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A recent article in Scientific American described how scholars are bringing new rigor to educational research by introducing methods from science and economics. I’m strongly in favor of more rigor in educational research, as well as in the broader social sciences. However, the article itself downplays the challenges involved in this and thus the limitations of experimental research.

This is clearly seen in the lead example discussed in the article, a study by Carnegie Mellon psychologist Anna Fisher and her grad student Karrie Godwin. Fisher noticed that while the walls in her university classroom were barren, a typical elementary classroom was adorned with all kinds of potentially distracting material. So Godwin carried out a small experiment in which two groups of 12 kindergartners listened to three stories about science and then were asked questions on the material. One of the groups heard the stories in a classroom with bare walls, and the other in a classroom decorated with material purchased by Godwin. Analysis of videotapes and the post-test found that the students in the bare classroom were more likely to pay attention and scored higher on the comprehension test.

There are lots of questions about this study, including whether a study of two small groups would yield enough statistical power to draw any conclusions. Let’s put those aside for a second, and assume for the sake of argument that statistically significant results were found. We still have a situation with presumed internal validity, but almost no external validity.

Think, for a minute, of a typical kindergarten classroom. What kinds of things would be found on the walls and in the room, and for what purposes? Well, perhaps the major purpose of kindergarten is to help develop children’s language and literacy ability. And literacy in kindergarten is not taught in isolated lessons, but is rather integrated in throughout the school day. So a teacher would like to have lots of visual materials to support literacy development, such as pictures of the alphabet, phonetic combinations, and sight words, that students could refer to at any time. Beyond that, a teacher would want to create a print-rich environment, with lots of things to read, information about children’s authors, and samples of the children’s own writing–which will also help the students develop their identity as readers and writers. Similar material would typically be displayed in support of numeracy, from numbers, to number facts, to number lines, to geometric shapes.

Of course a teacher also wants to inspire curiosity about how the world works, so there may be science posters, globes, pictures of scientists, and scientific displays. The teacher also wants students to develop positive character, so there may be some school slogans encouraging students to behave respectfully and kindly. The teacher also wants children to school as an inviting and enjoyable environment, so there is reason to make the class colorful and pleasing. Finally, the teacher will likely organize small group work, so there may be various stations organized around the room to facilitate that.

Finally, all these things are chosen by the teacher herself rather than chosen haphazardly by a graduate student for the purpose of a brief study.

Now, it may be the case that, absent all this material, students may be less distracted in hearing a single short story. But the purpose of kindergarten is to develop students’ knowledge, skills, and attitude over the course of a year to prepare them for a lifetime of learning, not merely to help them remember the details of one story.

So, as it turns out, the experiment carried out by Fisher and Godwin is not really that relevant to the true purposes of kindergarten. To shed light on the relationship of display material to achieving those purposes, you would need a very different kind of experiment.

Theoretically, you could randomly assign a large number of kindergarten teachers to either (a) teach in their normally decorated room or (b) teach in a barren room, for an entire year — and then measure the effects on children in a variety of ways. (Even that is limiting, because it doesn’t  measure long-term effects). Very few kindergarten teachers would probably be willing to participate in such an experiment, and, even if willing, their schools or districts might balk. (You can imagine how parents would react to seeing little Johnny in a barren classroom for a year when the class next door is filled with rich learning materials–and then finding out that it is all part of a university experiment). Even if you could find teachers, schools, and districts willing to carry out a study, you would need lots of funding to conduct it. I doubt if there is any funding  agency that would be interested in supporting such a study, or any educational researcher who would be interested in investing the time and effort on such a quixotic quest.

In other words, the only reason that this research question could be investigated experimentally by Fisher and Godwin was because their experiment did not match the real purposes of display material in kindergarten, or the ways that that material is made use of in actual kindergarten classrooms.  To carry out a much more meaningful experiment would be almost impossible. And I doubt anyone will ever bother with such a study, because once we think about the actual purposes of display material in kindergarten classrooms, there are more reasons to think those materials are valuable than harmful. Indeed, once we look at the real world, a recent study of a very high performing school district with 85% Hispanic students, in Union City, New Jersey, found that “word-soaked” classrooms were an essential element of success.

