Using Technology to Support Real Learning in Alberta Schools


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using technology to support real learning first in alberta schools an ata research update may 2010 dr stephen murgatroyd innovation expedition dr j-c couture alberta teachers association


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© copyright 2010 unauthorized use or duplication without prior approval is strictly prohibited isbn 978-1-897196-86-1 the alberta teachers association 11010 142 street nw edmonton ab t5n 2r1 telephone 780-447-9400 or 1-800-232-7208


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contents iii preface 1 executive summary 3 introduction 5 learning technologies in alberta a cultural historical framework 7 the key investments 9 early adopters and early majority 12 returns on investment in ict in k to 12 education 13 the changing nature of learners a contested landscape 16 what continues to drive scenario 1 in alberta 19 moving to scenarios 2 and 3 23 systemic barriers to transformative change 25 unpacking the chimera of transformative change 31 future directions 33 conclusion 34 references an ata research update i


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ii using technology to support real learning first in alberta schools


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preface the explosive growth in digital technologies during the last three decades has profoundly affected virtually every facet of modern life from our interpersonal relationships to our work lives to the way in which we access goods and services nowhere has the application of technology raised more controversy than in the realm of k to 12 education at one extreme enthusiasts have promoted technology as a magic bullet that will transform the delivery of education and give students access to a range of information whether in the form of text video images or audio that would have been unimaginable even a few years earlier at the opposite extreme are those who argue that no technology however sophisticated can ever play more than a minor role in the teaching­learning process true learning these critics maintain has almost nothing to do with the acquisition of information and nearly everything to do with establishing connections between ideas and concepts such higher-order thinking skills they argue can be instilled only through the kind of ongoing teacher­student interaction that has always been the mainstay of the traditional classroom in this monograph j-c couture an executive staff officer with the alberta teachers association and stephen murgatroyd a consultant with innovation expedition contend that we need to step back from this debate for a moment and focus on a much more basic question namely how will pedagogical practices and the curriculum need to change in order to truly prepare students to participate meaningfully in the knowledge-based and globally interconnected world of the 21st century only when we have fully answered that question the authors maintain should we begin contemplating the role that technology might play in facilitating and optimizing student learning to do anything else is to put the tools before the learning the monograph is timely for several reasons first it complements the association s real learning first initiative by arguing that efforts to integrate technology into the classroom must begin by rethinking the nature of the teaching­learning process itself to ensure that it meets the needs of today s learners using technology simply to reinforce traditional teaching practices the authors argue is inefficient and unlikely to improve student learning second the monograph addresses many of the issues concerning the future of learning that have been raised in the alberta education minister s inspiring education a dialogue with albertans initiative third the monograph coincides with the release of alberta education s 2010­13 business plan which identifies technology integration as one of the significant opportunities and challenges facing the ministry it is my hope that this monograph will serve to stimulate debate on the true nature of learning in the 21st century and on the role that technology can play in transforming the teaching and learning process so that it optimizes student learning finally i would like to thank executive staff officer philip mcrae and administrative officer harlan james for helping to prepare this document for publication gordon r thomas executive secretary an ata research update iii


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iv using technology to support real learning first in alberta schools


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executive summary changes in technology tend to bring about social cultural and even political changes as people begin to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the new technology and to mitigate against any negative impact that it might inadvertently produce like virtually all areas of human endeavour education has been profoundly affected by the technologies that have emerged during the last 30 years this paper documents both the successes and the failures that have accompanied alberta education s efforts over the last three decades to infuse technology into the k­12 classroom since the early 1980s the government of alberta school districts and individual schools have invested more than $1.5 billion in information and communications technology ict the preponderance of this funding has been used to acquire hardware and software and to keep it up to date spending on professional development and collaborative inquiry to help educators take advantage of these technologies has been paltry by comparison even less time and money have been spent on making the kind of deep cultural changes at the jurisdiction and school levels that are necessary to implement technology in a way that truly enhances student learning what is the legacy of these policy changes and how effective have they been in transforming the teaching and learning process do schools have the ict required to equip today s students with the skills they will need to fulfill their career ambitions what should happen next in terms of investing in ict and developing a strategy for infusing ict into alberta schools during the last three decades alberta education has employed at least four arguments to justify its ongoing investment in ict in alberta schools · ict makes education more efficient · ict helps students to build a sense of community and connect to the world · ict is needed to engage the interest of the so-called digital generation · ict is essential to equip students to function in the knowledge age of the 21st century all four arguments imply that the education system must change however each argument is based on a different set of values and as a result the kind of change that would result by pursuing any one approach to its logical conclusion is quite different each ideology is highly politicized and not necessarily consistent with the others alberta education has tended to embrace a combination of these ideologies at the same time and as a result its itc strategies lack coherence the situation is compounded by the fact that the alberta government has never developed a long-term sustained approach to education funding depending instead on the vagaries of oil and gas revenues and other primary resources alberta education s efforts to undertake innovative technology projects at the school level are also often undermined by a concomitant tendency to want to impose system-level an ata research update 1


