Last week CANeLearn CEO, Randy LaBonte, contributed a guest blog entry for Virtual School Meanderings. This week we have re-produced that entry here. To leave a comment, please visit the original entry at:
Randy LaBonte has been a senior level executive for over 30 years in K-12 and post-secondary education. As lead consultant at the BC Ministry of Education he was involved in the development of policy, agreements, and e-learning standards, led and implemented the Quality Review process for BC online K-12 schools. His work in the post-secondary sector included the development of a Staff Enhancement Plan and Certification Program for Alberta-North community coordinators and assisting eCampusAlberta with its online program of services to member institutions including online professional development. Randy is currently CEO of the Canadian eLearning Network (CANeLearn – http://new.canelearn.net) and teaches K-12 teachers online at Vancouver Island University and CANeLearn.
Microsoft, of all things, is warning that poor use of technology is hurting rather than helping learning (see https://news.microsoft.com/en-au/features/microsoft-launches-transforming-education/). On the surface an interesting, albeit relevant, statement, but from a technology company where the focus is typically technology first? Why the concern about use, why now? The headline is supported by the launch of a Microsoft “research-based” guide on how schools should be transforming education. Where did the claim and this focus on change processes come from and why a guide to ‘transform education’ from Microsoft – a business and technology leader, not a pedagogical one?
To begin, Microsoft is now competing with Google, Samsung, and even Tesla in an attempt to grab a share of the K-12 classroom market reportedly worth billions internationally. This brings to light a number of questions about Microsoft’s reason and timing of this announcement and publication:
- Is this part of Microsoft’s strategy to break into the education market?
- Is the headline a deliberate diversion away from putting technology first only to bring the focus back later?
- What is the source of the research supporting the publication and claim?
- Is the research used consistent with other published, peer-reviewed research on technology implementation?
The skeptic in me wonders if this is a deliberately constructed argument designed for a specific outcome favourable to Microsoft’s bottom line. Was the selected research only supportive of the main argument? Consistent with other research on the topic? Or was it just a deeper dive into a sales pitch like the one on their education website’s homepage, where the claim is for tech to “unlock limitless learning, achieve better learning outcomes, save teachers time, and find affordable, easy to manage devices”. Time to dig in a little deeper here to see what is going on…
We all know how the introduction of new technologies has been heralded as innovation that will transform education. From the printing press and mass distribution of books to the onset of radio and television enabling mass audio and video transmission, all new technologies were expected to impact traditional education delivery. Recently, increased access to the internet though the use of mobile devices has been claimed as the ‘game changer’ for education transformation (see http://www.scienceisaverb.com/Mobile%20Learning%20Transforming%20Education,%20Engaging.pdf). Yet, somehow this transformation seems not to be taking hold. In most of the neighbourhood schools my grandkids attend, things seem pretty much the same as when I used to teach, or even when I attended school as a student. I broke into teaching in the exciting times of the 70’s when we dodged our way through monolithic television/VCR combinations – new innovation that was supposed to replace us. Later we had to get them out of the storage closets to make room for Smartboards. Andy Hargreaves and Ivor Goodson sum up changes in education over time in their 2006 well-cited Education Administration Quarterly journal publication Educational Change Over Time? The Sustainability and Nonsustainability of Three Decades of Secondary School Change and Continuity. Hargreaves and Goodson interviewed and observed education leaders while consolidating meta data about innovative practice adoption and found that most education change practices ignored the political and historical context of where that change was to occur. The result? They found that tradition eventually overrode any innovative practice steering it back to time-worn, standard practice.
Yong Zhao’s research on innovation and technology adoption has led to a model of conditions for classroom technology innovation (see Table 1 page 490 at http://crcsalon.pbworks.com/f/Conditions+for+Classroom+Technology+Innovations.pdf). The research indicates that successful implementation of any new technology or innovation is dependent on three factors: the teacher – their knowledge of the pedagogical-technological compatibility and cultural context; the context/school – human and technical infrastructure as well as cultural context; and the innovative project itself – connection to school culture, resources, and existing practices.
While we may agree that education transformation is likely a good thing, existing models of innovation typically only address development of a plan for successful change without considering issues related to the context within which the innovation is to occur. As noted by Zhao and others, successful innovation requires an understanding of context, teacher knowledge, and connections to existing practice.
