Wednesday, September 16, 2015

"Tech doesn't improve student results - study" - why news reports like this are damaging (and missing the point).

Source: TV3 News

Journalists love a bit of scaremongering and in many ways I can't help feeling that the reporting of a recent OECD report on the impact of technology on results is just that. As I read news report after news report last night (many of which seemed to be either directly taken from Reuters or an OECD press release with little or no critical analysis) I could nearly hear the shrieks of delight from the pearl clutching naysayers bubbling with excitement at the "evidence" that, clearly, change is bad.

Now don't get me wrong, I have no issue with the report itself, or the fact that the OECD are looking at the impact that tech has on results such as PISA. Look at the actual OECD site and it is interesting reading (you can also see the full report here), their discussion actually focuses on the need for a "new approach needed to deliver on technology’s potential in schools" - and they are absolutely right. Technology integration needs to be strategic and needs to look past the "dazzle" that tech can provide and focus on the enrichment, extension and support only a technology rich environment can provide. I heartily encourage educators to incredibly critical about how and why they plan to introduce and integrate tech into the classroom.

What does concern me is that the vast majority of the reporting is misleading and completely overlooking the real value of tech in the classroom.

Firstly, there is the issue that the fact they are trying to link the use of tech to improved test outcomes is problematic at best. Has anyone looked into the impact of using biro and refill on test outcomes? Technology or pen and paper can both be used effectively or ineffectively, the fact that you are using either tool is not necessarily relevant to a test that measures Maths, English or Science. The fact that the students are on a computer for any amount of time tells us nothing about how pedagogically sound the use of the tech is. Stick a kid in front of computer without pedagogical approaches designed to leverage the advantages of working online and of course they are going to be distracted by the "dazzle". Compare this with teachers who are using traditional modes such as direct instruction and rote learning, wheeling out a pedagogical approach that has been honed over the last century, (with little regard for learner engagement or agency) and of course you will probably get better "test results". The relevance of said tests for measuring success in a 21st Century context could also be bought into question...but I fell that probably calls for a dedicated blogpost.

Secondly, there is the issue that the way this report has been summed up by most news agencies really does miss the point about why it is is so very important that tech is integrated (effectively) into teaching and learning across the board. The advantages of tech integration is rich and varied. Most importantly it is about providing young people to the opportunity to develop the skills they will need to thrive in the 21st Century. There are many reasons for integrating tech (which have little to do with test results) and quite frankly if we ignore these we potentially short change an entire generation of young people.

Below are just a few reasons why I believe every school must be looking to integrate tech effectively.

Learner Agency 
See my earlier post here. Learner Agency is the idea that the learner has a sense of ownership and control over their own learning. The word 'agency' is defined as "action or intervention producing a particular effect", so I guess if we apply this to the learner, it means they engage in a particular action or trial an intervention which then produces a particular effect. In the context of a school this might involve students taking action, whether it be through reading, researching, discussing, debating, experimenting, making or tinkering and as a result, gain (through their own efforts) new understanding and new learning. This being a shift from the notion of teachers, teaching at the student and fundamentally providing all of the knowledge and content which they then transfer to the the empty vessel. And as I stated in my earlier post, genuine learner agency can really only be achieved where tech is accessible.

Introduce one to one devices or BYOD and actually give students the freedom to use technology in a variety of ways - not just a glorified exercise or text book. There is no question - all students having access to a browser is incredibly liberating if you just shut up and get of the way and let them go explore and actually use more than just the latest app or platform you've stumbled upon. Technology is not actually about improving grades, it's actually about improving agency (and hopefully greater agency should then result in better outcomes).

