Aug 31, 2009

Education Technology "Research"

I love what we call education technology "research" these days. It seems everyone is out to prove that this or that technology is the "magic bullet" that will fix education forever. And amazingly, the research always comes out favorably for the vendor who sponsored the study - go figure. So how do they do it? In reality, it's quite easy to setup a study to attain the results you want by doing what the vast majority of educational technology researchers do: don't isolate the technology in question. Let's take interactive whiteboards, for example. In order to get huge numbers for whiteboards, all you need to do is the following:
  1. For the study group, put in all the technology you need to get the results you want. Even though the study is supposed to be about boards, be sure to add a great projection system, new computer, subscriptions to digital media libraries, etc. Make sure that your control group has access to none of these tools.
  2. Invest tremendously in staff development to teach the study group not just how to use the technology, but also new teaching strategies for the content in question. While these new teaching strategies might also be applicable in a classroom without all the technology, be sure NOT to provide similar assistance to the control group.
  3. Provide continuous instructional support to the study group throughout the study period. Ignore the control group.

Of course, you could make matters even worse by doing what Marzano did for Promethean, which was to use the same group of teachers for both the control group and the research group, and ask them to simply "not use" any of the technology for some lessons. Again, you fail to isolate the tech in question, but this time you compound the artificial inflation of the results by introducing bias from the teachers who love their whiteboards.

Viola! You're sure to get the numbers you want!

Now, let's say we REALLY want to find out if the BOARDS make the difference. To do so, we would need to isolate them by:

  1. Provide all the same technology resources to both the study group and the control group, with the exception of the technology in question (IWB.)
  2. Invest in staff development for both groups. Teach those who don't have the boards to effectively use the rest of their tools in the classroom, specifically digital media resources (online and offline), presentation tools, interactive experiments and demonstrations, etc. Teach BOTH groups the new teaching strategies they will need to effectively integrate the technologies they have in the classroom.
  3. Provide continuous instructional support to both groups.

Unfortunately for Promethean and other vendors, what you will find is that the whiteboards, document cameras, and similar technologies really don't make that much of a difference, and both groups will show gains. You will find that what really mattered was the introduction of a diverse set of media-rich content, effectively integrated into the instructional process through the introduction of new teaching strategies.

All that said, my penchant is to invest in technologies that promote a 21st century, participatory and collaborative learning environment, rather than those that reinforce 19th century instructional models that, as history has obviously shown, no longer effectively prepare students for the world they are about to enter. I'd trade 1 IWB for 15 netbooks (which are about the same price as a soup-to-nuts IWB install) any day of the week, and twice on Sunday. Lets move our technology investments away from the perimeter of the classroom, and toward the center - where the kids are.

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