In the mid-1950s, the Harvard University psychologist B F Skinner presented a short documentary about a wonderful thing he had invented.
The black-and-white film, which is on YouTube here shows rows of happy children in a classroom, each intently hunched over a device the shape and size of a portable typewriter, only without a keyboard.
This, said Skinner proudly, was his “Teaching Machine”.
By repeatedly rotating a little wheel on the machine’s side, each child was presented with a question and its answer, then another question and its answer and so on. The feedback was instant. Each child could move at their own pace. Learning was fun instead of hard work. It was obvious to Skinner that this technology was going to change the face of education forever. Except it didn’t.
Dr Howard Lee, an education historian at Massey University, remembers the Teaching Machine arriving in New Zealand while he was at school in the early 1970s.
“It was crude technology even at the time, but a lot of places said, ‘We need to have these machines. They’re the latest and the greatest.’ But after a short time they gathered dust in the cupboard. They were just too clunky and too difficult to use.”
Since then, “the latest and greatest” technology has been repeatedly touted as the solution to whatever ails the education system, with mixed results. In 1940s America the radio was going to change everything. In the 1960s it was classroom TVs. By the 1970s, even Kiwi children were dozing through scratched educational films in the school library. Computers and calculators arrived in force from the 1980s, and by the early 2000s, principals were transferring their affections and cash towards interactive whiteboards – souped-up internet-connected data projectors costing as much as $6000 per classroom.
Now, as any parent of school-age children knows, it’s all about the “digital device” – the Chromebook, the iPad, the Samsung tablet, the sleek and pricy Macbook Air. Around the country, schools are racing to get an internet-enabled cloud-connected whiz-bang device into the schoolbag of every child.
A 2012 Ministry of Education survey found 25 per cent of schools already had a “bring your own device” (BYOD) policy or were planning one soon, and in some classes, owning a device is compulsory for all pupils.
Each school is free to set its own pace, or even totally ignore the digital revolution, but the government is giving hefty encouragement for those who want to join in. Since 2011, the ministry has spent $35 million on training teachers in digital education skills. Schools are “prioritised” for the rollout of the $1.25 billion ultrafast broadband network, and by 2016 most schools will be able to use it. $165m of ministry money is being spent on upgrading school networks, and $211m more on getting schools connected to the “Network for Learning”, a Crown-owned company that provides internet access and a welter of online teaching resources.
So why are we spending all this money?
“It is increasingly important,” says the ministry’s “head of student achievement” Rowena Phair, “that school leavers have the skills to succeed in the digital age”. A student with their own device can “learn any time and anywhere”, and “connect and collaborate” with students and experts outside the school. Plus there are loads of great educational resources online.
That sounds fair enough, yet there’s something naggingly familiar about some of the rhetoric. Sixty years ago, Skinner said his Teaching Machine offered “vastly improved conditions for effective study”. Last month, a report from the ministry-backed 21st-Century Learning Reference Group told us that digitally-based education “can significantly improve learning outcomes”.
But is that really true?
In 2011, writing in the online discussion forum Educational Technology Debate, American computer scientist and educator Kentaro Toyama delivered a blistering critique of the cycles of “hype, investment, poor integration, and lack of educational outcomes” that have plagued attempts to foist complex technology upon schools in both the first world and developing nations.
“I’m very optimistic, but I’m also realistic. It needs to be carefully managed.
He said “the inescapable conclusion is that significant investments in computers, mobile phones, and other electronic gadgets in education are neither necessary nor warranted for most school systems”. He was especially dismissive of the superficially appealing argument that digital education is essential because digital skills – emailing, copying files, making a Powerpoint presentation – are needed in the modern workforce.
Sure, wrote Toyama, the tools we use at work and home have changed, but learning to use them is easy compared with the deep ability to think and work effectively.
“Any idiot can use Twitter, but forming and articulating a cogent argument in any medium . . . requires good thinking, writing and communication skills” – and you don’t need technology to acquire those.
Some researchers have shown that digital devices can lift educational achievement, but other studies show the opposite.
A 2013 Norwegian study of 72 10th grade students found their comprehension of a text was poorer when read off a 15-inch LCD screen than off paper. A 2008 study in the US showed people reading a long text such as a novel found it harder to understand in ebook form than on real paper, possibly because they were missing out on navigational clues such as the thickness of the remaining pages.
Two months ago, American researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer published a study showing university students who took lecture notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions that students who took longhand notes. Their conclusion was that laptop users were missing out on processing and reframing the lecture material in their own words.
Kate (not her real name) is a deputy principal at an Auckland primary school. She asked to remain anonymous because she is closely involved in the rollout of digital devices in her school and speaking candidly would make things awkward.
Kate reckons there’s no stopping the invasion of the iPads, so she’s doing her best to make sure it’s done well in her school. “The entire world is Google-ised, so if we don’t put it in front of our children we’re Luddites”.
Yet she has serious qualms. Crucially, despite the accelerating adoption of digital teaching methods in New Zealand schools “there is no robust evidence base that it works”.
Results look good in specific areas – devices are highly motivating for reluctant boy readers; some children benefit from the “gamification” of learning because of the instant feedback and reward; the collaboration between home and school that devices enable has been shown to improve learning.
But the sheer speed of the current rollout, at a time when the devices and apps themselves are constantly changing, means research often can’t keep up: “We’re building the plane as we fly it,” says Kate.
She worries about the sheer addictiveness of the devices, both as a teacher and as the mother of an intermediate-age boy. The gadgets are designed to be irresistible. Whether that means playing Flappy Bird for hours or becoming absorbed in a school-approved piece of educational software, “we need to look at what it’s doing to the brains of our children.
