An interesting article in yesterday's NYT--Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops. Apparently a number of school districts throughout the country are re-thinking their 1-1 laptop programs because they aren't seeing the results they expected. This is a great example of what happens when you bring in technology without really thinking through either your expectations for results or how your organizational culture needs to change to make the best use of the technology. It also demonstrates how our expectations for what technology can accomplish often far outstrip their actual ability to do so.
Here's what's happened. During the past several years, many school districts around the country began instituting 1-1 laptop programs, making sure that every student in the school had their own laptop computer. Apparently the assumption was that standardized test scores would rise if students had ongoing access to laptops. But schools have been finding (not surprisingly) that test results have not risen, so they're getting rid of the technology, also citing expense, maintenance and the fact that laptops don't "fit in to teacher lesson plans." There are several problems with their thought process, though, that have implications for all organizations using technology.
Select the Right Tool for the Job
The first issue here is that schools selected the wrong tool for the job they apparently wanted to accomplish. As Andy Carvin notes:
The moral of the story would seem straightforward: large investments in educational technology focused on raising test scores simply don’t work. And you know what? They’re right. If you take a bunch of laptops and make them available to every student, you shouldn’t expect to see grades skyrocket. But many education technology advocates could have told these schools the same thing before they invested all of this money and gotten burned.
Mark Warschauer, an education professor at the University of California at Irvine and author of “Laptops and Literacy: Learning in the Wireless Classroom” echoes this thought:
“Where laptops and Internet use make a difference are in innovation, creativity, autonomy and independent research,” he said. “If the goal is to get kids up to basic standard levels, then maybe laptops are not the tool. But if the goal is to create the George Lucas and Steve Jobs of the future, then laptops are extremely useful.”
The real moral of the story is--Be clear about the outcomes you are expecting and then select the solution to your problem based on its ability to actually achieve it.
For Technology to Work, You Need to Adjust Your Work Practices
In many of the school districts profiled in the NYT story, teachers actively resisted the integration of technology into their classrooms and refused to change their teaching practices to make the best use of the laptops. Again from Andy Carvin:
When you get caught up in the hype, it’s easy to forget a very basic axiom: if you’re going to make a fundamental shift in how students and teachers access technology, you better be prepared to make lots of other fundamental shifts in how you assess and teach students.
For one thing, those standardized tests used as bellwethers of progress aren’t crafted to assess the kinds of learning that take place with certain technologies. Laptops bring four big opportunities to the table: opportunities for equal access, mobility, individual creativity and for collaboration. Many of these laptop programs focus a lot on the first opportunity - promoting equal access - and bless their hearts for it. But unless educators are in a position to embrace and encourage the other three, you’re missing out on most of the benefits that can come from a laptop program.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen students using their laptops in the classroom as if nothing else had changed, lined up in neat rows, each laptop on a desk, with students listening to a teacher lecture or taking a test on the laptop. Those aren’t laptops - those are expensive pencils. Of course you’re not going to see achievement improve when pedagogical practices aren’t rethought from the ground up! Where is the boldness, the pedagogical imagination required to put these devices to use to reach their teaching potential - and students’ learning potential, for that matter?
To get the full benefit of a particular technology, we have to understand that it will necessarily change our work practices. If we don't change how we do our work to make the most of the technology, then we'll inevitably see the implementation as a failure. For example, many of the agencies I work with have "automated case management systems." The problem is, staff are expected to keep up with all the old paper-based ways of maintaining case files and the computer version becomes a much-resented add-on.
Second moral of the story? For technology to be successful, we have to change our work practices to harness its power.
Be Clear About What Technology Can Do For You
Technology is not a cure-all. It will not fix poorly thought-out goals, ineffective work practices, staff motivation and morale, or any of a million other organizational issues. In this example, schools faced with increased pressure to improve standardized test scores saw laptops as a magic bullet rather than as one of many strategies they could employ. It's a mistake many organizations make, especially if they're caught up in the hype. But technology doesn't exist in a vacuum. For it to be successful in any organization, it has to be part of a larger plan of improvement and change.
Don't Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water
If you've selected the wrong technology tool for the job, if staff don't change their work practices to make the best use of the tool and if you haven't been clear about what other strategies need to be in place to support the technology, then you really shouldn't be saying "See--the technology didn't work." To me, this story is an example of blaming technology for our very human failure to change. What's discouraging is that this failure to closely examine the role of these other issues in the situation means that people will be deprived of a tool that would have been a very real asset had it been properly deployed.
To me, the bottom line is this. New technologies have very real benefits and possibilities, but only if we are ready and willing to use them appropriately. That means picking the right tool for the job, changing your work practices, and being clear about what other strategies need to be employed to make the technology shift truly successful. If we aren't going to change our human behaviors, then technology will always be a failure.