Sometimes the only way to make progress is to leave something behind.
As the parent of four kids, I had the pleasure of listening to Fredi Lajvardi give a keynote at CETPA’s annual conference last year, and it was the sort of talk that sends shivers down educators’ spines and gives them goose bumps. It was an hour of awe-inspiring pure education magic — the type of story that most educators would tell you is the very reason why they became a teacher.
For those who don't know, a movie was made about Lajvardi, called Spare Parts. It's based on a true story about four of his students, undocumented Mexican immigrants who spoke English as a second language and lived on public aid. These kids asked Lajvardi to support them in entering an underwater robotics competition. Then, against seemingly insurmountable odds, these students won the competition and beat MIT in the process.
That’s MIT, as in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yeah, crazy, right?
The questions I always ask when telling the story about Lajvardi and his students are: Which platform, apps or cool tools do you think Lajvardi mentioned the most? Do you think he used Google, Microsoft or Apple? A tablet or a laptop?
The answer? He didn’t mention any of those things.
Let’s pretend that money is no object for a district and it has the ability to purchase literally the best laptop and tablet on the market for each and every student. We’re not talking one to one; I mean a full-blown two to one! The district also provides both of these devices with faster and farther-reaching wireless access than the likes of NASA, so the students are connected 24/7. To top it all off, the students have unlimited access to all of the paid content on the planet — apps, digital textbooks, paid subscriptions to the pro version of any web 2.0 tool on the Internet, etc.
If there is one thing in this world I know to be true, it is that all of those technologies will have little to no impact on learning if teachers are not also provided with training and professional development to help them evolve from the conventional teaching practices of the 20th century.
Lajvardi’s keynote was not about technology; it was about a teacher who nurtured his students to learn based on their interest. I was enthralled by that aspect of the story, as well as his teaching them to use modern problem-solving skills and to have an authentic purpose for learning.. As I like to say, there’s no app for pedagogy or web 2.0 tool that can do that. No LMS or digital curriculum can even come close to what teachers are capable of when they are given time for collaboration and empowered with professional learning focused on instructional design to meet the demands of digital-age teaching and learning.
A recent Slate article addressed this issue head-on:
In the context of the traditional classroom, Internet-connected devices risk distracting from the learning process more than they aid it. A famous 2003 Cornell University study found that students who were allowed to use their laptops during class recalled far less of the material than those who were denied access to computers. More broadly, a 40-country Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development study recently found that the students who reported spending the most time on computers, both in class and at home, performed worse than their peers on a pair of standardized tests. And countries that have invested heavily in classroom technology have seen “no noticeable improvement” in students’ test scores. The OECD report concluded that “adding 21st-century technologies to 20th-century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching.”
A student-to-device ratio of one-to-one is not the silver bullet. There’s no technology pixie that comes to the district to sprinkle fairy dust in classrooms, magically improving the learning of all the students sitting at their desk with a device in front of them. Yet when funding becomes available in many districts across the country, step one of technology planning is making a list of things to buy.
When will we stop chasing the almighty one-to-one ratio and invest our resources into what matters most — people. If a successful and sustainable technology implementation is what your district is after, start by developing a plan to change human behaviors, creating a culture that embraces risk and celebrates failure, and invest in training and professional learning first. After all, technology is the easy part.
This article is part of the “Connect IT: Bridging the Gap Between Education and Technology” series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #ConnectIT hashtag.