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Technology reform full of good ideas, poorly executed

Technology reform full of good ideas, poorly executed

In his latest quarterly column for Teacher, Andreas Schleicher says the road to education technology reform is littered with good ideas, poorly executed and explains why educators need to be involved in creating innovations in schools, rather than having reforms imposed from outside.

People have quite different views on the role that digital technology can and should play in education, but we just can't ignore how digital tools have so fundamentally transformed the world around schools.

The dilemma for educators is that the kinds of things that are easy to teach, and maybe easy to test, have become precisely the things that are also easy to digitise, automate and outsource.

At the end of September, education ministers met with industry leaders in Israel to explore how to grow and scale an educational culture that is more open to innovation. Israel is a great place to have this conversation. Ministers were quite impressed with the vibrant start-up culture in this country where educators, entrepreneurs and policy makers often join forces to innovate education. But, at the very same time, the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results show that most classrooms in Israel are dominated by very traditional teaching geared to help students reproduce prefabricated subject-matter content.

Good ideas, poorly executed

That seems to be precisely the dilemma around technology in education. Successful pilot projects are not enough, and the road to education reform is littered with good ideas that are poorly executed.

In 2012, virtually all 15-year-old students in OECD countries had a computer at home, but less than three-quarters used a computer or tablet at school, and in some countries it was fewer than half. In fact, the first thing we usually tell students entering their school is to turn off anything that has an on-or-off switch.

But, far more importantly, even where computers are used in classrooms, their impact on student learning outcomes is mixed at best. Students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely. But students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes. Imagine that, the more intensively students use computers at school, the less digitally literate they seem to be, even after accounting for social background and student demographics. The PISA results also show no improvements in learning outcomes in those countries that have invested most heavily in digital technology in schools.

And perhaps the most disappointing finding is that technology seems of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Put simply, ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in mathematics seems to do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than subsidising access to high-tech devices and services.

What can we make out of those results? One interpretation is that education is a largely social enterprise and that building deep, conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking will always hinge on high quality teacher-student interactions, to which technology does not automatically add. Another interpretation is that we simply haven't become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology; that adding 21st century technologies to 20th century teaching practices and 19th century learning environments will just dilute the effectiveness of learning.

If students use smartphones to copy and paste answers to prefabricated questions, it's not going to help them become ‘smarter'. If we want students to become smarter than a smartphone, we need to think harder about learning and instruction.

We have seen massive increases in investment in education over the last decade, and Australia is no exception. In the OECD area you are talking about close to 40 per cent more money per student in real terms. But there has been virtually no improvement in learning outcomes, not even in the 10 top-performing PISA countries.

Innovation – quality and speed, not quantity

When other sectors see flatlining productivity they look to innovation. That's what we do in education too: OECD data point to levels of innovation in education that are broadly in line with those in other sectors. So the central question is perhaps not the volume of innovation, but its relevance and quality and the speed from idea to impact. Innovation is happening, but too little of it is focused at the heart of learning; and when it does, it spreads too slowly.

It is a mistake to think of educational R&D in the same way as industrial R&D. For a start, educational science is just very hard to do. Essentially, it's done under conditions that physical scientists would not tolerate. Compared to designing a smartphone, when you want to change classrooms you cannot control the context and you cannot generalise across contexts. So, establishing a body of professional knowledge that travels is just very difficult.

But even where good knowledge exists, many educational practitioners just do not believe that the problems they face can be solved by inquiry, evidence and science. Too many teachers believe that good teaching is an individual art based on inspiration and talent, and not a set of competences acquired over the course of a career. And part of this comes back to policy, because there is a real lack of incentives and resources to codify professional knowledge and knowhow. So practice remains tacit; not explicated and articulated, invisible and difficult to transfer.

Teachers and leaders as agents for change

Talking to education ministers I quickly got the impression that teachers and parents resist all change. But talk to teachers and they tell you the opposite – that there are too many changes imposed on them that have not been thought through and that are not properly resourced. Nowhere does this come out more clearly than in the history of digital technologies, it is a history of undelivered promises, poor design, naïve beliefs and ineffective implementation. The successful integration of technology in education is not so much a matter of choosing the right device, the right amount of time to spend on it, or the best software. The key to success are the teachers, school leaders and decision makers who have the vision, and the ability to make the connection between students, computers and learning.

In education, changes are too often proposed outside schools and then moved into schools by reformers. But change will not happen without teachers becoming active agents for change, not just in implementing technological innovations, but in designing them too. The sources for change need to be created inside schools and inside the system.

And perhaps we can also create a more level playing field for educational innovation. Governments can only do so much. Silicon Valley works because governments created the conditions for innovation, but not because governments do the innovation.

How governments can support schools

Governments can't do the innovations in the classroom. But they can help opening up systems, that is create an innovation-friendly climate where transformative ideas can bloom at the grassroots level. And they can do that both by fostering innovation within the system as well as by creating opportunities for outside innovations to enter the system. Governments can also help make great ideas real, to strengthen professional autonomy and a collaborative culture where great ideas are shared, refined and borrowed and access to funding and non-financial support lifts those ideas into action. And governments can build incentives and signals that strengthen the visibility and demand for what demonstrably works.

Policy makers often view education industries as providers of goods and services to schools. They tend to underappreciate that innovation in education is also changing the very environment in which schools are operating. In particular, technology-based innovations open up schools and learning environments to the outside world, both the digital world and the physical and social environment. They also bring new actors into the system, not at least the education industries with their own ideas, views and dreams about what a brighter future for education could hold.

Perhaps we should also be more demanding on the education industry. Most of our children wouldn't play voluntary with the kind of software that companies are still able to sell to schools. And can we break the oligopoly of a few large suppliers of educational resources which then use an army of salespeople to sell their goods and services to the highly atomised and fragmented demand? Surely entrepreneurs cannot afford to play this game of regulatory incumbency.

Recognising and rewarding success

Last but not least, we should find better ways to recognise, reward and give exposure to success and do whatever we can to make it easier for innovators to take risks and encourage the emergence of new actors.

One of the most devastating findings from our TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) survey of teachers is that three-quarters of teachers in the industrialised world consider their workplace an essentially innovation hostile environment. Nothing will change if we can't change that perception.

In what ways does your school embrace innovation to make it easier for those who wish to take risks?

Is your school an 'innovation-friendly climate where transformative ideas can bloom at the grassroots level?' If not, how could you go about changing this?

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