this means is that the advocates of technology in the classroom as a means of improving educational outcomes are basing their advocacy on little more than faith -- faith that technology will make outcomes better, despite a lack of evidence to support that faith.

This sort of faith-based education will have consequences, consider this vignette from the Arizona school at the center of the NYT story:
“We have Smart Boards in every classroom but not enough money to buy copy paper, pencils and hand sanitizer,” said Nicole Cates, a co-president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Kyrene de la Colina, an elementary school . . .

But she loves the fact that her two children, a fourth-grader and first-grader, are learning technology, including PowerPoint and educational games.
The love affair with technology reflects a deeper problem in education, hinted at in this week's Economist:
[D]emand for educated labour is being reconfigured by technology, in much the same way that the demand for agricultural labour was reconfigured in the 19th century and that for factory labour in the 20th. Computers can not only perform repetitive mental tasks much faster than human beings. They can also empower amateurs to do what professionals once did: why hire a flesh-and-blood accountant to complete your tax return when Turbotax (a software package) will do the job at a fraction of the cost? And the variety of jobs that computers can do is multiplying as programmers teach them to deal with tone and linguistic ambiguity.

Several economists, including Paul Krugman, have begun to argue that post-industrial societies will be characterised not by a relentless rise in demand for the educated but by a great “hollowing out”, as mid-level jobs are destroyed by smart machines and high-level job growth slows. David Autor, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), points out that the main effect of automation in the computer era is not that it destroys blue-collar jobs but that it destroys any job that can be reduced to a routine. Alan Blinder, of Princeton University, argues that the jobs graduates have traditionally performed are if anything more “offshorable” than low-wage ones. A plumber or lorry-driver’s job cannot be outsourced to India.
So by all means lets have more technology in our education system -- such as technologies of operating machine tools, agricultural equipment, power systems and even food old-fashioned shop class.