In a recent blog post, Diane Ravitch writes in the first line, “I wish that all those who appreciate the wonders of technology would frankly admit its limitations.” Well, I’m here to admit it. But not in the way Dr. Ravitch might wish.
In her post, Ravitch writes - and quotes others - about Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) purchasing new devices for students at a substantial cost. My point here is not to defend Superintendent Dallas Dance or BCPS, but to address the larger point Ravitch is raising about the relationship between technology and pedagogy.
The thrust of her piece could be summarized as: pedagogy first, technology second.
She seems to have missed that Superintendent Dance and BCPS appear to be doing what she wants through their Blueprint 2.0 and STAT initiatives to get the school system aligned around high expectations and equity, learner-centered teaching and learning, as well as modernization and technology initiatives.
The broader point here is that technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching. Personalized learning using technology is not just dumping computers into every classroom and hoping for the best; it is an educational improvement strategy that can enable teachers to reach students in effective and engaging ways.
Darwin J. Stiffler, Superintendent Yuma School District One and one of the nation’s leading practitioners of personalized learning, observed, “In order to achieve its potential, it is critical that personalized learning be implemented strategically, with a stronger focus on pedagogy and addressing students’ specific educational needs than on the technology itself.”
As the U.S. Department of Education’s 2016 National Education Technology Plan states, “When carefully designed and thoughtfully applied, technology can accelerate, amplify, and expand the impact of effective teaching practices. However, to be transformative, educators need to have the knowledge and skills to take full advantage of technology-rich learning environments … For these systemic changes in learning and teaching to occur, education leaders need to create a shared vision for how technology best can meet the needs of all learners and to develop a plan that translates the vision into action.”
When done well, personalized learning can produce results. There is some new, promising research about personalized learning from the RAND Corporation: “The longer students experience personalized learning practices, the greater their growth in achievement,” according to new research (http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1365.html). The report, entitled Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning, is an important contribution to understanding whether personalized learning is producing results and how it is being implemented.
The achievement outcomes identified in the study are strong and indicative of the great potential for personalized learning to be transformative:
- Well more than half of personalized learning students with lower starting achievement levels experienced greater growth rates than peers, particularly in mathematics.
- Growth continued to accumulate in schools with three years of implementation.
- Schools were developing non-academic skills in students.
- Students were more likely to report their math and ELA instruction incorporated complex, student-centered instruction.
Other worthy contributions to the research base come from SRI International, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the Christensen Institute, which look at schools and districts implementing personalized and blended learning.
It is true that a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that access to computers and other digital devices had no impact - or in some cases negative impact - on students' proficiency in reading, math, and science. Although it uses data that are several years old, the OECD study raises the important question of why aren’t we seeing greater impact on academic achievement given the enormous potential of technology to assist teachers in highly diverse classrooms to personalize learning and increase student engagement?
Dr. Ken Eastwood, Superintendent of the Middletown School District, wrote an article positing a simple answer: “The failure occurs because when we introduce edtech into our classrooms, we continue to focus on things rather than on the process--on devices instead of on good pedagogy.”
Rather than being constrained by a ‘wait to fail’ model where students only get more attention and personalization as they fail to succeed, quality personalized learning cuts through the lost time and angst of students failing before they get the opportunity for success. Clearly, the teacher is the most important factor in the student experience and achieving results, but technology tools can help teachers reach and teach more students successfully. (See here for a post about teachers, time, and technology.)
Technology cannot overcome ineffective teaching. Personalized learning introduced to a poorly managed and taught classroom will only exacerbate the problems. Personalized learning in a well-managed and taught classroom stands a better chance of producing breakthrough results.
If Dr. Ravitch could tone down the reactionary rhetoric, we could have a more substantive discussion about how to utilize the best of technology to enable even more effective teaching and learning.