Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Relationships: Rethinking Efficiency in the #edtech paradigm

Imagine a school where the decisions about technology were not justified by claims to increase test scores?

Last night I was invited to a supper club sponsored by Ice Miller about the topic of "Technology in Education." There was a phenomenal mix of vendors, technology software producers ranging from App developers to major players in the LMS game, foundations, and even some educators. It was a great night with fantastic food and conversation.

While a few topics seemed blog-worthy and might get some time later (I am gearing up a MathNinja rant), I think it would be more useful to start at the conclusion. One of the challenges that was identified early on was the need for EFFICIENCY. Efficiency and Technology are like peanut butter and...well, peanuts. Sure you can do other things with them, but why would you want to? We all know that peanuts exist to make peanut butter. Ask my three year old.

If Technology does not yield efficiency, it is not worth the investment. This has been true in almost all areas of business. And yet, for the most part, it is not true in education. While there have been incremental time savers such as electronic gradebooks (no more calculators and pencil scratches) and longer term time-savers (Make a PowerPoint and revise rather than constantly writing on the board), none of these have led to the great hallmark of business efficiency: a reduction in labor. No principal ever made the connection "now that our teachers have saved so much time on grade entry, we can increase class size and reduce one teacher."

(Rant Drumroll)

So, it should not be surprising that movements like robo-graders and distance learning lectures to virtual lecture halls full of plugged-in students get traction. If one teacher can lecture one time and that lecture can be broadcast to thousands of students over the next five years, you can start to see less need for a lecturer in-building. If that lecture can be assessed, scored, and recorded through an automatic test, than you reduce the need for a in-building grader as well.

But (and its a big one)

School aren't factories. Students aren't widgets. Teachers aren't cogs in the industrial wheel.

And (this too, large)

Everybody knows this.

Take away the politics that has warped the image of teachers into summer-lazing fat cats in an effort to reduce the strength of the union vote and every politician will call to mind that one special teacher, the one who did not grade by rote, who did not stand at the front of the room and lecture all the time. That one teacher who cared. Inevitably this is a teacher with whom the student had a strong connection.

(Rant Concludes)

Back to the dinner.

One of the most impressive educators around the table is the head of the Oaks Academy here in Indianapolis. He pointed out that his school (an iPad school, but not until the eighth grade) had the same impressive results with the same underserved populations that some newtech schools had reported without the gadgets in the lower levels. His claim was that the relationships between the students and teachers were the key to success.

And the table fell silent, because he had named, at a crowded table full of technologists, the secret to good education and maybe the key to that elusive measure of efficiency.

If we measure efficiency as the most number of widgets (students) produced uniformly by the fewest number of line workers (teachers), we, and i mean the big inclusive social "we", all lose. But if we re-frame efficiency to be that which gives teachers and students more time to build relationships with each other, that could be magic:

  • Flipclass increases the one-on-one time between student and teacher. Check
  • BYOT creates an environment where students and teachers discover and apply technology and learning together. Check.
  • Social Media supplements the live-time relationship and humanizes the teacher while providing another positive influence in a new social environment. Check
  • Interactive white boards...never mind.

St. Ignatius, early in the founding of the Jesuit schools, wrote that the connection between the teacher and learner was a fundamental key to the discovery of truth.

If the technology purchase does not fundamentally increase the ability for the teacher and student to form a stronger relationship, and thereby increase the opportunity for real and substantial learning,  it is not directed toward efficiency.

Imagine a world where every technology vendor had to justify the purchase based on improving the Student-Teacher Relationship?