06 February 2012

Technology and our misunderstandings

The Los Angeles Times trumpeted a bizarre column on Super Bowl Sunday from Michael Hiltzik titled "Who really benefits from putting high-tech gadgets in classrooms?" It was an attack on Arne Duncan's Digital Learning Day pronouncement that his goal for Obama's second term was the enrichment of Apple, which I've already attacked on much firmer pedagogical grounds. But what was really ironic in the column was the contribution of University of Southern California professor Richard E. Clark.

"The media you use make no difference at all to learning," Clark, director of the Center for Cognitive Technology at USC, is quoted as saying. "Not one dang bit. And the evidence has been around for more than 50 years." Which is all quite true, and I do not know here if Clark's statement is being used completely out of context here or not by Hiltzik, because Clark is not heard from again.

And Hiltzik leaps to a different academic, and a different argument immediately. "Almost every generation has been subjected in its formative years to some "groundbreaking" pedagogical technology. In the '60s and '70s," he writes before another quote, '"instructional TV was going to revolutionize everything," recalls
Thomas C. Reeves, an instructional technology expert at the University of Georgia. "But the notion that a good teacher would be just as effective on videotape is not the case."'

Then Hiltzik rushes back 16 years, back to when I was integrating technology - I believe very successfully - into both high school and university classrooms (full, up-to-date research tools in every room, simulations in science classrooms, interaction in learning second languages), and writes, "Many would-be educational innovators treat technology as an end-all and be-all, making no effort to figure out how to integrate it into the classroom. "Computers, in and of themselves, do
very little to aid learning," Gavriel Salomon of the University of Haifa and David Perkins of Harvard observed in 1996. Placing them in the classroom "does not automatically inspire teachers to rethink their teaching or students to adopt new modes of learning."'

Typewriters can be beautiful, they can be nostalgic, but what exactly does one do
with text typed on a typewriter? How do you share it? publish it? have it edited?

There are a ton of media choices,
the point is not to choose just one.
Yes, this might be one more attempt by the elites of the publishing world to maintain the socioeconomic status quo. The column seemed designed to confuse and frustrate parents, teachers, and students. But... hang on... let's go back to the top... to what Dr. Clark said: "The media you use make no difference at all to learning. Not one dang bit. And the evidence has been around for more than 50 years."

"The media you use make no difference at all to learning. Not one dang bit." In other words, those who have tried, and keep trying - albeit without any evidence - to convince us all that decoded alphabetical text is somehow cognitively superior to any other way of bringing information into your brain, might be completely wrong.

Read the book on paper. Listen to it via WYNN (the tool which changed my life), via Balabolka (Free), via WordTalk (Free), via FoxVox (Free), or via an audiobook,or watch the video, or talk with someone, it makes no difference cognitively. The brain processes the information into memory, and that's the story.

Many of us have been arguing about this for years. People have routinely told me that, for example, listening to a book isn't hard enough (?!), or that the blind don't actually ever read, unless (maybe) they read Braille, then its OK, or that, as I was told on Twitter today, "
I think allowing kids to grow up text-illiterate is a real disservice to them." I responded to that Tweet, which I listened to via Vlingo, by speaking into my phone as I sat in a parking lot.

Well, if there is no real evidence that print is superior, if we now have the tools to let all choose the information gathering tools and communication tools most effective for them at the moment, what's the issue with "technology" in schools?

For me, I have two responses: Short answer - we need tools in schools which allow students to learn to make those choices. This is what "Toolbelt Theory" is all about. Printed books cannot do this, but "Bring Your Own Device" plus a "Tool Crib" will offer every student the access path they need.

For the long answer... below is an updated version of a blog post from Change.org in 2009...

Technology: The Wrong Questions and the Right Questions
"A black board, in every school house, is as indispensably necessary as a stove or fireplace; and in large schools several of them might be useful."
"Slates are as necessary as black boards, and even more so. But they are liable to be broken, it will be said, as to render it expensive to parents to keep their children supplied with them."

"But are not books necessary at all, when the pupils are furnished with slates? I may be asked. Not for a large proportion of the children who attend our summer schools, nor for some of them who attend in the winter. To such I believe books are not only useless, but on the whole, worse than useless. As they advance in years, however, they may be indulged with a book, now and then, as a favor. Such favor will not be esteemed a light thing; and will come in time, to be sought more frequently, and with more and more earnestness."

