Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Capacity focus, 68b: Curriculum, tablet technology and education transformation in Montserrat and the wider Caribbean in light of the Bloom two sigma interactive learning improvement challenge

(Two Sigma/Digital learning transformation series 
 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 )

Last time, we looked at the potential of the tablet in transforming education in Montserrat (and by extension the wider region). In so doing, there was a brief allusion to a result of some recent research:
. . . as recent studies underscore, throwing technology at education problems is no more likely to be a solution than throwing money at such.

What we want instead is well-grounded transformation of the curriculum approach; in a digital age. 

The tablet PC offers much by way of resources for such, of course, but I am going to argue below that the real key is to recognise the potential of a more interactive, resource-rich approach to learning and mastery of both content and skills. Which points the way to education transformation with an emphasis on a new vision for the curriculum. Which will entail serious capacity building for educators, and a major intervention to support developing the new resources.
 In short, technology alone cannot make positive change happen. It is worth taking a pause to clip from the linked report on the study:
At $200 per computer, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) has sold or facilitated donations of about 2.5 million laptops to classrooms in 42 different countries. 
A new study suggests those laptops do not, however, have any effect on achievement in math or language.

The study, which was conducted by development funding source in Latin America called Inter-American Development Bank, looked at 319 public schools in Peru. It found that although OLPC students were more likely to use computers than their non-OLPC counterparts, the two groups scored about the same on math and language assessments 15 months after laptops were deployed. 

Furthermore, the laptop program did not affect attendance, time allocated to school activities or quality of instruction in class. Even though the laptops came loaded with 200 books, reading habits of recipients matched those of their control-group peers — 74% of whom have five or fewer books in their homes.

“It has been suggested that the introduction of computers increases motivation, but our results suggest otherwise,” write the study’s authors.

Students with OLPC laptops did, however, score better than their peers on tests for general cognitive skills.
 What is happening, to give so counter-intuitive a result?
Considering previous research on one-to-one laptop initiatives, the lack of evidence that OLPC influences learning outcomes isn’t surprising. 

Five years after Maine implemented a statewide one-laptop-per-student program, with one exception (for writing skills), no measurable improvement in test scores could be found. Evaluations of one-to-one programs in Michigan and Texas showed similarly mixed results. 

A 2010 review of one-on-one laptop initiative research by the government of New South Wales boils down the reason for such mixed results to simply “leadership is crucial.”

In other words, laptops are not magic cure-alls for educational woes (surprise!).
“One-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what’s already occurring—for better or worse—in classrooms, schools, and districts,” writes Bryan Goodwin in a recent article about one-on-one computing in Educational Leadership . . .
This last onward linked article discusses the very mixed pattern of results, then comments:
. . . the reality may be that one-to-one laptop programs are only as effective—or ineffective—as the schools that adopt them.
A study of one-to-one programs in five middle schools in western Massachusetts, for example, found that one of these schools struggled so mightily with incorporating laptops into learning that even three years after implementation, its students were not using technology any more than students in schools without laptops (Bebell & Kay, 2010). These researchers attributed the poor implementation to lack of teacher knowledge and buy-in, concluding, "It is impossible to overstate the power of individual teachers in the success or failure of 1:1 computing" (p. 47).
A recent study of 997 schools across the United States (Greaves, Hayes, Wilson, et al., 2010) identified nine factors that, if present, appear to contribute to higher levels of achievement in schools that have adopted one-to-one programs. The top three factors were
  1. Ensuring uniform integration of technology in every class.
  2. Providing time for teacher learning and collaboration (at least monthly).
  3. Using technology daily for student online collaboration and cooperative learning.
It is perhaps no coincidence that these factors mirror key predictors of effective schools and districts in general. For example, ensuring uniform integration of technology in every class implies a district with a clearly articulated, districtwide approach to instruction—a key trait of high-performing districts (Marzano & Waters, 2009). Similarly, teacher collaboration is an important school-level predictor of achievement (Marzano, 2003), and meaningful cooperative-learning experiences have been linked to higher achievement (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001).

The Bottom Line

Rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet, one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what's already occurring—for better or worse—in classrooms, schools, and districts. Jim Collins (2001) arrived at a similar conclusion about technology in the business world. "Technology alone," he observed in Good to Great, "never holds the key to success." However, "when used right, technology is an essential driver in accelerating forward momentum" (p. 159).

The same thing could be said of one-to-one computing initiatives in schools and districts. [Bryan Goodwin, "One-to-One Laptop Programs Are No Silver Bullet," Educational Leadership, February 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 5 Teaching Screenagers Pages 78-79.]
In short, throwing laptops at entrenched school systems with deep-rooted unsolved or even unrecognised or improperly diagnosed education problems is unlikely to work as a one-shot cure-of-all-ills. There are no short cuts around getting the school system and its capacity base right, at teaching, administrative, support and top/strategic management levels.

Which brings us to the pivotal implications of the two sigma effect result and to the implied curriculum transformation challenges in light of the needs of mastery based learning, the Vygotsky learning opportunity/readiness window, Piaget's findings on the formal operations stage of cognitive development (as developed in light of findings on how this seems to happen area by area and how it is aided by things that move from concrete to pictorial to abstract) etc.

