Thursday, July 24, 2008

Yes, Children Can Learn With Technology (if we can get past the "I have a curriculum to cover" approach to doling out information)

A graduate student email-interviewed me recently, and prepared a web summary of our exchange for a course assignment. One of the questions she asked was, "Often teachers will voice that the lack of machines and the lack of software make teaching with technology nearly impossible. In your opinion, what is the biggest technological obstacle that teachers face?" My response was that the biggest obstacle is pedagogical.

In my recent work (Jacobsen, 2006) I argue that several essential conditions need to be in place to support meaningful use of technology for learning, among which is ubiquitous access to reliable technology. However, it is vital to understand that access to computers and networks does not make much of a difference to the majority of teachers – the biggest obstacle that teachers often face is pedagogical – most adopt a reductionist stance on learning (I will qualify this argument later…). The second obstacle is techno-pedagogical – most teachers have underdeveloped skills for using interactive technologies in constructivist ways. Teachers will always argue that they have (i) no time, (ii) no access to technology, software, networks, whatever, and (iii) that technology doesn’t make a difference anyways when they have a curriculum to “cover”. Blah, blah, blah.

I believe we need to better understand the relative challenges that individual educators, entire school staffs, and entire school systems face when deciding whether or not, and then how, to use technology for learning. We need to study the nature of support that persuades teachers, schools and systems to make the shifts from transmission pedagogy to constructivist approaches to learning and when to invite technology into their classrooms, schools and systems.

Therefore, I do not believe that the question is whether we have enough machines, or not, or whether we focus on developing “technology skills” or not. If we are to take advantage of the power of technology to connect people with other people and link people with ideas, then fundamental changes to teaching and learning are required when computers come to school. Therefore, our approaches to professional development need to be part of an overall approach to educational reform and leadership in schools and school systems, rather than just with individual teachers and individual skill levels.

In my recent book, I argue that the issue is not whether technology makes any difference in learning (Jacobsen, 2006). We know that learners of all ages can use technology for imaginative and creative design work and that meaningful learning can result. The issue is not whether there is any credible evidence or enough “hard” research linking effective use of technology with meaningful inquiry and learning. I cite dozens of researchers who have provided example upon example upon example of meaningful learning with technology (Jacobsen, 2006). The time for piloting technology is over (Negroponte, 2006).

The problem is that after more than 25 years of experience with computers in K-12 classrooms, we have not seen the meaningful uses of technology for interdisciplinary inquiry by children in some classrooms and some schools spread much beyond the enthusiastic early adopter teachers and visionary innovators. It is generally accepted that the problem of uneven adoption of technology extends to other institutional settings.

What does it take to move technology for learning beyond the early adopters? Building upon Becker’s (2000) research on the use of technology for learning, I identify ten essential conditions that support innovative teaching and inquiry-based learning with technology in K-12 schools (Jacobsen, 2006):

(1) Supportive leadership
(2) A learning, risk-taking culture among staff
(3) A colleague, from within or without the school, to walk the road with the teacher (a mentor or critical peer)
(4) Ubiquitous access to reliable technology
(5) Time for professional dialogue and connections
(6) School board and parent support
(7) Secured, sustainable sources of funding
(8) On-site capacity and leadership
(9) Diffusion of the mentorship relationships
(10) Designing learning communities that resist the urge to turn back.

So, while I argue that the genesis of the problem can often be understood to be teacher pedagogical beliefs, techno-pedagogical skills and attitudes, I recognize that teachers are subject to the political, social, technological, economic and cultural contexts in which they work. So, even teachers who readily embrace inquiry and have relatively good skill and experience with the technology will run up against problems using technology for learning if there isn’t supportive leadership, supportive and helpful colleagues, access to reliable technology, and so on. An individual teacher cannot easily link her students to peers in another country without an internet connection and a computer in the classroom.

Of these, I think that responsive and embedded professional development is probably the most important condition for effective technology use for learning, along with supportive leadership. Teachers are asked to make major changes to their practice when computers come to school – they need to adopt constructivist practices (big change for many) and they need to constantly learn new media and methods to do with the technology (this tends to get easier over time), they need access to colleagues and positive mentoring, they need parental and board support, they need the digital tools and networks, and so on.

Therefore, I believe the biggest barrier is the relative lack of effective and meaningful PD – public schools have more computers and better networks than ever, but these are still underused and often mis-used because appropriate investments in professional development (both inservice and preservice) have not been made, and there is a need for strong and supportive leadership to connect the dots and make things happen in schools.

Finally, I think the biggest gap that we need to address is between those teachers who believe their role is to "transmit knowledge in predefined curricular bits and easy to swallow pieces" and those teachers who see their role as constructing meaningful learning opportunities and supporting children in constructing their own knowledge using disciplined inquiry. If teachers see themselves as "delivering the curriculum" then they will try to use technology to "deliver information". If teachers see their role as cultivating scholarship and supporting innovation, inquiry and creativity, then they are more likely to design a constructivist learning environment for children. I see "delivering information" as an under-use, or mis-use of schooling and technology. On the other hand, if teachers see their role as supporting learners in constructing knowledge, communicating their understanding, solving challenging problems, inquiry, and decision making, then they will tend to use technology to support these forms of thinking and communicating.

No comments: