Do we have an adequate system for sorting through the ten thousand plus different educational technology materials and programs available for integration into our public school systems?

No. In fact, we do not have a system at all.

We trust our overworked teachers and their inexpert administrators to find their way (on behalf of our students) through a dazzling forest of finely-tuned product pitches. Or we leave these crucial decisions in the hands of private sector consultants. So far, even a marriage of our most celebrated tablets (iPads) and our most dominant publisher of educational materials (Pearson) spiraled down into an expensive, embarrassing and litigious failure in Los Angeles’ public schools.

If the US cannot succeed with a one-device-per-child model pinned on our flagship hardware and the largest content behemoth in the backyard of our own tech industry—what’s happening out of the spotlight?

If you want to get a keen sense of what’s happening inside the public schools of the United States, you could find no one better to speak with than an experienced school evaluator.

The rest of us have to rely on test data or what we hear from students; but professional school evaluators spend their years immersed in classrooms, in conversation with administrators and in assessment of learning materials and methods. While (for better or for worse) normal public schools in the US are generally not obligated to undergo external evaluations, public charter schools are an exception. Publicly funded charter schools need to satisfy external evaluators every five years in order to have their charters renewed.

Adam Aberman has been conducting such evaluations for 12 years, in which time he’s evaluated more than 100 schools and more than 1,000 classroom sessions across 6 states. His evaluations have been divided between primary schools and middle and high schools and approximately one fifth of these evaluations have been of blended learning institutions or blended classrooms (in this context “blended” means “blended with a large dose of technology”).

Aberman is also a proponent of educational technologies and a thought leader in the space, having founded and directed icouldbe.org (an online mentoring website) and The Learning Collective, a consulting company that specializes in online and digital learning (and a company at which I am also a Principal).

What follows are the highlights of a full interview covering Aberman’s insights into the strengths and weaknesses of blended learning as it currently appears in US public charter schools and the particular challenge of using technology to confer critical thinking skills.

Poor Preparation

Aberman notes that a common trend for blended learning schools involves committing to digital learning tools without sufficient research or consideration. On the one hand, schools frequently underestimate the amount of IT hours required to support their use of a given product and the number of reserve devices that may be needed; and on the other hand, schools often discover at the end of their first year using a new digital tool that it doesn’t suit their needs.

They are then back at the beginning of the cycle: selecting digital learning tools in a rush for the next academic year and doing so without having comprehensive or objective research to consult.

As long as school administrators make big decisions based on the inexpert opinions of one or two colleagues, and as long as they decline to undertake serious needs assessments, publicly-funded classrooms are likely to continue being mismatched with tech solutions.

This is a policy level failure to realize that all blended classrooms are effectively piloting new approaches to learning; they are learning laboratories that warrant closer observation and better support—especially in terms of evaluating and assessing the merits of their options.

It makes sense that this step is frequently neglected: it takes time and costs money.

Indeed the costs of undertaking a needs assessment and properly vetting a wide variety of edtech tools could completely eliminate any financial savings that a school hopes to gain through deploying technology.

Kentaro Toyama has carefully researched the deployment of educational technologies in a variety of contexts; one of his most relevant findings is that broken educational systems cannot be fixed by technology alone, in fact, just as technology can amplify the strengths of a healthy system, it can amplify system dysfunction. Toyama and others draw our attention to the ongoing failure of US public schools even in the face of widely available technology and internet access.

Low Hanging Fruit

Where Aberman sees classroom technology at its most successful is in the realm of literacy and numeracy games and applications designed for younger students.

Programs of this variety—sharpened over several decades—are often well received and this may be an indication of good things to come.

Unfortunately, efforts to use technology for more complex learning goals, according to Aberman, are usually less successful. While young children often report that literacy and numeracy programs are “fun,” older students using programs in other subjects at a middle or high school level are more likely to report that the tools are “too easy” or “boring”—not surprising, given that many popular programs depend on repetitive question types, varying only their content.

There is a worrying possibility that our early experiments with blended and digital learning are actually under-serving students. A recent study showed that in Ohio 75% of brick-and-mortar schools perform well, but only 13% of virtual schools are meeting standards (Tucker et al., 2011, OH Department of Education, 2011)—a quantitative finding to complement Aberman’s qualitative perspective.

Critical Thinking Skills

Three of Aberman’s observations on critical thinking skills merit direct quotation:

“Elementary and middle schools I’ve been in that leverage a lot of technology tend to do an even worse job at promoting students’ higher order thinking abilities. At 100% of the approximately twenty blended schools I have evaluated, there is an acknowledged lack of students’ higher-order and critical thinking skills.”

“Extended academic discourse and debate in classrooms are also hard to find in many blended schools (they’re hard to find in most schools but especially in blended schools). Students may make short comments in online forums but in-person discussions are often stunted.”

“Most blended classrooms I walk into I’m struck by the silence in the room. Oftentimes, kids are on headphones and, though in the lower grades students are sometimes listening to the correct reading or annunciation of sounds and words, there is little to no discussion between students. In some schools, students are on headphones for the majority of the day. This means that students, rather than comparing and exploring thoughts in real-time (and fully forming and defending ideas with the depth that at times can only be achieved in person) are often relegated to learning and ideas limited by the digital boundaries created by a software developer.”

Sure, teaching critical thinking is challenging in the best of circumstances, but considering that critical thinking is the most foundational skill in the world, we must optimize for it at every possible stage of learning.

Proponents of technology are usually fans of problem-solving, believers in engineering and champions of learning. But are they being overconfident about their products?

  • Is there an unscientific bravado behind the assumption that uni-variable learning tools will work well across many classrooms without creating atrophy in other skill areas?
  • Are our educational technologists overlooking social innovations and perhaps weakening our culture of learning?
  • If incorporating tech into our charter schools is further depressing our learning outcomes for older students, how can we change course?
  • By designing tech for core standards that overemphasize narrow learning goals, are we missing an opportunity to design more transformative technologies?

Obviously, we cannot judge the future of technology on the performance of what we have currently deployed. We know that technology has the potential to carry ever more weight within a school environment.

But, the way we are approaching the integration of technology into our school systems is raising red flags. If we don’t figure out exactly what these early warning signals mean and incorporate their lessons into our design and our educational philosophy, we risk generating backlash and squandering valuable momentum. We also risk producing a generation of graduates who are unprepared for the future ahead of us.

Nathaniel Calhoun focuses on the intersection of last mile development work challenges, mobile education for poverty alleviation and ecological design. Follow Nathaniel on Twitter @codeinnovation.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Nathaniel Calhoun focuses on the intersection of last mile development work challenges, mobile education for poverty alleviation and ecological design. Follow Nathaniel on Twitter: @codeinnovation.