"At first, it will be well for the small portion of each day in which very young pupils are allowed to have slates, to let them use them much in the way they please. Some will make one thing, some another. What they make is of comparatively little consequence, provided they attend, each to his own business, and do not interfere with that of others."
In 1842 William A. Alcott, a now forgotten member of that legendary American family of letters, wrote a series of articles for the Connecticut Common School Journal, asking teachers across America to make use of the newest educational technology - the black board and the student slate. Well, it wasn't really new. West Point had been using these for instruction since at least 1820, but then, as now, schools were slow to adopt new ideas.

But in the 1840s everything in communication was changing. Wood pulp based paper and the rotary printing press had created the penny newspaper, an entirely new way of spreading news - and often gossip. The telegraph had arrived creating the revolutionary concept of instantaneous communication across great distances. And the world itself was shrinking as steamboats and railroads rushed humans from place to place at unheard of speeds.
Len Ebert, illustrator The Old Schoolhouse
William Alcott's ideas, handheld - "1:1" slates, the chalkboard, individual seats (allowing children to leave
without disturbing others), kids moving around, good heating, big windows...
These new technologies spawned new forms of writing. Authors such as Charles Dickens began serializing fiction for the masses - one no longer needed to buy expensive books and sit in that big leather chair. Writers even created the first blogs - think of American Notes. Others, people like Horace Greeley, were redefining journalism.

The world was changing, and certain people, led by Alcott, were desperately trying to drag the schoolhouse into the present.

The Question

Then, as now, there was furious opposition. Alcott admitted that he was seen as being "against books." He was perceived as disruptive. He was already forcing schools to buy costly new furnishings (individual student desks and chairs, to replace tables and benches), and now he was advocating a radical change in how teaching took place.

Then, as now, the wrong question was being asked. In 1842 the doubters wondered what these new technologies could do for schools as they existed. Today, educators and policy makers constantly wonder what computers, mobile phones, and social networking will do for a curriculum largely unchanged since 1910.

That was the wrong question then, and it is the wrong question now. The right question is, what can schools, what can education, contribute to these new technologies?

Just as in 1842, just as in Socrates' time when literacy appeared, the technologies of information and communication have changed radically this decade - the ways in which humans learn about their world have changed radically, and schools will either help their students learn to navigate that new world, or they will become completely irrelevant.

How you learned doesn't matter at all

If you are a teacher, a parent, an administrator, or the President of the United States, I do not care how or what you learned in school. Or, let me put it this way, your experience in school, or in sitting with your mom studying books in the wee hours of the morning, is completely irrelevant to any discussion of the education of today's students.

Maybe worse than irrelevant. Maybe dangerous. The belief that "your" experience is relevant leads to a nightmare loop. Students who behave, and learn, most like their teachers do the best in classrooms. Teachers see this reflection as proof of their own competence - "The best students are just like me."

And thus all who are "different" in any way - race, class, ability, temperament, preferences - are left out of the success story.

Choosing everything: A student listens to text while creating
his own seating and desk... (Michael Thornton)
The majority of our students do "poorly" in school, do not achieve their potential in school, do not enjoy education. Doing it "the old way," utilizing the old tools, ensures that they never will.
Mobile phones, computers everywhere, hypertext, social networking, collaborative cognition (from Wikipedia on up), Google, text-messaging, Twitter, audiobooks, digital texts, text-to-speech, speech recognition, flexible formatting - these are not "add ons" to the world of education, they are the world of education. This is how humans in this century talk, read, communicate, learn. And learning to use these technologies effectively, efficiently, and intelligently must be at the heart of our educational strategies. These technologies do something else - by creating a flexibility and set of choices unprecedented in human communication - they "enable" a vast part of the population which earlier media forms disabled.

Back in Socrates' time it was all about the information you could remember. With this system very, very few could become "educated." In the ‘Gutenberg era' it was all about how many books you could read and how fast you could decode alphabetical text; this let a few more reach that ‘educated' status - about 35% if you trust all those standardized tests to measure "proficiency."

But now it is all about how you learn to find information, how you build your professional and personal networks, how you learn, how to learn - because learning must be continuous. None of this eliminates the need for a base of knowledge - the ability to search, to ask questions, requires a knowledge base, but it dramatically alters both how that knowledge base is developed, and what you need to do with it. This paradigm opens up the ranks of the "educated" in ways inconceivable previously.