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technology itself is not a destiny but a scene of struggle feenberg 2002 15 policy directives implementing ict projects in schools and adapting the curriculum to take advantage of new technologies require a long-term investment of both time and money society needs to look at the ethical physiological and social costs associated with digital connectivity these costs vary with the age gender and socioeconomic status of the young people involved an emerging body of research for example suggests that gazing at a computer screen for long periods of time may not be healthy for children indeed the canadian paediatric society has recently revised its screen-time guidelines to recommend that children under the age of two not be exposed to computer screens at all inspiring albertans the minster of education s recent initiative to consult the public about the future of education promises the opportunity to fundamentally rethink the design of curriculum in the province by contrast alberta education s attempt in the last couple of years to launch a distributed learning strategy has floundered because the government has taken into account neither the interrelationship among the various branches of the education ministry nor the diverse needs of alberta s 1,950 schools what is needed is an open and thoughtful discussion on the technology that schools need to optimize student learning infusing digital technologies in a way that truly supports student learning requires all stakeholders to make a paradigm shift in the way they think about education before investing time and money in technology teachers parents and students must thoroughly examine the various ideologies that drive initiatives to infuse digital technologies into schools a good place to begin is with a survey of the various changes that have resulted from the government s investment of approximately $1.5 billion in educational technology over the last 15 years understanding the past will help clarify what options to choose for the future 2 using technology to support real learning first in alberta schools


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introduction the terms distributed learning blended learning e-learning and laptop learning have entered the lexicon of k to 12 educational practice in the last few years when education policy is ambiguous people contemplating the potential impact that new technologies might have on teaching and learning tend to read in what they want to see and read out what they want to ignore simply inserting the word digital into the discussion for example allows promoters of technology to generate a whole new stream of compelling if imaginary policy goals such as digital literacy and digital citizenship debates about the integration of technology into schools have tended to leave out the sociological back-story that is an account of how a particular technology gets taken up or appropriated by the culture just as educators today for example are anxious that the internet cell phones and other digital devices might harm students so educators at the beginning of the 20th century worried that the telephone the technological innovation of the day might contribute to a breakdown in social cohesion klaver 2009 because technological innovations directly affect the lives of individuals and groups they ultimately affect the culture of institutions that employ them implementing new technologies in schools which are complex cultural institutions can radically change the culture more than a decade ago sumara and davis 1997 pointed out that schools and school systems are complex social entities that maintain their coherence by undergoing spontaneous self-organisation in ways that are not always easy to predict several factors prevent schools from taking full advantage of the benefits of new technologies 1 the various educational partners may have conflicting perspectives about how technologies should be employed 2 the school act and the curriculum limit the room for change 3 some stakeholders are unwilling to consider radical options and 4 some students are unwilling to serve as guinea pigs in what they perceive as a social experiment although some schools remain remarkably resistant to any change murgatroyd 2009 they may have good reason to be skeptical in its recent efforts to infuse learning technologies into schools alberta education has tended to position teachers as passive agents whose primary role is to take advantage of the costly technologies made available to them brooks 2009 1 school communities have also been accused of resisting change for raising such basic questions as why they should have to pay the costs of printing electronically distributed materials that were previously published by the department as educators debate the appropriate role of technology in supporting student learning children and youth are going about their daily lives many students in a comprehensive review of technology policy initiatives in alberta brooks illustrates how well-intended ministry efforts were often driven by the unproven assumption that technology would inherently transform teaching and learning processes one example is the unsuccessful attempt to use videoconferencing to deliver second-language programs p 143 another is the grade level of achievement reporting initiative which focused on getting student grades into the provincial data warehouse 1 since the convenience and the irritations of the internet have become an inseparable part of the banalities of everyday life many have come to see these two worlds as less different than expected [t]he binary opposition between cyberspace and `the real world scholars have come to learn is not nearly as sharp or clean as it s [been made out to be kolko nakamura and rodman 2000 4 cited in friesen 2009 190 an ata research update 3