So, by all means, let’s carry out  rigorous experiments in schools. But let us also be cognizant of the limitations and challenges of experimental research in educational settings.

 

 

Larry Cuban has been studying technology in schools for decades. Nearly 30 years ago, he wrote a book on how little previous technologies, including radio, film, and television, were used in schools over the past 100 years.  He wrote another book claiming the same thing would inevitably happen with computers. And he claimed to have evidence for that from his research in Silicon valley schools.

The methodology of that book was odd. He left out elementary schools and middle schools, which have been the two levels of US schooling most willing to experiment with new technology.  The conclusions were even odder, claiming that the limited use he saw in schools would continue forever.  I argued at the time that Cuban was seriously misreading technological, social, economic, and educational trends, and that computers or some other form of digital media would inevitably become ubiquitous in their presence and use in schools.

I just came across an interview with Cuban published about 18 months ago in which he admits he was wrong. As he notes in the interview:

What I reported in Oversold and Underused was minimal teacher and professor use of technology in classrooms. Since then, with new machines appearing on the market and in schools annually, particularly, hand-held devices, I have seen in my research in schools a clear trend line of increasing teacher and student use of new technologies in classrooms. The growth of online schooling and rise of blended learning options have contributed greatly to that trend as well.

However, in trying to defend himself, he still makes two strange claims. One is that students typically use digital devices less than half the school day.  Is this the new standard?  That computers have to be used more than 3 hours a day to contribute to learning?  Of course, even by this measure, it’s only a matter of time.  Once students move from print textbooks to digital reading materials, they will use computers or digital media most of the day, but that’s hardly the issue.

Cuban then complains that uses of technology tend to be “familiar” rather than “imaginative”, citing typical uses such as Internet searches and word processing.  I can hardly think of two more important uses of technology than (1) writing/revising papers, and (2) planning and carrying out research that involves gathering, analyzing, and using information from the Internet.  Why have students do what is “imaginative” rather than what is pedagogically sound?

I admire much of Cuban’s work, and he continues to raise challenging and important questions about technology use in schools. But he was wrong then in his overly pessimistic view and he is wrong now. Students are using digital devices on a regular basis. They are using them a lot and will use them much more in the future.  And some of the uses he portrays as most “traditional” are simply revolutionary compared to what could be done when he and I were children and they are among the most important.

I have long been disappointed by a basic contradiction–my own research and that of others has shown that 1-to-1 laptop programs are very valuable educationally, but such programs have nevertheless been slow to spread in the US. For that reason I became quite interested in the potential of low-cost netbooks using open source software in US schools, because I saw such initiatives as potentially much more affordable. And our research over the last couple of years has shown the great success of one-to-one programs using low-cost open source netbooks, for example in Saugus and in Littleton.

For several years I thought that a price of $250 for an educational laptop would represent a tipping point, sending many more districts to implement 1-to-1 programs. Unfortunately, the recession intervened since I came to that conclusion, and I suspect the price point is now somewhat lower — say $200.

Some would say that OLPC’s xo represents a great $200 educational computer, but research on its use in the field suggests otherwise. Problems with its screen, keyboard, touchpad, and charger cable quickly renders many XOs unusable.  In addition, battery life degrades quickly and the laptop is underpowered. Finally, the tiny screen and keyboard may make it suitable for first grade students, but make it more difficult to use by upper elementary students who are better equipped to actually make good educational use of computers. And, in any case, as it is not available on the retail market, individual schools or districts may not even be able to buy XOs, even if they want to.

