Monday, August 31, 2009

Disrupting Class

With the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, many school districts throughout the nation are updating their technology infrastructure. My district also has an advantage that our voters passed a rather large bond referendum. On the drawing board are plans for new schools: three elementary, one middle, and one high. There is also money for technology upgrades to include mobile student devices at each of our current 27 schools over the next three years. All of our elementary schools will have 5:1 student:computer ratios. The middle schools will have 3:1 student:computer ratios. Finally, the high schools will have 1:1 student:computer ratios! We as a district are busily planning for the integration of all this new technology into our schools. There is much work to be done. I guess that is my fear. Not in the large amount of work, but that all the work will be spent in integration of technology rather than transformation of our schools.

This probably seems strange since my job title is Technology Integration Specialist, but I have been studying. I recently finished reading a book entitled “Disrupting Class.” The authors describe how industries are forced out of business by disruptive innovations – technologies that give choices to people that never really had a choice before and ultimately grow to replace the dominate industries in the field. For example, RCA and Zenith made televisions using vacuum tubes for many years. My dad was a television repairman and made a living going to people’s homes to replace the burned out tubes. With the development of the transistor, Zenith and others invested millions of dollars trying to force these new devices into the power requirements of big floor model televisions with no success. However, companies like Sony first used transistors to make devices such as hearing aids and small radios for teens. The big television manufacturers did not even notice. Eventually transistors got better and better until they ultimately put vacuum tube television makers like RCA and Zenith out of business (my dad retired in the 1980’s as vacuum tube manufacturers ceased production).

In this book the authors are now looking at public education and they say that we are in the early stages of disruptive innovation. Areas where students and parents have had no choices before are now seeing choices through things like Florida Virtual School and APEX Learning for course recovery. I have seen the results first hand in the areas of unit and credit recovery at my high school. In some cases this has given kids hope of success where they had none before. The authors say this type of technology will get better and better and eventually lead to disruption in public education. Because schools are essentially public monopolies, it is believed that we will not go out of business like others. However, we will have major internal changes. The authors used the analogy of trying to fly an airplane while you are building it, something no corporation has ever been able to do.

My real fear is that what we seem to be doing with our district plan is what is described as “cramming.” We are pushing technology into many areas of teaching and at students in arbitrary 1:5, 1:3, and 1:1 ratios depending on the grade level. We are doing things faster and with more flare, but only doing a marginally better job. For instance, much of the English teachers’ time in computer labs at my school are having students do online research and write papers in Microsoft Word. These assignments are essentially unchanged from 30 years ago when students used books to do research and either turned in hand written papers or typed them on a typewriter. To be truly effective, I believe these assignments and grading must change.

If the authors are correct, we need to prepare in earnest for the transition to a truly student centered learning environment. We need to put a HUGE emphasis on training for PBL and assessment. Teachers will have a very hard time creating problem or project based learning units because of our current focus on teaching individual standards and preparing daily lessons tends to be teacher centered. Assessment for mastery will be tough as well because of our current grade levels (developed during the industrial revolution) and their “fixed time, variable learning” that results. The best we can probably do is place greater emphasis on formative assessment until better technologies allow teachers the option of “variable time, fixed learning” because we know students learn at different rates. So what is really going to happen to learning in my school district? Ask me again in about five years and I hope to give you an educated answer.