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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 12/15/2011

7 key questions to ask about ed technology, online learning

This was written by Cathy N. Davidson, a Duke professor and author of Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn

 By Cathy N. Davidson

The outcry against exploitative online for-profit education is growing at roughly the same rate as the clamor for increasing amounts of educational technology — laptops, tablets, smart boards — from preschool to life-long learning. Unfortunately, a lot of the conversation is sliding into the “pro” and “con” mode of contemporary punditry. What we most need right now is to pause before we pontificate and to patiently untangle the many intertwined strands in the arguments for and against ed tech. By separating out different threads in this conversation, we can make better decisions about if, when, and in what situations we can really learn effectively online.

Here are seven key questions designed to help any parent or student sort out the competing interests that currently drive technology into our schools — or keep technology out of some other schools.

1. Who profits from the online learning? 

If online learning is being championed because it enriches knowledge, we then have to ask if it really does.  However, if it is being championed because it enriches shareholders, then we have to raise an entirely different set of concerns.    This is one of most fundamental educational questions of our  moment.   Until we know the benchmark for success in any given situation—whether we are measuring student success or a healthy bottom line for the company’s owners--then the question of technology or no technology is basically irrelevant.   Since so much online education is also for-profit, it is important not to blur the method with the motive.  

 (2) What is the cost-cutting motive behind using technology?

This is a less cynical variation of the profit question.  For public schools or even non-profit private schools, the issue often isn’t who gets rich off the students but whether or not using technology will save money, presumably by hiring fewer teachers. Here again we have to ask if the benchmark is student success.   There is evidence that replacing a teacher with an online course can save money; there is no evidence that students taking an online course perform as well on either standardized testing or in subsequent retention tests for the content. 

 (3) Is there innovative thinking behind a school’s adoption of technology in the classroom?

  If the institution (whether non-profit or for-profit) is simply dropping expensive technology into the classroom without rethinking  pedagogy — teaching methods, rules, models, content, and modes of student-teacher interaction — then students are not getting their money’s worth.   Parents should not ask what devices are available to their students but how the devices are being used to enhance learning.    

 

(4) If your school is not using technology, why not? What is the rationale for opposing technology in the classroom?  

This question reverses the previous ones but, in the 21st century, it is important to ask the question in both directions.  If not, why not?  The baseline of school-based learning should not be the absence of technology, at least not without a good argument that has been thought through carefully by all involved.  Every child with access to the Internet or a mobile devices engages in informal learning outside of school all the time.

The inventors of the Internet were motivated by the desire to put all the world’s knowledge within reach of all the world’s citizens — a utopian goal, to be sure, but one based on a new theory of learning.   If teaching kids with, through, and about technology is not a well-integrated practice in your child’s school, then you have to inquire why not?  Too many teachers teach for their past instead of their students' present and future.

   The real, hard, painstaking, involved work of educating with technology requires engaging students in their passions and imaginations, and helping them to learn to thrive in the interconnected, global, digital world they have inherited.

(5) What is happening in the classroom that could not be duplicated by a computer?  

  If the answer is “nothing,” then there is a problem.  In fact, I believe that if teachers can be replaced by computers, they should be.  By that I mean if a teacher offers nothing that your child can’t get from a computer screen, then your child might as well be learning online.  On the other hand, no screen will ever replace a creative, engaged, interactive, relevant, and inspiring teacher, especially one who takes advantage of the precious face-to-face experience of people learning together. Collective, communal, collaborative learning is key to many of the ways we all work now, often in collaborative and distributed ways.   How is the school working to teach real, human, management, leadership, and collaborative skills in the unique environment of the classroom?  

(6) How suitable is the form of online learning to the skills and interests of the individual learner? 

There are some skills, lessons, and other forms of knowledge that can be mastered very successfully online.  After years of trying, I finally learned to Moonwalk a few years ago from a simple YouTube tutorial made by Ange DeLumiere who has a special genius for guessing what his nearly 9 million viewers have been doing wrong before offering a correction.  In more serious subjects, that’s called a “paradigm shift.”  On the other hand, this year I helped tutor a gifted student who had already successfully taken many online courses in the computational and natural sciences with an online Freshman Composition course where he was struggling.  No wonder!  The course was less about learning than about jumping over hurdles and through rhetorical hoops.  I’m not sure I could have earned an A in this (obstacle) course.  The point is there are good and bad courses that work for different reasons, skillsets, and people.   

(7) Why do you want to learn online?  

Just as there are a great variety of learning styles and a range of quality in the online courses available, there are different reasons for taking courses.  Choice is a key factor.   I didn’t suffer much if I couldn’t learn to Moonwalk from an online tutorial.   The student I tutored would have had to retake a course, repay tuition, and might not have earned a degree without passing Freshman Composition.  I hope to take an astronomy class offered by (free) Khan Academy and I’m looking for a good online drawing class. Again, my motivation is that I want to learn these things and my travel schedule does not permit my enrolling in an actual class.  A well-constructed online learning environment offers me tremendous choice and possibility.  This is a luxury for me, a convenience.  That is almost opposite of the forms of for-profit charter schools that are being set up in many impoverished areas, ostensibly to “save” failing schools but ultimately to enrich shareholders.

  

These seven questions can help anyone sort the apples from the oranges in regard to online learning and educational technology. Not all online learning is the same. Neither is all face-to-face learning. At this confusing moment in the history of education, we have to be willing to look critically at the possibilities, to sort out the clichés and the hyperbole, and make pragmatic decisions about what works and does not work for us and for our children.

Learning is always personal, intimate, specific. Our discussions of the pros and cons of different kinds of learning have to be equally so. To settle for any less — in one direction or the other — is to shortchange one of the most important conversations we can be having right now.

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