Contributed by Lauren A. Curry.
In a recent blog piece, Shifting, I was excited to talk about schools and districts around the country that have chosen to move past traditional textbooks by embracing new technologies. Instead of outdated, dog-eared, back-bending tomes, students in these districts now have efficient access to current information in dynamic formats – all in a 1 lb. package.
The incentive to write the piece, though, wasn’t just the opportunities offered by the tools themselves. Rather it was the scale at which these tools are now being deployed. Specifically of note was the Los Angeles Unified School District’s passage of a $1 billion bond to support technology integration in all of its schools beginning this fall. 660,000 students would benefit from this massive investment. Exciting stuff.
Or at least that was the hope.
News hit Twitter in early October that the LA technology rollout didn’t go so well. Problems snowballed and the district made the dramatic decision to recall the devices provided to students just weeks prior. Effective immediately
District officials cited numerous reasons for the recall, all of which boil down to failed deployment. It happened too fast, with too little engagement of teachers, students and families, lack of attention to effective policies, inadequate professional development, and a host of other issues. You can read more about them in Stephanie Banchero and Erica E. Phillips’ recent Wall Street Journal piece, “Schools Learn Tablets Limits”.
While it’s awfully tempting to write a blog piece about what went wrong in LA and who is responsible – because let’s face it, a failure of this magnitude has repercussions for all of us working on technology integration nationwide – it’s the WSJ story with which I’m actually going to take issue. Failed technology integration is bad, but I think failure to tell the story right is worse.
The Banchero/Phillips piece uses the LA story as a hook for an article about the controversy surrounding tech integration efforts. It cites conflicting research, categorizes those involved in the conversation as “skeptics” and “advocates”, and profiles districts that have struggled to negotiate the fraught transition to a 1:1 device environment. While some experts are quoted as emphasizing the potential of technology to create learning opportunities that best fit students’ needs, the balance of the piece tips heavily toward the obstacles. And no wonder, with the LA story in the mix.
The problem in this framing, though, is that it lumps too much into one pot. It tries to debate the question of whether technology integration improves learning, while referencing examples where – it must be argued – technology integration never really took place.
Making hardware available in schools is only one of many, many complicated steps in the technology integration process. If the hardware arrives before these other needs are attended to (as evidently was the case in LA), its potential to positively impact student learning is greatly reduced. Even worse, resulting frustrations, confusion, and course-corrections damage morale and cost essential learning time and resources.
The LA Unified School District experience isn’t evidence against the effectiveness of technology integration. It’s evidence of a district that failed to actually achieve technology integration.
The Maine Learning Technology Initiative, one of the country’s oldest ubiquitous technology integration initiatives, sought to develop and attend to what are now widely accepted standards of what constitutes effective technology integration. Their 2011 report is filled with compelling evidence demonstrating that – when the standards of effective integration are met – both students and teachers benefit.
Here in Vermont, where the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education works with educators throughout the state to support effective technology integration, results are similarly positive. Students saw improved semester grades in English, science and social studies. Boys experienced a 21% decrease in absentee days (a key measure of engagement) after just one year of technology integration, and students involved in a middle-school-level program had a lower high school drop-out rate than their peers statewide. Put more simply, it works.
One would likely be hard-pressed to find a school that would say technology integration is easy. Pressures of time, financial resources, mandated testing, and parallel initiatives to name a few can imperil the shift before it even begins. Some schools, though, are deftly managing these challenges. And their students are thriving.
The fact is that a billion dollars was easier to come by in LA than the leadership, time, flexibility, and learning needed to ensure the returns on such an investment could be realized. That’s both bad and worth writing about. Let’s not confuse a discussion, though, about the challenges of managing effective technology integration, with one about whether it works.
Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.