One of the many important topics education reporters will explore together at the 2017 Education Writers Association National Seminar is “Digital Learning and Classroom Technology.” I consider myself somewhat of a connoisseur of reporting on technology in education and have done my fair share of commentating on and off the record, especially as it involves U.S. K-12 public schools.
In general, I find most reporting on technology in education to be, shall we say, wanting perspective, independence, and critical thinking. Some (too many) even read as if they were advertisements by technology companies – and pro-technology educators and administrators can be almost incomprehensible in describing the what and why of their embrace of technology-enabled school reform and improvement.
Why do you hate transformative efforts to disrupt the status quo & empower learners with 21st century skills smh
— Benjamin Herold (@BenjaminBHerold) May 24, 2017
While I won’t be in attendance, I thought it might be worthwhile nonetheless to suggest five quick story ideas on which I wish more education reporters would focus:
Story Starter 1: What are the experiences of typical students and teachers in using innovative technology tools, services, and applications?
A lot of reporters focus on an imagined future: what will or could happen to students if a technology is adopted or when a school system makes a big bet on a digitally-dependent instructional approach (like ‘personalized’ or ‘blended’ learning, or tablets, or virtual reality, or digital textbooks, or online classes, or computer-based testing, or video games, etc., etc.). While it’s in the nature of writing about technology to be future focused, there are stories to be had in the everyday experiences of teachers and students along the way. This is especially true given how quickly technological fads sweep in and out of schools (remember how excited we were by interactive whiteboards?). Pay extra special attention to the differences in opportunities and experiences among low-income, minority students, and rural students. And, please, don’t fall for the marketing-speak about ‘disruptive,’ ‘transformative,’ ’21st century’ practices. Make your interviewees explain what they mean in plain English.
Story Starter 2: What trade-offs are schools making in purchasing technology?
Schools don’t ‘invest’ in technology; it’s an expense – an expense with many related components (hardware, software, software integration, broadband and WiFi access – in and out of school – technical support, teacher training and professional development). And, those expenses recur year after year after year. Schools spend a lot of money in purchasing this technology, often relying on one-time grants and local bonds/levies. Some schools have no means to pay recurring costs (technology does have a limited lifespan and requires maintenance and repairs) or are amortizing the costs of technology for years beyond its useful life. Most school budgets are not on the upswing and this means for every dollar spent on digital learning, a dollar is not spent somewhere else. Oh, and I promise, there are lots of fun stories to be written about conflicts of interest in school technology purchasing.
Story Starter 3: How are or could schools use open source software and open educational resources to meet their needs?
Yeah, I know, this is a tough pitch to make. It gets in the weeds not only about how technology works, but also in terms of business models and – heaven help us – intellectual property law (because ‘free of cost’ and open are not synonymous). The upside is that if you invest some time in coming up to speed, there are some amazing changes afoot. In the broader technology sphere, there are increasing concerns about consumers being locked into one or more of the big five technology companies – Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft – especially given the monopoly-like power these companies wield. Well, there is a similar technological marketplace battle underway for school budgets and students’ minds. Enter: open educational resources (OER) and open source software. They are part of a technology-enabled social movement focused on shifting power from Silicon Valley (and government) to educators and students – and breaking the economic model that some argue is exploitative of schools (and by extension the taxpayers that fund them).
Story Starter 4: What happens when Johnny’s student record gets hacked?
As schools increasingly rely on technology for teaching, learning, assessment, and school operations, they also increase their vulnerability to being exploited or victimized by a ‘cyber incident.’ Since 2016, I’ve documented about 2 cyber incidents per week affecting U.S. K-12 schools, including incidents of hacking, ransomware, data breaches, and other exploits. Within the last month, we’ve also seen exploits affecting school vendors – from Google to smaller companies such as Edmodo and Schoolzilla. Another angle to this story: K-12 students themselves are responsible for a non-trivial number of these incidents, and school leaders may or may not be well-equipped from a policy perspective to dealing with it.
Story Starter 5: What does the evidence say about how well technology is helping to meet schools’ goals?
While some act as if the interest in assessing technology’s impact on education is new, the fact of the matter is that educators and policymakers have been implementing technological (and by that I mean computing) devices and software in schools for roughly thirty years. Yet, many do not hold research on technology in education to the same standard as other interventions in making purchasing and adoption decisions. There is ahistorical hand-wringing about this by government and private investors, but one has to wonder how ingenuous it is and whether it is more about marketing than building a rigorous knowledge base on how and why technology works, in what circumstances, and with what types of students. The notion that technology in education should only be held to account for different types of outcomes than other school reform and improvement interventions or requires new social science methods to capture evidence is – in a word – hogwash.
So, there you have it: my top five pitches. Others will surely take exception to the list, especially those who have a pet idea or innovation to pitch (invested – figuratively if not also literally – as they are in a specific future direction of both education and technology). Having been at this work since we first started wiring schools to the information superhighway, I tend to be more modest in my ability to predict the future.
Don’t get me wrong: technology is and will have a tremendous impact on schooling as we know it. I believe it is inevitable. Some of that impact will be good; some will be bad (whether unintended or not). Hopefully, it will be a net positive, but only time will tell.