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all human artifacts including learning technologies embody their own sort of politics see technology not as a way of enhancing learning but as a practical tool for helping them organize their day-to-day activities such as going to school contacting friends and so on the fact that teachers and policymakers still think of ict as innovative and their efforts to infuse technology into teaching as innovative practice would surprise many young people for whom ict especially mobile technologies hand-held devices smartphones and ipods gaming devices xbox playstation and wii and social networking resources myspace facebook and youtube are indispensable elements of their everyday lives many young people regard educators cautious attempts to integrate technology as an indication that they just don t get it teachers themselves are often the first to admit that students have helped them see how to integrate technology into various learning activities and projects as one teacher put it i have learned more from my grade 7 students than i ever did through professional development this situation illustrates a phenomenon confronting all professions once technologies are released they begin to affect all aspects of society in ways that their creators likely never contemplated and cannot control today s family physicians for example have to contend on a daily basis with patients who have diagnosed themselves by researching their symptoms on the internet what physician a decade ago could have predicted the profound impact that the internet would have on the doctor­patient relationship technology is also forcing many professions education law and medicine to become more open and transparent as a result of technology people are no longer willing to accept authoritarianism they want authoritativeness the tasering of polish immigrant robert dziekanski by rcmp on october 17 2007 an event captured on video triggered a public inquiry into the abuse of police authority the reputation of the police force suffered significant harm as a result keller 2009 the rcmp s subsequent efforts to rationalize their behaviour have largely failed to restore public trust in the institution incidents such as this are forcing all professions to accept more responsibility for their judgments and to become more transparent in dealing with the people whether students clients or patients that they serve philosopher langdon winner 1980 notes that all human artifacts embody their own sort of politics he gives as an example new york city s first bridges and streets into wealthy beach areas these roadways were designed in such a way that they could not be accessed by buses only by private automobiles as a result black people most of whom could not afford cars were effectively excluded from entering these parts of the city.2 like other artifacts learning technologies are not politically neutral they impact the teaching­learning process in both intended and unintended ways curriculum theorist ted aoki cautions educators to avoid thinking of learning technologies as nothing more than applications divorced from the people using them he argues that people inevitably change as they become folded into the tools they use aoki 2005 154 let us now look more closely at the complex relationship between culture and technology as it exists in alberta s education system 2 a full historical analysis is available at http gb-06%20domus%2006-04.html 4 using technology to support real learning first in alberta schools


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learning technologies in alberta a cultural historical framework after reviewing the educational polices in place in several countries somekh 2007 concluded that most attempts to integrate technology into the classroom take place according to one of four scenarios each based on certain underlying assumptions about how educational reform occurs scenario 1 policymakers attempt to shoehorn technology into the existing regulatory framework governing curriculum and assessment thereby augmenting the government s bureaucratic centralized control over schools scenario 2 policymakers and educators acknowledge that infusing technology into schools is a complex and uncertain process to encourage innovation and research at the school level they relax controls and accountability mechanisms scenario 3 schools deploy technology as a way of reconceptualizing the curriculum for example teachers may use technology to help students understand how their community fits into the global context and what it means to be a responsible citizen scenario 4 policymakers undertake a series of initiatives to integrate technology into schools all of which fail in the end the teaching­learning process largely reverts to what it was before the historical review that follows will argue that alberta education s efforts to infuse technology into the classroom have for the most part been consistent with scenario 1 the historical review will be followed by a discussion of some promising practices that have emerged in jurisdictions whose efforts to integrate technology are typical of scenarios 2 and 3 in scenario 1 policymakers attempt to fit the available technologies for enriching student learning into the government s current policy and accountability frameworks in this scenario the purpose of technology is to do little more than as one teacher put it amplify a better version of yesterday an example of this approach apparent in many classrooms in alberta today is the use of powerpoint presentations to supplement traditional pedagogical practices another example this one having to do with student assessment rather than curriculum is the move by some jurisdictions to digitize student report cards and make them available to parents online instead of resulting in a more meaningful assessment online reporting tends to produce more data thereby amplifying what were already less-than-optimal assessment practices meaningful assessments by contrast are those that take into account the informed professional judgments of teachers and that involve face-to-face discussions among the teacher the student and the parent couture and judah 2008 3 in scenario 1 teachers often adapt technology in imaginative ways to support the teaching­learning process for example they may use educational software such as serious gaming simulations and applications designed to 3 technology is socially relative and the outcome of technical choices is a world that supports the way of life of one or another influential social group feenberg 2010 the association in collaboration with the alberta assessment consortium and a number of school jurisdictions is currently studying the implications for schools of adopting systems of reporting student progress online an ata research update 5