“It’s controlling their moods – almost like a dopamine buzz. Sometimes when it’s taken off children, particularly boys, they’re actually really angry about it. Some children will roam around the room looking for any way to get back on the device.
“It’s being sold to us teachers that these things are highly engaging and highly motivating for children, which seems like a good thing. But when you have such an addictive way of learning, it can become difficult to get children to learn any other way. There are some things you have to learn that actually involve using your hands, or talking, or learning to manipulate things other than a screen.”
“It’s controlling their moods – almost like a dopamine buzz. Sometimes when it’s taken off children, particularly boys, they’re actually really angry about it.
And of course, all this costs money – and not just for the parents buying a $300 Chromebook or $600 iPad for their child.
At Kate’s school, “the wolves are at our doors. If you need any sort of technical support – wiring or application development or hardware or software installation – you will have 16 providers sniffing at your door, saying ‘I’m only going to charge $100 an hour’. And we’re a not-for-profit organisation that’s underfunded already!”
Kate has become expert in fixing minor technical problems and reviving dead devices but she says “schools are paying out hand over fist to pirates who have sensed an opportunity to make a profit out of education. That’s where your taxpayers’ money is going”.
Dr Maggie Hartnett is a lecturer in e-learning in Massey University’s Institute of Education. No surprise then, that she believes there’s real potential for digital devices in the classroom. Yet she has learnt to be a little sceptical whenever a new wave of technology mania crashes ashore.
“For those of us who have been in this field for a while, it’s just another iteration. We’ve had PCs in classrooms. We’ve had the internet. We’ve had online e-learning, and now we’re moving onto digital and portable devices: learning any time, anywhere and, it seems in some cases, any-old-how.”
Certainly, the new one-child-per-device model looks more promising than some of its predecessors, but any technology will be effective only if teachers get the right kind of training to use it, “and that’s often the piece that’s missing”.
One undesirable outcome, says Hartnett, is when students make “superficial” use of technology. The focus switches away from the actual subject – reading, maths, whatever – to the gizmo itself.
“Instead of it being about maths, it’ll be about playing a maths game. Instead of being about reading, it might be about creating a play on a device where the real focus is on what the characters look like rather than the dialogue.”
The ministry has created excellent resources for teachers who want to use digital devices, she says, but the issue is the time and effort required to upskill.
For now, there are still plenty of schools where the focus is on textbooks and paper and pencils, says Hartnett, and they’re still producing kids who are successful. But they will be under increasing pressure to join the throng.
“There is value to be had here,” says Hartnett, “but I think it’s important to realise that there are people working in the field who have a more measured approach, and who don’t always believe all the hype.”
T O BE fair, some of the most ardent wavers of the digital-education flag do recognise that if you’re going to transform an education system, you can’t just turn up at the school gates with a truckload of gadgets and she’ll be right.
Brett O’Riley is the chair of a 14-strong reference group set up by Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye in the wake of a 2012 select committee inquiry into digital learning.
In May, the group published a 38-page report which recommended that devices swiftly find their way to as many students as possible. It called on the government to invest heavily in the infrastructure, people, systems and training needed to support their use, and was insistent that New Zealand must avoid a socioeconomic “digital divide”, by ensuring the poor have the same access to classroom devices as everyone else.
The move towards digital technology “is not optional,” says O’Riley.
“While we cling on to some of the past and some of the traditions, the rest of the world is moving. By the end of this decade you won’t be able to service a car unless you have computer skills. Yes, people can learn in different ways, but we live in a world with a lot of technology, so they become essential skills.”
All the same, says O’Riley, “people have every right to be sceptical, because it’s a big change”.
O’Riley agrees that not every school is going digital in the best possible way. Some have fallen into the trap of thinking that simply getting the devices into the classroom is enough.
Others, though, have successfully developed courses that make the most of the devices, and have made sure their teachers get the training they need.
O’Riley is on the board of Auckland’s Manaiakilani Education Trust, which has used private sector and philanthropic funding to get devices into classrooms in 12 low-decile Auckland schools. He says Auckland University’s Woolf Fisher Research Centre has been closely monitoring the Manaiakilani project, and the results are positive.
“We’ve seen NCEA level two achievement at Tamaki College go from 37 per cent to 54 per cent to 80 per cent in the past three years.”
There’s a big difference, though, between a cherished pilot project and a nationwide educational transformation. Does O’Riley believe the coming deluge of devices will lead to better education for New Zealand children?
“I’m very optimistic, but I’m also realistic. It needs to be carefully managed. The implementation needs to be very purposeful, and it needs to be very consultative with parents and communities if it’s going to work effectively everywhere.”
When big changes like this are afoot, says Kate, the evangelists do the rounds, spouting the latest buzzwords at the education conferences for principals to memorise and repeat in the staffroom. At the moment, there’s a lot of talk about “modern learning environments” (which seems to mean classrooms containing beanbags, unusually-shaped tables and lots of digital devices), “21st-century learning” (lots of devices) and “future-focused learning” (lots of devices).
Teachers respond to the evangelism in one of two ways, says Kate. “There are the starry-eyed ones who say, ‘Let’s try it out. Isn’t it great. Yes the the guy on the stage is talking blether, but it’s still new and exciting and I love it.’
“Then you get the school cynics who sit in the back of the staffroom mumbling: ‘Yeah, they roll it out every year and they just call it another name. I’m going to go back to 4F and keep doing what I’m doing, because I’m the one that keeps getting the merits and the excellences, and they can stick it in their pipes and smoke it.’ That’s teachers.”
Despite all her reservations, Kate counts herself as one of the starry-eyed ones. “We’re in a massive transition phase. Change is really painful and really challenging. But it’s the world we live in. It’s not going to go away.”
This article was written by Adam Dudding and appeared on Stoff.co.nz June 7 2014.