World Trends

Core Education explore a wide range of world trends to bring together an annual summary of trends pertaining to ICT use in education. These provide an excellent starting point that go beyond our own experiences or opinions and encourages us to consider what these trends might need for our learners. We need to consider also the period in which we actually live. Our ancestors came through an Agrarian (agricultural) age where the ability to farm and work the land was essential. Our parents and maybe even we have come through an Industrial Age where the need for industrial and technical skills were very important. We are now entering what is referred to as a Knowledge Age defined on the NZCER Shifting Thinking website as

"a new, advanced form of capitalism in which knowledge and ideas are the main source of economic growth (more important than land, labour, money, or other ‘tangible resources). New patterns of work and new business practices have developed, and, as a result, new kinds of workers, with new and different skills, are required."

and as they also state

"Knowledge Age worker-citizens need to be able to locate, assess, and represent new information quickly. They need to be able to communicate this to others, and to be able to work productively in collaborations with others. They need to be adaptable, creative and innovative, and to be able to understand things at a ‘systems’ or big picture’ level. Most importantly, they need to be to think and learn for themselves, sometimes with the help of external authorities and/or systems of rules, but, more often, without this help."
These are our students, and many of these skills are best learned in an online space - this is where they can, very quickly, locate, assess and present information. Tools such as Google Docs is what enables them to collaborate and co-construct anytime or anywhere. Blended Learning is key to enabling learning that meets the demands of a 'knowledge' rather than 'industrial' age.
Research Findings
Research by it's very nature is backward looking, so it is important that we do not sit back and wait for the evidence that e-learning is effective before we even deign to dip our toes. It can be tempting to simply say there is not enough evidence yet. However I would suggest that whilst relatively small there is plenty of compelling evidence and research available. This is particularly true if you look at the evidence gathered as a part of 'Teaching as Inquiry' projects where e-learning has been a focus. Literature reviews such as Noeline Wright's 'e-Learning and implications for New Zealand schools: a literature review' brings together a wide range of findings. In her conclusion Wright highlights a wide range of potential benefits, ranging from motivation and engagement to the development of critical thinking and multiliteracies. It is important to remain critical about the benefits of ANY pedagogical approaches, not just the e-learning ones. We seem quick to defend traditional methods and modes when there is little more evidence that they are in fact effective. For this reason it is important that we reflect on all of our approaches, gather pre and post data and feedback from students to ensure that all practice is indeed evidence or research based. We need to ensure our practice (and the research we base it on) is actually current and responsive. It is not okay for teachers to base practice on an approach that might have been exciting when Pong was a cutting edge video game.

NCEA
Many would argue that NCEA is actually an argument for protecting the mighty 'paper and pen', indeed external exams are written by hand...for now. In April 2013 NZQA's Dr Karen Poutasi stated in a speech to SPANZ "we are reasonably confident that we can reach a position within 8 years where most students will be sitting examinations using a digital device." That means your Year 1-4 student will most likely be sitting their exams online. Our Year 9 students will most definitely be creating and submitting internal assessments online. To do this well, and to ensure our learners gain the skills they need to gain Excellence or at least achieve the very best results they are capable of, then we need to give them practice. More than that, we need to be explicitly teaching them, or giving the time and space to develop the skills to do this well. Learners will need to be able to locate, synthesize and present information. They will need to be able to do it safely, lawfully and effectively. This takes time. We need to start now. In fact all students need to have started yesterday.

Differentiation and Universal Design for Learning
There is also the fact that pedagogically speaking the integration of tech is actually a no-brainer. We have a responsibility to ensure they way in which we facilitate learning and gather evidence of said learning is inclusive. All students have a right to learn and enjoy success, therefore we must be meeting the needs of a diverse group - not just the select few that learn the way you do or did in your day. Consider differentiation as defined by Carol Ann Tomlinson which seeks to provide a range of learning opportunities differentiated for student readiness' learning style and interest. This is possible in a paper based classroom, but choices will still be limited and controlled by the teacher and the resources made physically available to the learner. You might provide a small range of different activities and maybe texts that a either written or more graphic based. Consider this now in a blended learning environment where if a student can access the Internet they can access unlimited resources - written, visual and oral. A teacher may well need to support a student in locating appropriate material or may even curate a collection for them. The speed and ease in which differentiated learning can be facilitated in a blended environment is incredibly enabling. If a teacher can also let the student take the lead and have the power to negotiate methods and modes for learning and evidencing learning,, then you on to something quite magic. Similarly if you consider the diagram below with a blended learning lens it is again a no-brainer. As stated on the Cast website

" Universal Design for Learning was initially is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone--not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs."