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meet specific curriculum objectives acquire tools to support students with special needs and encourage students to use the internet to access inquirybased learning tools as well as books journals magazines and audio-video resources yet as long as these teachers work in an accountability regime in which standardized tests and other simple reductionist measures are relied upon to assess student learning the kind of transformational changes in teaching and learning envisaged by andy hargreaves and dennis shirley in their recent book the fourth way 2009 can never occur in today s computerized world the closest many people come to solving a problem in crawford s view is pressing the delete button on their laptop alberta s largely scenario 1 approach to implementing technology has failed for the most part to recognize that technology has the power to transform all aspects of learning from the simplest to the most complex including problem solving as michael crawford explains in his book shop class as soulcraft 2009 technology if used intelligently can bring alive human experience rather than reduce it to the passivity of video gaming and interacting with a screen crawford who is both the owner of a motorcycle shop and a professor of cultural studies points out the irony at the heart of much education policy which on the one hand broods about the importance of producing knowledge workers and on the other ignores the fact that most learning takes place by connecting to the world through direct physical experience such as using one s hands digitization in such a world becomes a cruel joke in simpler times people spent their time solving the basic challenges presented by day-to-day life in today s computerized world the closest many people come to solving a problem in crawford s view is pressing the delete button on their laptop crawford draws a parallel between officer workers who may feel disconnected from the material world as they toil away in their office cubicles and today s high school students many of whom wander aimlessly from class to class feeling an inexpressible sense of loss he suggests that both the office worker and the student would be hard pressed to answer the simple question what did you do today in most schools in alberta to date technology has for the most part been used to help schools achieve an often dizzying array of learning outcomes the grade 7 program of studies for example identifies about 1,300 such outcomes in other words technology has been used to supplement traditional teaching and learning rather than to transform the pedagogical process in most other fields of endeavour publishing banking travel insurance music film animation and to some extent private postsecondary education digital technology has transformed the relationship between the service provider and the end user what has driven the adoption of technology in these sectors has been the need for greater productivity and efficiency aside from a few government-funded showcase projects these same factors by contrast have not driven efforts to implement technology in k to 12 education in alberta one exception has been the alberta initiative for school improvement which has focused on developing a more holistic approach to assessing student progress and has welcomed input from the local school community.4 in 2008 alberta education commissioned an external research team to review the alberta initiative for school improvement aisi the team concluded that aisi was effective in countering alberta s third way accountability framework the team s final report was published as the learning mosaic a multiple perspectives review of the alberta initiative for school improvement aisi by andy hargreaves robert crocker brent davis lori mcewen pasi sahlberg dennis shirley and dennis sumara with maureen hughes alberta education september 2009 4 6 using technology to support real learning first in alberta schools


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drawing on recent research this paper will explore the potential of technology to promote real learning first in alberta s classrooms and to improve student performance in so doing it will examine how alberta s education policy and its leadership and teaching practices will need to change in order to fully capitalize on the more than $1.5 billion that the province has invested in technology since the 1980s the key investments although alberta has invested a great deal of money in technology since the mid-1980s the technology has for the most part been used to support scenario 1 processes and policies based on data provided by the government of alberta school boards technology consultants and coordinators and the ata s educational technology council we believe that alberta has spent more than $1.5 billion during the past 15 years developing a technology infrastructure for education the government has spent $600 million just on building the alberta supernet a broadband network connecting public institutions across the province the remainder has been used to equip schools develop learning objects provide teachers with professional development and support alberta education s technology branch these calculations do not take into account the many other costs associated with owning technology such as the salaries of technical staff and the time spent trouble-shooting system failures.5 initially the government spent most of its budget for technology on such basics as purchasing computers building the supernet developing repositories of learning objects acquiring videoconferencing capability and purchasing software more recently its spending has focused on acquiring software to collect and manipulate student results access jurisdictional data and harmonize business applications and accountability processes indeed in the past few years the government has enhanced its capacity to track everything from student test scores to the business operations of school jurisdictions recently ministry officials have extolled the virtues of the government s ever-expanding data warehouse and of its ability to analyze student achievement data from afar according to the government using technology in this way enables it to enhance system performance david king a minister of education in the lougheed government argues that this fixation with system-level reform and the accumulation of data is just a symptom of a much deeper problem namely the current government s profound distrust of local governance characterized by democratic participation and community-building and a concomitant desire to replace local governance with a system of state-controlled accountability in king s view many of the government s initiatives during the last three decades to infuse technology into education have masked its real motive which is to in 2008 the ata s educational technology council surveyed a sample of district it coordinators school it lead teachers and administrators not surprisingly the survey revealed that up to 10 per cent of a school s budget is now dedicated to sustaining the school s it capacity a figure that is low by current industry standards increasingly jurisdictions are having to bear these costs in the absence of adequate provincial funding 5 alberta has spent more than $1.5 billion during the past 15 years developing a technology infrastructure for education an ata research update 7