Why the incessant call for innovation and education change despite the limited results? Why has Microsoft joined in this chorus? What transformation? How? For what end? By what means? While I personally cannot take too much issue with Microsoft’s headline on the surface, peeling back the layers of the argument to understand the assumptions at the base and its selection and construction of data to support its premise are key components in a critical review of published claims. This type of review is often overlooked as it takes time and effort, not always available to us in our fast-paced world of constant information flow.
I would argue that Microsoft’s views are shaped by the corporation’s strengths and corporate agenda. Not an unusual claim to make for anyone, including me. My views are influenced by my own assumptions and experience in both education and the corporate world that surrounds it. For example, Microsoft claims in their publication that mobile phones are inferior to laptops and tablets with pens in supporting effective learning. Interestingly, Microsoft’s experience with mobile technology is limited as the Windows Phone never took off, yet the company is successful in sales of tablets, oh, and the MS Surface tablet pens are also sold at a premium. Bias? An argument founded on selective information? Their claim of the failings of mobile technologies in learning is supposedly backed up by renowned Finnish educator, Pasi Sahlberg, who was cited as stating cell phones should be banned yet in his own words it is not about a simple ban rather the deliberate and intentional use of a particular technology to achieve better educational outcomes. So it’s not about the technology? Or is it?
While the news headline flows suspiciously into the “its not about technology but pedagogy” narrative, a deeper read in Microsoft’s new book Transforming Education is still worth the journey. Claimed as a “landmark book, built on almost three decades of research, evidence and experience [that] delivers important and practical guidance for schools which want to ensure optimal learning outcomes for all students”, the 139-page book is a consolidation of quotes from well-known proponents of change in education – Daniel Pink, George Siemens, Michael Fullan, and John Hattie to name a few. The book lays out generalized steps to engage in transformation such as beginning with a clear and shared purpose, using evidence-based research, and developing effective communication strategies and planned support. It offers common sense advice and templates to assist in the planning and change process. It provides tips on choosing technology and ensuring guidelines are in place for its use. All useful, yet inevitably the process to be followed lands on the suite of tools and technological environments Microsoft supports. Detailed implementation plans are provided for particular sets of technologies and tools that the selected research supports.
Why the solution found in Microsoft’s collection of tools? It comes back to the drive to compete against other tech giants to ‘own’ the education space. To accomplish this why not claim to have the solution that makes life easier for educators? Easy to implement strategies based on a selection of research that leads educators to use of proprietary technology. Uni-dimensional thinking and replicable templates that simplify change in a multi-dimensional world. 20-second sound bytes that gain attention and get educators onboard the Microsoft change train. Simple, easy to implement solutions and tools that take the guessing and trial out of selecting the right technology and its application. The only problem with this type of solution, what about the political and historical context it is applied in? Where is the solution to the Hargreaves and Goodson identified problem that such changes seldom take hold? The requisite knowledge and skill sets within the context of the school itself?
Google, Microsoft’s main competitor in the K-12 education sector, also has its own pitch but their’s is clearly on the technology and tools it provides to help educators. Goggle’s focus is much more on technology first and helping teachers use its suite of tools to make their work easier, and thereby increasing learning opportunities. Google does not lay claim to understand pedagogy, rather the skill sets teachers would need to use technology to support their pedagogical work. Despite this approach, Google’s solution comes with a hidden cost that seems to come with the ultimate loss, like in Facebook’s case, of identity and personal data to giant databases and algorithms that use that data to serve us selective information and products. Parents are now getting leery of the giveaways and use of ‘free tools’ (see http://www.cbc.ca/radio/spark/episode-401-1.4694935/as-google-for-education-tools-enter-classrooms-across-canada-some-parents-are-asking-to-opt-out-1.4694939). Microsoft seems to be avoiding the data collection trap by promoting a whole ‘pedagogical package’ as a wrapper to convincing educators to use its technology.
What should educators learn from this? First, if it seems too good to be true… Well, it could be, but it might not even be useful. Critique, reflect, consider, then apply. If a new ‘innovation’, technology, or change process improves your ability to engage deeper learning, by all means invest in it. If there is little or no educational, academic, or evidence-based research to back up the claims, be very skeptical. When the debate digresses to the choice of being a Microsoft or Google school district, maybe the question should be why be any of them? How do we keep the focus on learning, not free tools and advice that is promoted as innovative solutions that will transform teacher practice. Somehow these promises never seem to transform much of anything in our time-entrenched education system, just sell us more tech.
Randy LaBonte is currently CEO of the Canadian eLearning Network (CANeLearn – http://new.canelearn.net) and teaches K-12 teachers online at Vancouver Island University and CANeLearn.