Asus has made some excellent sub-$300 netbooks suitable for schools, including the Eee PC 1011PX, which runs for about $270. However, I am particularly excited about a new Asus model, the Eee PC X101, which sells retail for $199. Jim Klein, a guru of low-cost netbooks + Linux in schools, has published a remarkably informative video comparison of the 1011PX and the X101. Much of my remaining comments are gleaned from Jim’s wonderful review.

In addition to being $70 cheaper, the X101 is actually superior to the 1011PX in two important ways.  First, it’s thinner and weighs less, always an important factor for a machine that is being carted around by children, whether within their class or back and forth to home. (Its dimensions are similar to those of a MacBook Air, and it weighs a little less, making it one of the smallest and lightest netbooks with a 10″ screen available.)  Secondly, since the X101 has a solid state drive, it turns on quickly, loads programs quickly, and for many functions performs more quickly then the 1011PX. The solid state drive also makes the X101 more durable, since it lacks moving parts.

All that being said, the 1011PX has some advantages too.  It’s 160GB spinning hard drive has much more capacity than the 8GB hard drive of the X101 (though with Google Apps for Education and other free cloud services, most schools will not find that an issue).  Its dual core processor processer handles certain demanding applications, such as high-definition video, better than the single core processor of the 101X.  Unlike the X101, the 1011PX has a video out port, allowing it to be directly connected to an external monitor or projector. And, perhaps most importantly, the 1011PX comes with the option of a 6-cell battery that will last throughout the school day.  The 101X battery–described as being 3-cell on the Asus Website and as 4-cell in Jim Klein’s YouTube–reportedly lasts about 4 hours.  Depending on how much the laptop is used, and especially after the battery has degraded a bit, it might require plugging in for recharging sometime during the school day (e.g., on a laptop cart).

I have not used either one of these netbooks and certainly can’t offer a definitive perspective. However, if I were a school or district, I would certainly want to try out the 101X to see if it passes muster. And if I represented a large district or a state, I would lobby ASUS to develop a model that combines the advantages of both of these, especially the solid state drive of the X101 and the 6-cell battery of the 1011PX. Throw in a dual core processor, and you’ve probably got the just-right $250 educational laptop–at least until something better comes along!

Oh, one more thing: the X101 and the 1011PX ship with different operating systems, the Linux-based Meego for the former and Windows 7 starter edition for the latter. I would recommend replacing both with the “Ubermix” build of Linux/Ubuntu that Klein has developed and which he generously makes available for download.

You’ve got to hand it to the New York Times.  They always come up with provocative articles about technology in education that really get people thinking and talking. The latest one was, entitled A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute, interviewed a number of technology firm employees who choose to send their children to the private anti-tech Waldorf School. The not-too-subtle point here is that even computer scientists at Google recognize that computers don’t belong in schools.

Here are a number of contrarian thoughts about the article.

(1) The article four Silicon Valley firms: Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Hewlett Packard.  Between them, those firms have tens of thousands of employees, with tens of thousands of children.  A total of 294 children go to the Waldorf School (not all of whose parents work in high-tech industries).  Does that mean that 99% of employees in high-tech firms believe that computers do have a role in education?

(2) Interestingly, earlier then Stanford Professor Larry Cuban wrote a book, Oversold and Underused, the entire purpose of which was to document that schools in Silicon Valley are only using computers a little.  Wouldn’t that suggest that, for most parents, the motivation to put their kids in Waldorf is for different reasons than to escape technology?  Could it be the 9.5 to 1 student-teacher ratio at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, which is less than half the state average, or the school’s focus on fostering creativity rather than teaching to standardized tests? (Unfortunately the large class sizes in public schools and the current national obsession with standardized testing make it difficult to foster creative learning in a public school environment, but effective use of technology is one way to try to do so).

