Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Stop Doing - Drill-n-Practice, Tutorial Software and Web Services

Every other day, I get an email from someone with a great app, computer program or web-based service that will improve student achievement. 
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The method is simple:

  1. Spend countless thousands on the program
  2. Provide minimal training for teachers because the program is just that awesome!
  3. Place children in front of a technology and let it do all the hard work.
  4. Wait for the student achievement points to go up.
  5. Watch the equipment, software gather real and/or virtual dust when the next tech-based instructional intervention catches the eye of top-down administrators seeking a quick boost.
Really? As a veteran instructional technologist, I've had the opportunity to see this pattern to vendor presentations, emails repeat itself time and again. In fact, I still remember the first time I stopped a vendor trying to sell my principal a bill of goods. I lost my temper, allowed contempt to leak into my voice, and sent the guy packing. What a jerk I was. I'd like to think I've come a long way since that 20-something year old know-it-all.

Maybe not...

May I share my professional bias without reservation regarding drill-n-practice and/or tutorial software and web services? These vendors keep up an unending barrage of unwanted emails (a.k.a. spam) to anyone who will listen to them. In sharing my perspective, I do not seek to offend or judge current/past uses. Rather, I want to share my thoughts developed over years of experience dealing with ineffective, costly programs (as high as $80K per campus) that in the final evaluation had no effect on student achievement.
True Story: $80K per campus spent on an integrated learning system that manufacture success (hint). At the end of it, nothing to show. I was simply delighted, tickled pink to hear the people who launched this money-eating monstrosity on an urban school district's unsuspecting campuses--and that resulted in the death of their technology applications programs, their campus instructional technologist program, BTW--admit at the end, "It didn't work." If they'd bothered to listen, read the research, they would have known that these programs only have short-term gains and leave long-term bad taste in students' mouths.
Approaches like writing/reading workshop (technology-enhanced, of course), Problem-based Learning (and to a lesser degree, Project-based Learning) represent the best hope for preparing our children to develop higher-order thinking skills and working in a hyper-connected world. This requires hard work, sincere effort and won't come in a convenient software package or web-based service.

As you might imagine, I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that canned curriculum--whether it's worksheets or electronic tutorials a la integrated learning systems--is ineffective as a way to facilitate higher order thinking skills (HOTS), cooperative/collaborative learning (pick your poison), and  achieving the higher levels of the revised Bloom's Taxonomy (e.g. Create, evaluate, analyze).

My perspective on the use of drill-n-practice, tutorial software that is computer-based is simple and summed up in this quote, based on a book of research studies:
Those who cannot claim computers as their own tool for exploring the world never grasp the power of technology... They are controlled by technology as adults--just [they were]...controlled [by] them as students.
Source: Toward Digital Equity: Bridging the Divide in Education;  Editors: Gwen Solomon, Nancy J. Allen, and Paul Resta

And, teachers who can be replaced by any technology that presumes to "teach" children should be (Source: Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach). For those teachers who cannot use technology or adhere to yesterday's methods, Sheryl points out, "You can't give away what you don't own."Profound thoughts that bear examination.

For too long, I've read studies from as far back as the 1980s and to today that show how poorly technology-based instructional interventions focusing on isolated skills actually work. Most of the "good results" come, not from independent critical research, but vendor-paid studies and starry-eyed teacher anecdotes who practice a hands-off approach to modeling learning for students.
  • Independent studies of integrated learning system technologies have subsequently confirmed that learning discrete skills in isolation does little to support students in transferring knowledge to other domains of experience. This lack of transferability of skills from integrated learning system performance to other tasks is well-documented in the research literature.
  • Although teachers generally like tutorial programs as a system for enhancing basic skills, in most cases this was due to a general feeling about its positive or potential benefits rather than direct evidence.
  • Costs of these systems are too great given its record of effectiveness.
  • Most teachers never get the level of training necessary to use key features.
  • Teachers who had far and away the most successful effect size [substantial increase in test scores] knew the most about the system, knew the most about what the kids were doing in the lab, and went back to the classroom and made
    decisions about what to do based on that information.
  • When pairs of students work cooperatively to complete exercises in an ILS, they OUTPERFORM their counterparts who use the system on an individual basis.
  • Effort must be made to facilitate students’ transfer of knowledge to other domains of experience. “Students may learn isolated skills and tools but they will still lack an understanding of how those various skills fit together to solve problems and complete tasks.”
We also need to consider what kind of education we want for our students. Consider the wisdom found in Patrick J. Finn's book, Literacy with an Attitude. The author makes a few points that there are different kinds of literacy. Yet, literacy is not seen as dangerous in the U.S. because we have two kinds.
First, there is empowering education, which leads to powerful literacy, the kind of literacy that leads to positions of power and authority. Second, there is domesticating education, which leads to functional literacy, literacy that makes a person productive and dependable, not troublesome.
When you plop a kid in front of a computer and you don't ask them to make something, and you want the computer to drill them, you are advocating for a domesticating education. Powerful literacy involves creativity and reason—the ability to evaluate, analyze and synthesize what is read…it is also the ability to write one’s ideas so that another person can understand them.

Two quotes that I've kept close include:
Ask not what computers can do with students, but rather, what students can do with computers.
Hardware without software is just junk, but software without teaching is just noise.

The irony is that these quotes date from 1980s and remain as true today as then.

Make a stop-doing list of web-based services, and software, that purports to teach children what we hired teachers to do. Instead, focus on engaging problems that focus on analyzing, evaluating, and creating in collaboration with others, in classrooms and across the globe.

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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