Who wouldn't want this for their learners? Providing multiple means of representation (of information), means of expression (evidencing learning) and means of engagement is nigh on impossible in a purely paper-based classroom, and again it limits it to a single teacher perception of what they think they know about the students ability, learning style, interests or even their mood or tiredness on any given day.

So as you can see, whilst tech doesn't necessarily (in and of itself) improve test results, it can (if used effectively) improve outcomes in a much richer sense of the words. The reason that such shallow and often lazy reporting of such "studies" upset me so much is that it can make the desire for educators to embrace change even harder than it already is. I do wonder if the authors of these news report realise the collateral damage of attention grabbing headlines and shining the light on the aspects of the report that fuel the fire of traditionalists yearning for "evidence" to drag their heels even more. In an earlier post I explored the challenges educators face in navigating the space between education al paradigms and if if I'm honest, lazy (or at least superficial) reporting of genuinely interesting studies are just resulting in a whole raft of nervous educators who managed to take "two steps forward" probably just retreated a sh#tload of "steps back".

Cheers for that.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Learner Agency - more than just a buzzword!


Admittedly, even I'm impressed at the litany of edu buzzwords I manage to ram into one video here. When I first watched this, I couldn't help but imagine Tom Barrett poised with his Buzzword Bingo card and a kind but cruel twinkle in his eye. ;) And indeed I got royally roasted by Steve Mouldey, particularly when I managed to define one buzzword with another - did you know learner agency is really about student efficacy? Well now you do.

But joking aside, Learner Agency is bloody important.

So what does Learner Agency actually mean. The way I define it is the idea that the learner has a sense of ownership and control over their own learning. The word 'agency' is defined as "action or intervention producing a particular effect", so I guess if we apply this to the learner, it means they engage in a particular action or trial an intervention which then produces a particular effect. In the context of a school this might involve students taking action, whether it be through reading, researching, discussing, debating, experimenting, making or tinkering and as a result, gain (through their own efforts) new understanding and new learnings. This being a shift from the notion of teachers, teaching at the student and fundamentally providing all of the knowledge and content which they then transfer to the the empty vessel.

Of course this notion is not new, in fact, it's positively ancient. I sometimes think Socrates must be turning in his grave.


So if this notion has been bandied about since the the time of Socrates, why the hell are we considering it as cutting edge now? I'm guessing the honest answer is that education started off pretty sweet, then got a bit crap in the last 100 years or so.

Public schooling as we know it appears to be have been formed or at least heavily influenced by the reforms introduced by The Committee of Ten, a group of US educators who called for the standardisation of the secondary curriculum. They recommended 12 years of education and a range of subjects or learning areas that have remained, for the most part freakishly unchanged (remember, this was a 120 years ago!!!). They also recommended that "...every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at what point his education is to cease." [4]  I do wonder if it recommendations such as this that resulted in learners falling victim to the generations of well meaning educators developing well honed teacher agency, attempting to produce similar outcomes for all learners by delivering same size, one size fits all learning regardless of learner strengths, weaknesses, interests or career path.

Even in modern times, the notion of standardised testing has the unintended effect of producing standardised teaching. To ensure that teaching remains standardised, learners must not interfere! I actually have no issue with standardised testing or even standards. It's actually our notion that to meet common goals, we need to get there through common means that is the issue.

If the world around us wasn't changing so rapidly, we might have got away with sticking our heads in the sand and believing (like certain schools still do) that effective education means little, if any, learner agency and whole lot of control and teacher centred pedagogy.  Don't get me wrong, there is still a place for direct instruction and even rote learning, but if you are limiting yourself to such practice, no matter how awesomely charismatic you might be, you are doing your students a massive disservice.

