Saturday, August 6, 2016

Value Added Technology

I haven’t posted in a long while and I found this post which I had started in March 2011.  I decided to post it now.

I have been reflecting on the raging debates about the merits (or not) of interactive whiteboards IWB.  A couple of things have happened recently that have added to my inner conversation on this topic. On Thursday, I heard Ginno Kelly of Promethean speak.  On Friday, I proctored a session of the Maryland State Assessment (MSA).  On Saturday, I read some of Breaking Down Digital Walls: Learning to Teach in a Post-Modern World  by R.W. Burniske and Lowell Monke. While I highly recommend the first and third experiences, you should avoid the second one if you possibly can.

My “aha!” moment happened when I noticed parallels between the debate over the efficacy of telecollaborative projects (based on my reading of the book) and the efficacy of IWB (based on various blog posts and cemented in my mind through the exceptional application of IWB and LRS by Ginno Kelly).

With telecollaborative projects, teachers may first attempt basic “keypal” exchanges which result in nothing more than social exchanges.  Alternatively, an early telecollaborative project may be a mere “scavenger hunt” which result in nothing more than low level fact hide-n-seek exercises.  If you judge the telecollaborative computing based on these types of projects, you could easily conclude that they do not provide value in terms of student achievement when compared to traditional offline activities. On the other hand, think about data sharing telecollaborative projects (e.g., students from all over North America track sightings of Monarch butterflies, report their data collectively, and infer conclusions from the data) or problem-solving telecollaborative projects (e.g., students brainstorm and share solutions to rain forest habitat loss).  These later projects provide instructional experiences which would be impractical without telecollaborative computing, thus their efficacy is much higher.  I conclude that the efficacy does not depend on the technology alone, but rather on how it is applied. Thus, professional development, adequate time for instructional planning, and freedom to flexibly utilize the available instructional time are variables that matter. 

Let’s follow this line of thought to the efficacy of IWBs.  IWBs are easy to implement in teacher-centered “chalk-n-talk” lessons. In such lessons, the teacher is the one at the board and content is extolled to students by the sage on the stage. If you were to gage the efficacy of IWBs based on this type of instruction and you value student-centered learning over teacher-centered instruction, you’d fairly conclude that IWBs don’t provide sufficient value for their cost. (I happen to feel that “teaching” is not a dirty word. It has its place in a balanced approach to education, but that’s a topic for another blog post.). On the other hand, suppose the IWB facilitated inquiry-based discussion via sharing of thought-provoking visuals, videos, real-world scenarios and other multimedia integrated with rich discussion/debate.  Add to this instruction students collaborating with the IWB serving a digital hub to reveal the classes’ construction of meaning as it evolves.   This instructional approach would also be impractical without an IWB or at least a minimal digital teaching hub (projector connected to a computer). Again, the efficacy depends on implementation approach (i.e., how the IWB is applied rather than the particular technology alone). Likewise, professional development, adequate time for effective and innovative instructional planning, and freedom to use instructional time flexibly are variables that matter.

For illustration purposes, the table below shows that various technology’s efficacy is dependent upon instructional approach.

Basic Approach
Advanced Approach
Telecollaborative computing
o   Keypal exchanges
o   Scavenger hunts
o   Data sharing
o   Problem-solving
o   Lecture
o   Multimedia enhanced real-world examples
o   Rich inquiry-based discussions
o   Student collaborative reflection shared at the board
1-1 Computing / Computers on Wheels (COWs) – writing
o   Word process to publish pre-edited hand-written drafts
o   Students create interactive multimedia products to share over the web to synthesize their understanding of a topic
o   Wiki discussions to reflect on thinking about your thinking collaboratively with your peers
1-1 Computing / COWs – Internet
o   Explore the web (without a specific purpose)
o   Visit links about a topic and summarize them in a “bird report” (i.e., an exercise in recall)
o   Use a webquest which requires synthesis of your new learning into a new product
o   Publish on the web
Learner Response Systems
o   Answer factual questions as a summative assessment
o   Use as  a formative assessment tool (check for understanding) through out the lesson to provide direction for subsequent instruction
o   Ask thought provoking higher-order questions to stimulate discussion
o   Have small groups confer and reach consensus in order to submit a group response
o   Seed voting results for subsequent classification / analysis
Digital photos /  videos
o   Capture a field trip or student performance
o   Collect students thinking about their thinking for subsequent analysis
o   Students create a mash-up / montage using a collection of content-related photos or videos
o   Students write and produce a video documentary or public service announce which synthesizes important points of a unit
Video on demand
o   Play a whole movie with not particular instructional accountability for the material shown
o   Select a particular salient clip and sandwich it with before-viewing, during viewing, and after viewing instructional activities.

