I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Is Computer-Based Instruction Making the Digital Divide WORSE?

Yesterday, I outlined the back story of how an expensive, computer-based math instruction program is finding its way to the Perth Amboy district in New Jersey. I'm always watching the connections between public, for-profit, and non-profit interests in this brave new world the reformyists are creating - and there were quite a few interesting, shall we say, connections in this particular tale.

What I didn't discuss very much were the implications of implementing a large-scale program like this in an urban district with significant poverty like Perth Amboy (over 60% of PA's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch). According to New Classroom's website, Teach To One is being implemented there, Chicago, and another city to be named. Its progenitor, School Of One, was born in New York City; New Classrooms is taking over its management and expansion there.

So it's not like this is a program that is being used in Millburn and Bernardsville and Princeton by wealthier students, and now we're giving poorer students the same opportunities to use it. No, this appears to be something designed specifically for students in school districts whose families have lower incomes.

Which is why this comment on yesterday's post by Commuting Teacher (a frequent visitor who has great insights) is so important. I'm going to reprint it in its entirety here, with my own emphases added:
As a teacher steeped in technology and research using it, I can confidently state that technology by itself does not increase learning outcomes. Further, if we look at both race and poverty as factors, both black students and students of poverty are more likely to [use] computers in a drill capacity with less application and teacher intervention than their more white and middle-class (& affluent) peers. (please see doi: 10.3102/0091732X09349791
REVIEW OF RESEARCH IN EDUCATION March 2010 vol. 34 no. 1 179-225) pp. 198-200.
[You can find a free-access copy of this article here.] 
However this research in whole demonstrates how technology in isolation, like the program proposed, has a slight chance of helping some students but the vast majority will not benefit (reminds me of charter schools) as they would with teachers who integrate technology appropriately by using scenarios, apps, and demonstrations. Also, this research has found that most computer assisted learning gains come from having computers at home that are used to complement their school based learning. There is a caveat here, however, as a growing number of at-risk students now have computers at home as well, their internet use, according the the report, is not as textually based because of their poor reading skills. These students are more likely to focus upon images and, in my experience, audio representations of those things that interest them. 

The bottom line is this. White and more affluent schools do not use the rote drill regiments promoted by many in the canned-curriculum businesses. "Overall, Wenglinsky found a consistently negative interaction
between frequency of technology use and test score outcomes in mathematics (at
both the fourth and eighth grade), science (at both the fourth and eighth grade), and
reading (at the eighth grade; see Table 10). This appears to be because of the negative
effects of drill and practice activities that are used predominately with low-SES students. 
In contrast, the more constructivist educational technology activities typically
used with high-SES students were correlated with higher test score outcomes" (p. 204). 

It is sad indeed that our neediest students are still having this model foisted upon them and only because it can make a buck; it is certainly not about improving student outcomes. I'm frankly tired of the profit made off the backs of our poverty stricken neighbors, this has to stop.
It's a very good point, and one that I never hear the reformy types talk about: the digital divide is as much about how people use technology as it is about whether they use it at all. If the computer is used for research and limited skill reinforcement and higher-order, project-based learning, that's great. Everyone wants that.

But if it's used like this, we've got a problem:
Yet when I toured a School of One classroom about a year and a half ago, at a school in Chinatown, I found the opposite to be true.  First, Joel Rose explained to the assorted visitors that because of the large class sizes in NYC schools, individualized learning was impossible to achieve without the use of technology: “No human being can meet all the needs ofstudents in a class of 25, so something else has to be done to personalize instruction.”  (No mention of the fact that the DOE has been legally obligated to reduce class size below those levels, and has refused to do so on the grounds that it doesn't help kids learn, and has been rapidly increasing class size instead, but never mind.)
We then entered a large room, converted from the school's library, with about one hundred 7th and 8th graders seated at tables, most of them staring at computers and doing multiple choice math problems. I watched as one girl, seemingly in a trance, looked at the screen, and hit A, B, C, D keys in turn, until she got the right answer to a multiple choice question and moved onto the next one. Sadly, no adult but me seemed to be paying any attention to this student to make sure she was trying to think the problem through.
There were also two or three small groups of students, sitting at smaller tables, with rather harassed looking teachers who were trying to teach math, but allowed to spend only about ten to 15 minutes together before time ran out and a signal was made for the students to move back to computers, or to another group led by a different teacher. 
Rose explained that in the room, there were four certified teachers, two college students, and three high school students staffing the room, though it was hard to discern this.  He said that each teacher specialized in teaching 25% of math skills, and every student was assigned to particular groups or math problems by means of an algorithm, calculated the night before, based on his or her performance from  the day before.
But what I saw was not personalized instruction and engagement, but many confused and somewhat dazed students, and much disruption, with kids bumping into each other during abrupt scheduling changes, as they moved around the crowded room at the same time.
Rose also explained how the students also had access to “virtual” tutors through their computers; but I didn’t see any sign of this.  When I asked him where these virtual tutors were located and what their credentials were, he said he didn’t know, but they lived somewhere in the United States and had been provided by contractors. [emphasis mine]
That's one woman's - Leonie Haimson's - opinion. Your mileage may vary; I've never seen School Of One/Teach To One, so I won't render a judgement (although Haimson is a formidable voice in education; anything she writes should be taken seriously).

The point is that technology can be used in ways that expand creativity and higher-order thinking, or it can be used to stifle creativity and drill-and-kill. If all we're doing with computers is putting the minds of kids into boxes - particularly poorer kids - we'd be better off not having those computers in the schools at all.

Dave, do you qualify for free or reduced-price lunches?

Note: Thanks again, CT, for the post. The rule, folks, is that I get to steal anything you leave in the comments and live off of your free brilliance. It's how I've built this vast empire.

1 comment:

Commuting Teacher said...

I am honored and pleased to have helped in your -our- cause in anyway. Write on!