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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Expensive Useless Education Technology

While preparing a post on state-of-the-art language labs in schools, I came across this piece about interactive white boards (IWB). Our society is so enchanted by technology. If you are a grant writer, you know that nearly every request for proposal (RFP) wants a technology piece. If it is not there, the proposal will not be funded. Thus, otherwise excellent proposals are encumbered by unnecessary, and often useless components that add expense without clear benefit.

Seen as the first step towards “21st century teaching and learning,” schools and districts run out and spend thousands of dollars on these gizmos, hanging them on walls and showing them off like proud hens that just laid the golden instructional egg...without time and training, they quickly become nothing more than really expensive overhead projectors.

Back in the 1980s, when my high school decided to buy a state-of-art language lab from Sony, they sent me on an expensive trip to Tokyo to learn how to use it. My job was to come back and teach everyone else. I was also tasked with creating language lab materials to supplement the textbooks and providing the voice for the materials.

I loved my fancy-dancy language lab. I used it all the time and enthusiastically taught my colleagues how to use it. They ignored it. Eventually, the administration, worried about the evident waste of money, decreed that all language teachers must utilize the lab at least once a month. So they did, turning it into a very expensive cassette tape player. Me, I had a blast designing all kinds of innovative ways to use the lab.

Is the interactive whiteboard nothing more than a fancy accessory to much-maligned “stand and deliver instruction.” Personally, I do not have a problem with stand and deliver instruction. Well-delivered direct instruction is highly effective.

Adminstrators worry about utilization, but not so much about effectiveness.

...schools rarely have any kind of system in place to evaluate the impact that whiteboards are having on instruction. We spend heaping piles of cash collecting whiz-bang gadgets and then completely fail to reflect on whether or not they have helped us achieve the outcomes we most desire.

On the other hand, it is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of any technology when it is rarely used or used as expensive replacements for other equipment like overhead projects or cassette players. Even technology that has been around for decades is not well-correlated with academic achievement.*

On the other, other hand, maybe effectiveness is not the salient consideration.

Frankly, it seems like most school leaders don’t really care whether IWBs change instruction in meaningful ways in their school’s classrooms. Why? Because whiteboards aren’t an instructional tool in their eyes. They’re a PR tool—a tangible representation of innovation that can be shown off to supervisors and parents alike.

Yep, that described my language lab. I was constantly pressed to show it off to school visitors.

Yet in the past, I often wistfully wished there was a way to save a chalkboard...or a way to project an internet page...or …

Today, I think I could find a lot of great ways to use an interactive white board, but I still question whether it is the gizmo or the instructional design that accounts for any improvement in academic achievement. Actually, I do not question at all. Of course, instructional design wins hands down. I would like all schools to be able to have the technology to augment great instructional design, but as long as schools are complaining of tight budgets and laying off teachers, I would prefer they spend scarce dollars on people rather than things. I would prefer to see schools set priorities more profound than keeping up with the Joneses.

Roxanne Elden has expressed well educators' frustration in her open letter to Educational Technology. I suggest linking to the original article and reading the comments to find out what an admittedly nonrandom cross-section of teachers think about interactive whiteboards. Often their comments can be applied to education technology in general.

*Go here to find out how to obtain a comprehensive report on calculator research with our youngest students.

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