Let’s explore the ramifications of the realization that the efficacy of a technology depends upon how it is applied.  This “realization” is not news to anyone who works with educational technology, but it seems to be easily forgotten.  Over zealous vendors and educational technology evangelists are partially to blame. In order to justify the expenditures to funders, great instructional approaches of the technology are disseminated.  These successes are then attributed to the technology rather than the instructional approach facilitated by the technology and the hard work that lead to the success.

Frequently, the hard work entailed:
  • Indentifying visionary teachers who see the potential efficacy of the technology for their instructional needs
  • Visionary teachers teach their students using the technology after expending untold quantities of their personal time to innovate, reflect and revise their instructional approach until they are satisfied with the results
  • Visionary teachers reshape their instructional approach into a replicable best practice and then disseminate the best practices through varied, differentiated, and distributed professional development activities
  • Leaders foster buy-in with the next wave of adopters
  • Repeating this process for each successive wave of adopters
  • Meanwhile providing just-in-time technical support and pedagogical coaching so that as each wave adopts the technology, they have a safety net if glitches arise.

Call this hard work “adoption effort”. When the adoption effort is done well, it is labor intensive.  It frequently costs more than the initial cost of the hardware or software.   When the adoption effort doesn’t happen, often the technology is only adopted by the first wave of early adopters. Then, the rest of the teachers are perceived as resistant or poor teachers.  While this may sometimes be the case, it isn’t necessarily a fair conclusion unless the adoption effort has occurred.

Let’s assume that each technology requires some form of adoption effort. Also, we don’t evaluate a technology per se, but rather the technology along with a particular instructional approach, i.e., technology / instructional approach (TIA). Borrowing from the concept of total cost of ownership (TCO), I posit an equation for evaluating efficacy of TIA. The increase in student achievement achieved (i.e., its value (V)) for a TIA must exceed the initial cost (IC) of the technology plus the cost of the adoption effort (AE) in order for the TIA to have efficacy.

V for a TIA ≥ IC + AE

While this equation over simplifies a complex issue, it think it still provides a useful as a mental model.  For example, let’s say a TIA makes the instruction more engaging. Engagement is not included separately in the equation.  Instead if the increased engagement leads to increased student achievement then it provides value (V). What if the TIA helps students learn about how to use technology (i.e., technology literacy)?  Well technology literacy is fine but there is so little instructional time, I feel that unless the TIA provides some value, there isn’t time for teaching technology for technology’s sake.

I then thought back to one technology rollout that I viewed as a success (Video on demand). See my earlier post on this rollout.  The initial cost IC was absorbed by the district. The adoption effort (AE) to reach advanced instructional approaches was low. Therefore, the value was realized fairy rapidly.

Where does that leave us on the debate about the value of IWBs?  My opinion is that IWBs do provide value because the make it possible to bring a wide variety of digital / interactive resources to the classroom, make it easier to model use of technology, and facilitate collecting data through learner response systems. Moreover, with the incorporation of the IWB, the class has gained a user-friendly instructional design authoring tool. Students are completing teacher-created flipchart at their own computing devices and/or creating their own flipcharts to demonstrate their learning.

Note:  In hindsight (now in 2016), I still believe in the value of IWBs.  I feel that at the time (in 2011), they paved the way for converting to a more digital curriculum which ultimately made it easier to evolve to a more learner-centered model especially with 1-1 computing. In a typical lesson today, whole class instruction takes a lesser and smaller portion of the instructional role, but my IWB is indispensable for that role. Students more frequently request to take up the pen at the board to model for their peers and small groups meet for mini-lessons at the board.  

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