Technology is NOT something invented after you were born

Technology is everything humans have created. Books are technology - a rather complex and expensive one actually, for holding and transmitting human knowledge. The schoolroom is technology - the desks, chairs, blackboards, schedule, calendar, paper, pens, and pencils. These are not "good" or "bad," but at this point, they are simply outdated.

Yes, we still have stone carvers. Yes, we still have calligraphers. But we no longer teach students to chase the duck, pluck the feather, and cut the quill. We no longer teach Morse Code. We no longer teach the creation of illuminated manuscripts.

Now we must give up teaching that ink-on-paper is the primary information source. It is not. We must give up insisting that students learn "cursive" writing. Instead, they must learn to text on their mobiles and dictate intelligibly to their computer. We must toss out our "keyboarding" classes and encourage students to discover their own best ways to input data. We must abandon much of Socrates' memorization and switch to engagement with where data is stored. We must abandon the one-way classroom communication system, be it the lecture or use of the "clicker," and teach with conversation and through modeling learning itself. We must lose the idea that "attention" means students staring at a teacher, or that "attendance" means being in the room, and understand all the differing ways humans learn best. We must stop separating subjects rigidly and adopt the contemporary notion of following knowledge where it leads us.

And we need to start by understanding that we are preparing students for the world that is their future, not the world that is our past.

- Ira Socol


Dana Seilhan said...

I have no idea who you are, but that quote you mention from someone on Twitter sounds suspiciously like what I told someone there in the past day or two.

I stand by what I said.

Here's what you need for nonverbal communication if you are text-literate:

A pencil
A piece of paper
A light source to read by

Total cost: Less than $20

If you write in fog on a window, it costs you nothing at all.

Here's what you need for nonverbal communication if you are text-illiterate:

A television plus video media player or a computer
A video camera to make your own videos
A hired literate person to read and write things for you

Do you think you could possibly obtain either for less than $20?

You used to be able to get certain types of televisions at that price--the television only--but forget getting a worthwhile DVD player that cheap. Possibly you can find a TV/VCR combo for that price at Goodwill now. Good luck keeping it working. They don't even make new rewinders anymore. I have yet to see a video camera for $20, and if there is such a thing, I probably wouldn't want to buy it.

God only knows how much it'd cost to retain a hired literate person--and you'd have to *keep* doing it, no one-time purchase as with the above.

If you were talking about me on Twitter, I'll repeat what I said there: You are doing children a real disservice by allowing them to grow up text-illiterate.

No one should have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars yearly, or ever, JUST TO COMMUNICATE NONVERBALLY.

I am not foolish enough to hinge my entire life's philosophy on the words of one university expert just because he's a university expert. And I am no fan of slippery arguments. It's quite true there are all sorts of ways to learn. I understand that. I will never dispute it. But for effective nonverbal communication (I know reading and writing are considered verbal but they really aren't), text literacy trumps everything.

And at the end of the day school, where used at all, should be about teaching children this particular form of nonverbal communication and probably mathematics. You could also expose children to historical figures and to the scientific method (school is a particularly good place for laboratory experiments, as the equipment can be expensive on an individual level), but those two subjects are too vulnerable to being made into Official State Dogma. Better to give children the skills they need to explore that information themselves and draw their own conclusions.

And, well, you can't learn how to read a book by watching TV. Clark was talking about ALL forms of learning. You're wiggling around trying to make the discussion about a particular type of learning and I'm sorry, I don't even know you, but that comes across as remarkably dishonest.

And I still think Clark is partly wrong. There's a big difference between active involvement in deciphering text and just sitting back and passively allowing a TV screen to beam images into your brain. Especially the way they edit videos now to cut from scene to scene rapidly. It's not even like looking at something in real life. This has neurological consequences that we are still struggling to understand, and people like Clark are no help.

Just saying. Don't expect you to care. Good thing I don't need your approval to figure things out in my own way. Learning again. See?

narrator said...


I do appreciate the depth and passion of your response. I admit that I always find it amusing when educators attack "university research" as a general concept, though I surely share your skepticism about some things, including, much reading research - in my case because the applied research has had zero impact on the percentage of students reading well. In your case... well, you still, as you did on Twitter, refuse to back up your statements with any evidence.

If you believe Clark, and others, to be wrong - and there are people who argue with USC's fMRI and task-analysis evidence - all here http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/recent_publications.php - then you might have talked about that. This paper http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/cta_chapter_2008.pdf is a pretty good introduction, or, going way back, http://web.uconn.edu/myoung/Clark.pdf "The problem with the media attribute argument is that there is strong evidence that many different media attributes accomplish the same learning goal." (1994) Clark's research does contradict the McLuhan theorems about the unity of medium and message, but his research is based, first, in "replace-ability tests" - could students learn the same things via different media, and then, in this decade, backed up with fMRI evidence.

