Is the Problem Your Students, the Device, or Your Vision for Learning?

There has been a mixed bag of results for technology in schools lately. You certainly hear about districts creating exciting learning opportunities for their students by leveraging technology. But you also read about LA Unified's problems with their iPad initiative, or Miami-Dade schools putting their initiative on hold because of the troubles in LA and in North Carolina.

The blame for the failures in these districts is pointed in lots of directions, but includes students as “hackers” (although there was no hacking, just clever students figuring how how to make locked down devices function as designed), or lack of keyboards (don't get me started on how stupid that issue is – it comes from adults who haven't sat with a tablet long enough to know how easy the virtual keyboard is to use). Diane Ravich points to overly agressive timelines, poor project management, poor contract management, and a failure to evaluate curriculum resources, especially against district curriculum standards.

But I believe there is a much deeper problem at the root of these disasterous educational technology initiatives.

Let me come at this from a different direction… Recently a friend contacted me, saying she was working with a district that was trying to decide what device to invest in. Tablets? Chromebooks? Laptops?

Based on 13 years of working with 1to1 initiatves and all the lessons learned, my reply was to ask, “What's their vision for learning? Frankly, without such a vision, I'm not sure it would matter what they bought; it will be equally unsuccessful…”

How do you know what you want technology for if you haven't decided what learning should look like in your classrooms? A tool bought for no other purpose than to have the tool (or because you believe it is good to have the tool) fulfills its purpose by simply being there. Yet, later, purchasers are surprised that amazing things haven't happened by simply being in the tool's presence…

Or maybe you have what I have come to think of as a “default learning vision.” In the absence of a vision for learning driving the instructional use, the instuctional use becomes the vision for learning. The vision defaults to what you do when what you do isn't informed by a vision.

So, what may be the default vision for learning in these initiatives?

I look at these three well-publicized initiatives and I see a vision of learning that boils down to this: electronic workbooks.

There is no doubt that access to digital content and resources should be one slice of how schools leverage technology for learning. But workbooks (of any variety!) have always been wholely insufficient for quality learning programs. (If they were sufficient, we would have the best educational system in the world by simply dropping a box of textbooks and workbooks at each student's home each year…).

Or as Diane Ravich points out about this problem:

…the content of the tablets must allow for teacher creativity, not teacher scripting… The time will come when tablets replace the bulky, puffed-up textbooks that now burden students’ backpacks. The time will come when tablets contain all the contents of all the textbooks, as well as a wealth of additional resources, in multiple subjects. But they must encourage exploration and inquiry, not fidelity to a packaged program. Customized and individualized must become a reality, not a sales pitch for programmed learning.

Is it any wonder that these technology initiatives are a train wreck, given their vision for learning?