My last day of camping at the beach for my summer break was interrupted by a phone call from Andrew Patterson at Radio Live wanting to interview me regarding an article in the New York Times titled Teachers Resist High-Tech Push in Idaho Schools. (unfortunately their 7-day Catch-up feature isn't working so a recording of the interview doesn't seem to be available.) The interview helped 'lurch' me out of holiday mode and begin thinking about some of the issues that are bound to face me as I return to work in the new year.
The NYT article reports on the overwhelming decision of the state legislature to pass a law requiring all high school students to take some online classes to graduate. To enable this to happen, students and their teachers were to be given laptops or tablets. The idea was to establish Idaho’s schools as a high-tech vanguard.
Naturally, such a decision will face criticism and resistance from some and be greeted enthusiastically by others, with all shades of response between – partcularly because of the compulsory nature of the decision. It seems that it's much more acceptable if such initiatives have some degree of 'buy-in' (or 'opt-out?') rather than making it compulsory. In this case (as in others around the world) the Idaho state legislature appears to have been persuaded by the argument that this isn't something that they can afford to leave to chance, and that providing all of their students with some experience of online learning should be an essential part of their schooling experince.
In my interview with Andrew he asked me whether I thought this sort of thing is a sign of things to come – including here in NZ. I answered with an emphatic 'not only is this a sign of things to come, it's really another illustration of a trend that's been building up over the past decade or so'.
He asked about what evidence we have of the benefits or impact of ICTs on learning, and I referenced BECTA's research on the impact of digital technologies on learning. He quizzed me about Orewa College requiring students to bring iPads to school in 2012 and I explained that Orewa is just one of a growing number of schools that are making the decision to require laptops for students through adopting a BYOD approach. In regards to the introduction of online learning, I explained that the time for virtual learning has indeed arrived, and explained the growth of activity in the Virtual Learning Network in NZ over the past decade.
Returning to the NYT article, however, the title of it reflects a bias in the perspective it represents; Teachers Resist High-Tech Push in Idaho Schools. this resistance is qualified further into the article:
"Some teachers, even though they may embrace classroom technology, feel policy makers are thrusting computers into classrooms without their input or proper training. And some say they are opposed to shifting money to online classes and other teaching methods whose benefits remain unproved…" and "Teachers are resisting, saying that they prefer to employ technology as it suits their own teaching methods and styles. Some feel they are judged on how much they make use of technology, regardless of whether it improves learning."
Now I completely agree with the need for proper training, and the need to demonstrate the value in any new initiative, but I can't help feel this article exposes some of the 'avoidance' thinking I see creeping into some of the discourse in this area, and the naivity of some of the claims being made. Take for instance the main argument attributed to teacher Ms Rosenbaum who claims that rather than use technology she'd prefer to engage students with questions – the Socratic method. Those who've been around the education traps for a while will understand the Socratic method is a form of guided questioning, of teaching by asking rather than telling. It's not about face-to-face or online – it's about a pedagogical approach that could be used in both circumstances.
There's no inherent face-to-face requirement for the Socratic method – the success of this approach lies in the careful design of the questions and how the answers are responded to, rather than the physical arrangement of the teacher and learner(s). I first came across reference to the Socratic method in my early studies in distance education, when my lecturers referred to the adoption of the principles of the Socratic method in approaches to instructional design for correspondence materials, and later, online discussion forums.
In The January 2009 issue of The Journal of Educators Online, Bridget Arend from University of Denver wrote a paper titled Encouraging Critical Thinking in Online Threaded Discussions (PDF) in which she explored how asynchronous discussions within online courses influence critical thinking among students. In it she notes…
"The success of the technique seen in this study is consistent with the literature on inquiry methods of teaching, commonly known as the Socratic method, which is often suggested for online discussions (Bender, 2003; Garrison & Anderson, 2003)." (Page18)
Jan tucker and Patricia Neely in the June 2010 issue of the International Journal of Technology and Distance Learning titled Using Web Conferencing and the Socratic Method to Facilitate Distance Learning in which they describe the success of using synchronous online technologies to facilitate/enable the sort of question-based teaching and learning based on the Socratic method.
Seems to me that the main argument here is simply a bad personal experience with online learning, which is now being dressed up with 'edu-speak' to thinly disguise a personal preference;
"[Ms Rosenbaum] said she was mystified by the requirement that students take online courses. She is taking some classes online as she works toward her master’s degree, and said they left her uninspired and less informed than in-person classes. Ms. Rosenbaum said she could not fathom how students would have the discipline to sit in front of their computers and follow along when she had to work each minute to keep them engaged in person."
My own daughters would argue the following based on their experience of face-to-face secondary schooling and university work (in some of their classes):
"We are mystified by the requirement that students take face-to-face classes… we cannot fathom how students have the discipline to sit in front of their desks and follow along when they have to work each minute to keep themselves engaged."