(3) Waldorf Schools share the common belief that computers should not be introduced in elementary school, but they all introduce computers later on (usually somewhere between sixth and ningh grade).  As for regular public schools in the US, only a handful  provide much computer time to children in lower primary grades.  Even schools with 1-to-1 programs typically start them in 6th grade (as in Maine) or sometimes in upper elementary grades.  Differences between Waldorf and most public schools on use of technology in education are not, therefore, on “whether” but rather on “when”.

(4) I have a feeling that even the students at Waldorf in the Peninsula who are not using computers in the classroom until  the eighth grade can quickly and easily learn those for academic tasks such as finding and critically evaluating information online or writing and editing papers.  Why?  Because they are blessed with lots of other advantages in life, including very small student-teacher ratio in school and all sorts of mentoring, support, and equipment at home.  Let’s contrast that with a typical African-American or Latino student in South L.A., who goes to a school with a high student-teacher ratio, less capable peers, and a home situation with little social or economic capital.  Will that student pick up academic use of computers in high school so easily?

The bottom line: what works for a few dozen well-to-do families in an elite private school, while thought-provoking, sheds little light on what would be effective for diverse public schools across the state or country.

As the United States newspaper of record, the New York Times helps shape the national debate about a lot of issues, including those related those to technology and learning.  That certainly happened a few years ago, when the Times published an article by Winnie Hu suggesting that school districts across the country were abandoning one-to-one laptop programs because they weren’t raising test scores.  (For a couple of years after that, journalists around the country called me to ask my opinion as to why so many school districts were abandoning their laptop programs, even though no such phenomenon was occurring). And I expect it will happen again, now that the Times has published an article with an almost opposite conclusion.  The new article, by Matt Richtel, suggest that, far from abandoning technology, schools are embracing digital learning, although, again noting that  technology is not tied to test score gains.

So, here’s my response to Mr. Richtel.

First, schools are not embracing digital learning nearly to the extent that he suggests.  In the business world, technology expenditures brought productivity gains only after all office workers were supplied individual computers. Indeed, there is virtually no walk of life related to knowledge-production among adults–from universities to research centers to businesses–in which those expected to work with information and learn do not have individual access to digital devices.  One-to-one laptop (or tablet) programs are still far from the norm in US schools.  In fact, since the Maine laptop program was launched nearly a decade ago, not a single other state has duplicated its initiative, and I also know of no large city in the US that supplies laptops to all its K-12 students.

Second, the relationship between technology use and test scores is more positive than Richtel suggests.  By focusing in on one exemplar (undoubtedly selected for that reason), Richtel has produced a single example of a high-tech district where test score gains have trailed.  No solid data is presented to prove the point that scores are trailing behind other locations, and lack of gains there may be simply due to its being a very high-performing district that has reached its ceiling.  In fact, our own national review of some 40 published studies of laptops and learning suggests that a negative effects on test scores are rare. And while studies showing no significant differences between laptop and non-laptop classrooms in test score results are common, the most recent studies frequently find a small positive impact on test score results from laptop use.  This has been the case in two of our own recent rigorous comparisons, which have shown positive gains in reading and writing.

Third, test scores are not the be-all and end-all of schools.  Does anybody know, or care, what Steve Jobs’ test scores were?  We are trying to help our youth be competitive in a nation and world that demands both basic skills and the ability to creatively innovate.  Almost everybody agrees that technology programs help the latter, and they may benefit the former in a small way as well. Think, for example, of the award-winning robotics program at Dos Pueblos High School in Santa Barbara started by Amir Abo-Shaeer. Does anybody think that that high-tech program is a waste of money? We need better and more authentic assessments that measure the broad gains that come from use of technology beyond those indicated in multiple-choice test scores.

Finally, in the end it is not the technology itself, but the solid package of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment that improves learning.  And that depends on the goals involved.  In the area of reading, for example, we are now carrying out research with a very promising form of digital scaffolding that has been shown to significantly improve comprehension, retention, and fluency.  In writing, the use of social media for authentic writing has demonstrated success, and can be achieved with very low cost netbooks and open source software.