All that said, I am not, of course, just an accursed "university researcher," I am a student, I teach, I work directly with students of many ages and their teachers. I have worked in the Special Needs/Disability/Vocational Rehabilitation field, directly with learners, for over 15 years. So, I think I not only "care" what teachers think and what students do - and need - I think I do have some basis for what I write.

I do not understand why you accuse me of, "You're wiggling around trying to make the discussion about a particular type of learning" nor am I sure, that I know why I "[come] across as remarkably dishonest" to you, but, I think you are twisting what I am saying - probably unintentionally because you are angry.

I never suggested that, "you [can] learn how to read a book by watching TV," nor would I be interested in that. Rather, my belief is - in Clark's conception - that you can learn from video, or audio, or video+audio, or decoded text, or perhaps from theatre, or maybe even from song, and you can learn the same things. Now, I would never suggest that any single individual can learn equally well from all of these media, as fMRI research published this year at Stanford indicates, the individual learning styles are pretty hard-wired in (despite every thing Dan Willingham at UVA has said in the past 20 years). So, perhaps you cannot process video as effectively as you can process print. But I, as a person who can barely process print at all, fall at the other end of this spectrum. Most people fall somewhere in between, I am fairly certain from my readings, and my observations.

However, your blanket denial of this, "There's a big difference between active involvement in deciphering text and just sitting back and passively allowing a TV screen to beam images into your brain" puts you - in my mind, in the intolerant camp. Television can be active and demanding or passive, so can reading. Tom Clancy is passive in my mind - it fails to challenge. The British television show "Life on Mars" (a favourite of mine) demanded real active engagement. Message, as Clark says, not medium.

In addition, some consider me to be somewhat of a Joyce scholar. But I have only listened to the texts. Does that make me passive and unworthy?

(see next)
- Ira Socol

narrator said...

(continued) ...

As for your thoughts about costs, I'm deeply confused. Yes, I suppose, if I am writing just for myself, or the person next to me, the pencil or the writing in frost on the window is fine, but I guess I have larger aspirations for my students.

I'm confused about the century you are discussing (VHS rewinders?), but everything I've discussed I do, and many students do, on their phones (and believe me, we're not talking rich kids). My phone has television, video, vast film collections, audiobooks, all free. It can even scan documents in and read them to me. I just rode home listening to books - and yes - listening to your comment. Much of these comments was dictated back. You may believe this is neither "reading" nor "writing," but if it is not, I urge you to bring evidence to the party.

However, yes indeed, this century's technology has costs. That's the bad thing. The other side of the equation is that this century's technology allows access, which the 1840s technology you so prize did not offer. Around the world the mobile has brought information and communication to places and people print simply could never reach. You may deny this, but it is a fact.

So I work very hard to come up with solutions which cost less, or nothing... whether it is the Freedom Stick http://mits.cenmi.org/Resources/MITSFreedomStick.aspx or working on 4G WiMax solutions for students in school and at home.

I can often give kids full access for the cost of one K-12 textbook. I understand that you will not think they are reading... but on that, I guess we will disagree.

- Ira Socol

Jean Jacoby said...

I believe there is truth in the statement that the media you use makes no difference at all to learning, but in my experience, that is the fault of the user, not the media. Many teachers are resistant to change, and of those who embrace new technologies, most use it to teach in the way they have always taught. In the past year I have watched teachers use hold up ipads in the front of classes to show students pictures, (a book would be so much cheaper!) or worse, load pdfs of word documents so that second-language learners can benefit from the 'ipad experience'. These teachers believe that they are innovating because they are using a new tool... but they are doing the same old things, and that technology makes no difference to the students! Using technology to transform learning means you have to be willing, and have the time and resources, to regularly transform yourself. And for many, that is simply not possible.

Anonymous said...

I'm a teacher of 8th graders. I believe technology is a tool. Having said that motivation DOES help learning and technology is motivating. My students would rather type a paper than to write it. They want to use google to do research, not an encyclopedia. Technology is easier and they like to work on my computers. In addition, I ask the kids to reflect on their learning and tell me what lesson helped the information to "stick". Depending upon the lesson, 90%-100% say that a UTube video helped the information to stick. If it works, use it.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article! Thank you!