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inculcate a culture characterized by governmentality6 and a willingness to accept statism i would argue that for education indeed for all social tasks it is vitally important to maintain an environment in which human relationships not systemic or statistical ones are valued and nurtured i would argue that the well-being of provincial or national democracy depends first of all upon the well-being of local democracy and i believe that it takes a whole village but no one ever said it takes a whole system to raise a child if we lose sight of community if we lose all understanding of what it means to be the public if we accept statism and seek only to make the state s tests the best they can be i am afraid that we will lose forever the chance to put real learning first alberta teachers association 2009d 17 since about 2005 the government s investments in technology have focused on using technology both to enhance learning outcomes and to sustain the business operations of schools and jurisdictions the first hint that alberta education intended to use the same technology for both pedagogical and business purposes appeared in its 2004 learning and technology policy framework the concept resurfaced in alberta education s draft education technology in education policy released on november 14 2009 since the early 1990s the government has undertaken a number of initiatives consistent with a scenario 1 approach what is apparent in each case is that technology has been used to amplify rather than rethink existing policies programs and accountability frameworks here are a few examples of how technology has been layered on to an existing approach · introducing videoconferencing to give students especially those in remote areas better access to programs and teachers 2005 · developing an ict curriculum 2000 onward · encouraging blended learning whereby digital learning objects are used in conjunction with face-to-face instruction 1997 onward · using the supernet to facilitate collaborative learning among schools in alberta 2006 onward · using the internet and communications technologies to deliver facets of the curriculum 1996 onward · researching the feasibility of developing e-textbooks7 2002­04 · using smartboards to facilitate learning 2004 onward · undertaking research on the effectiveness of the emerge one-to-one laptop learning initiative 2007 onward · using ict to facilitate authentic learning tasks 1998 onward ultimately k to 12 education should be about building human relationships in vibrant democratic communities ken chapman cambridge strategies 6 michel foucault coined the term governmentality to describe the mechanisms that modern neo-liberal governments use to produce citizens who actively participate in their own oppression domination or external control his work has been widely embraced by a generation of education policy scholars see foucault 1978 the arrival of new devices on the market such as amazon s kindle reader have overtaken the government s efforts to regulate these applications 7 8 using technology to support real learning first in alberta schools


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although teachers may wish to adopt newer pedagogies a variety of practical barriers often prevents them from doing so most but not all of these initiatives have focused on exploring how the particular technology can be used to support established methods of teaching and learning rather than create new ones the implied rationale seems to be as follows this technology can do so-and-so what can we do with it given the way our schools currently operate the assumption in other words is that technology is to be used to supplement and support the existing learning culture rather than to transform it seldom does the conversation begin by asking the teacher and the student the truly transformative curriculumrelated question where are you in this story 8 scenario 1 thinking is in many ways understandable after all the new technology is by definition emergent and therefore untested in terms of how it affects student learning historically teachers have tended to use proven processes students and parents likewise have predetermined expectations of the process by which learning takes place deviating from these practices and expectations will introduce change which is not always easy to initiate and sustain although teachers may wish to adopt newer pedagogies a variety of practical barriers often prevents them from doing so when policymakers lack a clear understanding of the transformative power of technology the result is often a patchwork of technologies that lacking coherence tend to have little effect on student learning a close examination of even some projects that appear to be transformative often reveals that the strategic intention behind them is to improve student performance on standardized tests to ensure that teachers are complying with the curriculum or to make certain that teachers are being held accountable 8 this question was posed over three decades ago by the reconceptaulist movement initiated by bill pinar and madeline grumet it spawned a generation of curriculum inquiry in alberta schools for more information about the reconceptaulist movement see the worldliness of a cosmopolitan education passionate lives in public service pinar 2009 an ata research update 9



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