Richtel is right about one thing in his article: letting technology vendors establish our priorities is not the way to achieve our goals. Rather, when using technology, school districts need to start with the end in mind, and then put together the program to best achieve your goals.

[Final note: for more in-depth discussion of all these issues, see my just-released book: Learning in the Cloud: How (and Why) to Transform Schools with Digital Media.]

“Not Losing to the Rain” is a remarkable poem written by Kenji Miyazawa sometime before his death at the age of 37 in 1933. Miyazawa lived in the Tohoku region of Japan, site of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.  The poem was written in a small black notebook found posthumously in one of Miyazawa’s trunks.

Always well known in Japan, Not Losing to the Rain is being discussed even more today in Japan to both describe and inspire the spirit of the people after the 3/11 disaster.

Here is the translation, courteous of Wikipedia.

not losing to the rain
not losing to the wind
not losing to the snow nor to summer’s heat
with a strong body
unfettered by desire
never losing temper
cultivating a quiet joy
every day four bowls of brown rice
miso and some vegetables to eat
in everything
count yourself last and put others before you
watching and listening, and understanding
and never forgetting
in the shade of the woods of the pines of the fields
being in a little thatched hut
if there is a sick child to the east
going and nursing over them
if there is a tired mother to the west
going and shouldering her sheaf of rice
if there is someone near death to the south
going and saying there’s no need to be afraid
if there is a quarrel or a suit to the north
telling them to leave off with such waste
when there’s drought, shedding tears of sympathy
when the summer’s cold, wandering upset
called a nobody by everyone
without being praised
without being blamed
such a person
I want to become

The effects of the March 11 tragedy have proven more severe than anybody imagined.  The death toll. The death toll is now approaching 11,000 with the total number almost certain to top 20,000.  Just to put this in perspective for Americans, the total death toll of both September 11 and Katrina was less than 5,000.  This is an incredible national tragedy for Japan, certainly the worst since World War II.

Added on top of this is the effect of the ongoing nuclear reactor problems in Fukushima.  Workers at the plant have suffered from overdoses of radiation, and those who live in the immediate vicinity of the plant are in jeopardy as well.  Many have been forced to relocate at great social and economic cost.  Just to give one example of the terrible impact, one organic farmer who lives near the plant has already committed suicide due to the loss of his farm and livelihood.

The Fukushima nuclear crisis is having broader impact as well.  Power rationing is occurring in much of the center and north of the country, and, though it will lessen soon due to moderate spring weather, could pick up again in the heat of summer and the cold of winter.

All that being said, life is gradually returning to normal in Tokyo.  Aftershocks have become less frequent, and radiation readings in the air and water are within the normal range.  Exports of milk and vegetables from Fukushima are being restricted, but we have had no problem finding things we need on grocery shelves.  Stores usually limit milk purchases to one liter per person per day, but if you need more you can simply go to another store. People who have left the city out of caution are steadily returning, and attendance at schools and workplaces is on the rise. Universities, which have been on scheduled break the last couple of months, are scheduled to reopen in April, though some have pushed back the start date to later in the month to allow time to more fully prepare.

We are set to finish our year here in June and return to the United States.  We considered leaving early, but in the end saw no reason to, since aftershocks have subsided and radiational levels here are normal.  Keiko’s family lives in far western Japan, which offers another safe haven in the unlikely event we would need it.  We are looking forward to enjoying our last couple of months in Japan as we continue our research and our children’s schooling.

I can say that for me, the entire experience has been an incredible eye-opener.  I have learned more about Japanese culture in the last few weeks than I had in the entire 17 years my (Japanese) wife and I have been together (and I can even say that I better understand and appreciate my wife because of this deepened understanding of Japanese culture).  I continue to be amazed by stories I read of sacrifice here as well as of social organization before, immediately following, and after the earthquake.  I look forward to witnessing and learning more about the quiet strength of the Japanese people as they rebuild their country in their own way.

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