In steps of thought:

1 --> The 2-sigma effect (as we again looked at Monday) shows that by moving to a much more interactive, feed back and mastery based learning curriculum approach,  we credibly can reliably move a C student to an A student, and can bring 98% of qualified intake to a unit to pass. 

2 --> So, we need to focus on the mastery based approach to designing, developing, delivering, evaluating and improving learning units. this can be captured in a flowchart, which is centred on a testing- diagnosis- feedback- response focussed learning loop:

The mastery-based learning unit framework
 3 --> This naturally leads to a spiralling curricular structure that builds units in a sequence that allows building up of knowledge, skills and attitudes through cumulative success:

4 --> In turn, this raises the question of readiness to learn, which is addressed by the Vygotsky learning opportunity window concept:

5 --> So, we see that identifying the cluster of knowledge, insights, skills etc that are accessible in a given window of opportunity to learn [here, the half-term, six or so week module makes sense as the unit of development for learning], is critical. As is the sequencing of such units in a reasonable and effective way that allows as much as possible for different students/learners to individualise their learning path while mastering the requisite core of knowledge. (Thus, individualised enrichment -- especially through things like projects presented to and shared with the wider group --  is as important as diagnosis and filling-in of gaps in knowledge and skills.)

6 --> Similarly, we have to acknowledge that transition to the full formal operations cognitive level is a major challenge everywhere. Reportedly only about 1/3 of adults make the transition sufficiently completely to be truly satisfactory (most being stuck in an intermediate state with only very limited and at best partial ability to handle abstractions):

The formal operations challenge (Source: Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (2003). Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Educational Psychology Interactive. It is well worth the effort to read the source.)

7 --> The good news is that through exposure to the concrete and to pictures and other visual and/or tactile stimuli, serving as scaffolding, gradually the ability to handle abstractions can be built up for many people. (this BTW, is a major part of the challenge in learning Mathematics and core sciences such as Physics and Chemistry at High School level. But since these are crucial to national development prospects, we must be prepared to invest in building up our future through providing adequate learning resources and experiences.)

8 --> By now, the potential of the tablet and of the interactive multimedia- rich classroom should be more and more evident. The modern, multimedia computer is perfect for media-rich curriculum experiences. It allows for individualisation, and once an instructional application has been properly developed, it is an impossibly patient and individualised coach. (I strongly encourage us to look at Moodle, Xerte and eXe as open source -- free of cost -- instructional packages that will work with that.) 

9 --> The possibility of having instantly available eTextbooks, course workbooks/readers and the like as well as digital libraries instantly accessible through a wireless interface should be equally important to creative curriculum development and implementation.

10 --> Not to mention, the multimedia classroom/learning facility:

. . . and here is an example, from Duke University:

10 --> But none of these ideas will implement themselves, and if we fix in our minds the notion that some are more or less born bright, others are incurably dunce and most are merely struggling average, we will not have the expectations that would lead us to put out the effort to transform education. 

11 --> Yes, there are some who are genuinely brilliant beyond belief, from birth. But even those struggle in learning sometimes -- that was true of Einstein, who did not properly complete high school (he was also evidently a discipline problem), barely scraped out at degree level, and had challenges with his PhD, then struggled for years in his career for almost a decade AFTER he had done the work that eventually won him a Nobel Prize.

12 --> In short there is painful truth in the tart saying about how hard it is to soar like an eagle if you are in a barnyard full of chickens scratching around on the ground and looking no higher than that. Einstein was a real ugly duckling who turned out to be one of the grandest swans ever.

13 --> Similarly, if we properly diagnose those struggling because of gaps in their knowledge base or mismatches between how we tend to teach and how they can best learn -- as in variety is very, very important! -- and fix the overall curriculum, that will allow us to detect the ones who genuinely have severe limitations and need specialist attention. 
(BTW, a friend with the Caribbean Dyslexia centre suggests maybe 10% could be struggling with some degree of dyslexia or similar challenges.  Someone else suggests that something like up to half those in our prisons my have such problems. Worth thinking about. This is one case where an ounce of prevention may be a lot better and less costly in the end than the painful and expensive pounds of "cures" we have to create at society level when things get out of hand.)
14 --> We will also need to develop sub-programs for dealing with the habitually disruptive and ill-disciplined. Some tough love, in my view, could go a long way, and we must establish firmly the principle that no unduly disruptive, ill-behaved individuals or small groups will be allowed to repeatedly distract and disrupt the education process.

15 --> In addition, we have to tame the "computers as toys" challenge.  (Let us never forget, school-type learning is for many an acquired taste with all the initial attractiveness of vegetables for most children.) 

16 --> Accountability and transparency in the use of computers in the education process, through active participation and interaction, is a good positive way to do that.  

17 --> Which comes right back full circle to the ideas embedded in mastery-based individualised learning. (Which marks a good place to stop for now, this is not a thesis.)

So, yes, tablets or laptops are not a one-shot magic silver bullet cure all, but nothing is. However, there are some credible things we can and should do with them as a new and powerful learning tool to make a difference.

Why not now, why not here, why not us? END

PS: An idea of the IT management headaches we may face is here.

PPS: A short course from NSW for teachers on creating digital online learning resources. Click the "view" top right to sample. (Note ideas on effective e-learning content creation here, and on writing for the web here.)

PPPS: NSW Study at Scribd

 Digital Education Revolution NSW - Literature Review 2010