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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Philosophy Statement

When discussion turns to "educational technology" many consider only those "technologies" that can be used to augment a typical American classroom. Thoughts turn to digital projectors, computers, software, and the internet. All of these technologies can be quite beneficial. They allow teachers to illustrate principles that would be very time-consuming or difficult to illustrate using only a chalkboard. Computers and software can provide drill and practice with much more immediate feedback which greatly enhances learning. And the internet can be a source for a vast wealth of information, providing access to almost all the knowledge of mankind right in one's own bedroom. They are the power-tools of education. Unfortunately, these power-tools are being used in the same old context as the previous "hand-tools" represented by chalkboards, pencil, and paper. Just as power tools make building a house faster and more efficient, if one builds that house using the same plan as in the past then one will end up with the same old inefficient, thin-walled, rectangular, box. Sometimes, however, a new tool or material will come along that has the power to entirely change the industry. Rather than build houses out of 2x4 studs and drywall, some are experimenting with spraying structural foam onto a form made of nothing more than a bubble of plastic sheeting. Many of the same tools (power and hand) are used to finish up the building, but the entire definition of a house has changed. Similarly, adding technologies to the classroom while keeping the same old educational system will result in the same old, ineffective, shallow, rubber-stamp learning. The only way technology itself can truly affect the educational system will be if that technology is revolutionary enough to completely redefine what we mean my "education."

In the old system "education" has meant that a teacher stands up in front of a class and disseminates information in a manner and at a rate designed to meet the needs of the "average" student. Unfortunately, very few students are "average." Students differ in the rate at which they learn as well as in the ways in which they learn. Some learn best when lectured and handed facts. Some learn best when given interesting projects to work on. New, technologies, especially the internet, seem to lend themselves to this kind of project-based-learning. Wonderful "web-quests" have been created to lead students on a journey of learning through the vast pile of content that is "The Internet." For many these are much more interesting, and thus more motivating, than simple reading and lecture. However, for those who lack a solid foundation of knowledge within which to contextualize their discoveries, a web-quest can be nothing but an exercise in frustration. Yes, it is possible to write just the perfect web-quest (or any other lesson) for any specific level of student proficiency. The problem is that only a few students in any one classroom are ever going to be at that exact level at the same time. All others will be either bored or lost. And this gets to the crux of what is wrong with the current educational system. It is a one-size-fits-all proposition. Sure, there are different grade levels but they are based on age, not ability.

Therefore, our revolutionary technology must redefine "education" from "one size fits all" to "every size is available to all." This is not a simple proposition. We cannot simply throw students into a library with internet access and expect them to naturally find the right material for them to learn what they want or need to know at any given time. There is simply too much content available and it is essentially a disorganized pile as far as a young mind is concerned. The enormity of the chore is overwhelming. You are more likely to get small fires than any real learning. On the other hand, there are simply not enough trained teachers to individually guide each student on their own learning path. Again, there is simply too much material out there to choose from, too many methodologies for teaching that particular material, and too many variations in student interest for any one person to keep track of what material should be presented to each student next. There are barely enough teachers to provide one for every 30 students in this country. Not to mention all the children with no teacher at all in less developed countries. This is where technology can step in. It is possible for computer software to test students to determine their interests and abilities as well as track changes in them over time. Based on this information it is possible for software to choose just the right material to present to each student at just the right time. Naturally, this will require material that is highly organized and coded for all these different variables. Although this kind of software and material does not currently exist, it is possible to do. The teacher is then left to do more of the things that only a human teacher can do. Things like motivating students to want to learn and guiding them in a much more general way to ensure that students don't focus their personal learning too narrowly or avoid important subjects as some may tend to do.

For such a computer-based-education system to work it must also follow sound educational psychology principles. It must be designed around the way that people actually learn. Again, there is no need to take a one-size-fits-all approach. Many theorists have many different ideas on how people - and particularly children - learn. Usually a teacher will decide on a particular philosophy and adhere to it throughout their entire career. Software does not need to be so single-minded. Multiple versions of content can be created that teaches the same things but from different perspectives. It can even take many different perspectives into account simultaneously when choosing material to present to a student. A student may be in Piaget's Formal Operational stage of development while still being a person who learns better when an authority figure explains something to them in no-nonsense terms as proscribed by Vygotsky. A student may need motivation to continue with a difficult topic and so may need rewards as described by behavioral theorists, but may also need scaffolding built for them to better understand the material at hand as suggested by cognitive theorists. Many students learn best when they construct the knowledge from project-based experiences but can only be expected to "construct" accurate models in their mind if they already have a solid foundation of knowledge based on drill and practice. Therefore the content must be coded and tagged to reflect all these different aspects of educational psychology rather than simply choosing one to the exclusion of the others.

There is one educational theory, however, that must be adhered to throughout for this software system to be effective. Unfortunately this is the theory that seems to be given the least attention within the educational community. Some textbooks refer to this as brain-based or neuronal learning. Simply put, it is learning based on how our brains actually work at a cellular level. The brains of all animals from the lowly sea-slug to humans work in essentially the same way at the most fundamental level. They remember what is necessary for survival. What is deemed necessary for survival is chosen based on the frequency with which it is experienced. This has been proven to be true at a biochemical level within brain cells. When signals are presented at a synapse within a certain time after a previous stimulus, then chemicals build up in that area which reinforce the growth patterns of that synapse and cause it to stay there. When the signals are not repeated then the chemicals dissipate, the synapse recedes, and that memory is lost. What this means is that it is not enough to teach a student something once and expect them to retain it for any reasonable period of time. That material must be repeated over and over with increasing time period between repetitions until that time period is effectively the rest of the students life (or for however long they desire to remember the material). Unfortunately, that pattern is not set in stone and varies by student and difficulty of the material. It would be impossible for any teacher to calculate exactly when is the best time to repeat previous material, even if they only had one student. It is also impractical for a teacher to ask just the right questions at just the right times over the length of time necessary to build solid memories. And, no, questions on a final exam are not enough. However, it is entirely possible for a computer program to do such a thing. A student's personal learning system can repeat material that was originally presented years earlier and in just the right form to reinforce that learning today.

Where does all this leave the teacher? Are they left out of the equation? Not at all. However, only those teachers who are willing and able to make the transition from lecturer to mentor will thrive in the new system. Some may also say that many districts cannot afford more than one computer per classroom let alone one per student. They are likely buying the wrong computers. Students do not need computers capable of editing video in order to learn. XO laptops, from the One Laptop per Child project, cost only $199 each and are more than adequate for most educational content. There are even computers available for only $12 in some countries that can be used to deliver material in this form. Given the high cost in both time and money associated with training a new teacher, and the incredibly high turnover rate, it is far less expensive to provide each student with an adequate computer. Simply put, it is impossible to produce enough teachers to educate all the people in the world but it is entirely possible to mass produce enough computers to do the task.

So, to sum up, my philosophy is that educational technology will only ever be an evolutionary change in a system that no longer meets the needs of students until that technology reaches a new and revolutionary stage. That technology must be able to instruct each student individually while relieving the teacher of the burden of tracking each individual student's progress. Then the teachers will be free to do what they really do best, encouraging and mentoring students in a more general way towards their individual learning goals. Using technology in this way, rather than simply to augment existing lessons, will also free up more good teachers while weeding out those with less motivation and enable us to educate everyone in the world.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

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