Firstly there is the issue that students no longer need you or I to access knowledge and expertise. Once upon a time you may have got away with little learner agency because they (the students) had few if any other ways to learn. I once worked with a teacher that claimed that school was like the dentist, that students simply had to suck it up and do what was good for them. I'm sorry lady, but you need to wake up and smell the laughing gas. Students no longer necessarily need us to learn, if learning is something they have to suffer through they will look elsewhere. However, they do need us to know how to learn more effectively and to curate what skills may be good to learn and what content might be useful to know in the future.

Secondly there is the reality that we are preparing learners for a different world than we were in 1892. We are no longer producing compliant workers for an industrial workplace where basic writing, reading and arithmetic and learned compliance was the key to success. In fact we don't actually know what we are preparing them for. We are almost certainly preparing them for multiple careers, more casual, informal work and/or self-employment. This calls for a broader set of skills. Yes, the three Rs are still incredibly important, but now the ability for young people to self-manage, learn to learn and then re-learn and adapt is going to be a basic need for survival. Complex problem solving, creative thinking and risk-taking are undoubtedly going to be the key ingredients for success. I mean look at the list Forbes produced as The 10 Skills Employers Most Want in 2015 Graduates
  1. Ability to work in a team structure
  2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems (tie)
  3. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
  4. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
  5. Ability to obtain and process information
  6. Ability to analyze quantitative data
  7. Technical knowledge related to the job
  8. Proficiency with computer software programs
  9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports
  10. Ability to sell and influence others
These are not skills developed in a teacher centred learning environment. And who know what the graduates of 2025 and beyond may need. Whilst I do don't have a crystal ball, I am guessing agency and efficacy will be even more important than ever.

So what are 10 ways you might provide Learner Agency in your classroom or school?
  1. Introduce one to one devices or BYOD and actually give students the freedom to use technology in a variety of ways - not just a glorified exercise or text book. There is no question - all students having access to a browser is incredibly liberating if you just shut up and get of the way and let them go explore and actually use more than just the latest app or platform you've stumbled upon. Technology is not actually about improving grades, it's actually about improving agency (and hopefully greater agency should then result in better outcomes).
  2. Give students choice about context or topic where possible.
  3. Give students choice about how the record or process their learning - paper & pen, written notes, images or voice recording.
  4. Give students choice about how they evidence their learning - let them choose whether evidence is verbal, visual or oral (or a combination of all three)
  5. Give students choice about how and where they learn - provide an online platform with 24/7 access to clear learning outcomes, prompts, support and challenges.
  6. Provide students with a platform or space for online discussion about their learning that doesn't rely on you.
  7. Give students time and space to work independently - yes sometimes they will waste time, get distracted and frustrated - but so do we! And how are you going to bloody well learn to to learn for yourself without being given the opportunity to do so. as an aside - it always cracks me up when schools wonder why Year 13 students don't cope with "free periods" when we have barely given them a "free moment" in the 12 years prior. 
  8. Allow time for independent inquiry, where students have time and space to seek out and create new understanding.
  9. Where possible let them personalise inquiry to give them even greater ownership - do those students really need to explore the same topic, book, period or place? And do they need to all present it the same way (see #4)
  10. Give students a choice of classes or modules or if this isn't possible in your present environment, at least give them the opportunity to co-construct the course they are in - even in a school where you have to present some sort of year plan, you can still hack that plan....if there is one benefit of a non-MLE environment you can usually get away with being as creative as you blooming well like in the privacy of your own classroom. 
This list is not exhaustive. Would love to hear how you develop/enable/encourage learner agency in classroom or school. 

Oops. Once again what I intended to be a pithy reflection has turned into a ramble. See learner agency isn't just a buzzword, it's a bloody great ramble!