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Enough hardware, already!

Schools may see more impact if they look past hardware.

Schools may see more impact if they look past hardware.

Guess the years: a computer in every classroom; internet access in every school; 1:1 laptops for middle or high school students; an interactive whiteboard in every classroom; 3D projectors to make content more engaging.  Now, tell me how education outcomes have improved since 1985 when the goal was a computer in every classroom.  According to the test scores, there has been no significant improvement.  And now that we need to teach 21st century skills, our schools are further from success than they were in 1985.

So why hasn’t technology helped to improve education the way it has made manufacturing more productive, the way it has made financial services more profitable, or the way it has transformed the retail experience through online reviews, recommendations, and shopping?

There is a simple answer: educators have been obsessed with hardware.

The successful modernization of manufacturing, financial services and retail have been supported by software running on pretty much whatever was available.  Mainframe, minicomputer, PC, or portable device using infra-red connection, radio, or Wi-Fi hot spot–nobody really cared.  The essence of the transformation was achieved through software.

Resource planning, process simulation and spreadsheets in manufacturing, yield maximization and customer resource management systems in financial services, and community-building software combined with targeted advertising in retail were used to revolutionize their industries. The use of these applications led to rapid positive shifts in customer experience, reduced costs and dramatic changes among industry leaders and laggards.

Compare those three industries with education, where more than 80 percent of technology funds are spent on hardware and wiring, leaving less than 20 percent for software and training.  The rule of thumb in business is 1/3 hardware, 1/3 software, 1/3 training and support.  After spending 10 percent on software and 5 percent on training, educators wonder why they don’t see significant impact.  The answer is that they have not invested adequately in software and the training to ensure its use.

But, educators respond, we need hardware before we can run software.  True enough–but not an excuse for inappropriate investment.  A better model is to select the software that will have the largest possible educational impact.  Then, spec out the amount you can afford using the one-third rule and buy that much.  Install it, train instructors and students, use it and then, measure the results.  If they were positive, use the success to justify another round of investment.  But, be careful, you might need something different for the next group of students!  If the results were not positive, analyze the problem and try to fix it–are you targeting the right students, did you achieve greater than 80 percent utilization in year one, did you provide adequate support for new users?  Those are the three most common points for failure.

Only after considering those failure points, and others, you need to ask yourself if you should abandon your investment and try another.  That is the second major difference between education and industry.  In education, we like to try new things.  In industry, they work to make their investments successful.  Why don’t we do the same?  Often we worry that our jobs are at risk–won’t technology replace us?  No–teachers will never go away.  Our roles will change–from giving performances that provide information in an entertaining way to deeper and more satisfying relationships with our students as we guide their personal learning journeys.  Administrators won’t disappear.  They will shift from responding to daily crises to leading and guiding teachers, students, parents and community members through technology-supported planning.

Once we see those new roles, perhaps we can seize the tools that will help us fulfill them.

The software tools:
•    virtual teaching and learning environments that are as easy to use as social networks, yet as powerful as amazon.com’s 1-Click shopping tool is to the retail market
•    assignment tools that use existing assessment data to help us predict which students will respond positively to different teaching methods and curriculum materials, and then suggest assignments based on their analysis
•    skill development software that ensures all students master basic reading, writing, calculation, problem solving and technology skills
•    professional community building tools that help teachers and administrators share their experiences and learn from their peers

All of these tools exist today, yet most teachers and administrators are not aware of them.  They are distracted by netbooks, interactive whiteboards and 3D projectors.  Well, the solution is in front of you.  Search the web or a conference exhibit hall.  Try software demos the way you would flip through books in a bookstore.  Don’t let yourself get distracted anymore.  The improvement of education will be enacted through the software applications you choose.  Go choose them well.

Jon Bower is President of it’s learning, inc., and former CEO of Lexia Learning Systems and Soliloquy Learning.  He has been exploring the role of technology in educational improvement since the late 1970’s.

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Comments:

  1. harry674

    March 30, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Mr. Bower has put his finger on the most important aspect of technology in education. The rush to hardware has strangled the budget for software and training. In recent years, interactive whiteboards have been the worst offender by unnecessarily draining dollars from other, more effective programs. A teacher can get by nicely with an LCD projector with a computer and Internet connection. The latter two are required anyway.

    The absolute best situation has a technology injection that improves learning outcomes AND reduces budget costs. Only software can achieve that result.

    I’ve seen it happen with the assignment of online science labs as homework. These are real experiments, not simulations or animations. An entire course of labs costs less than one in-class experiment. Well over 100 real experiments with individual data collection using students’ judgment and care cost about $5 per student in this particular case. Complete records of all student work are kept. Students do lab reports in a clear, consistent format online. And so it goes.

    I’m making the point that technology need not drain budgets. Eventually, new technology ideas will enhance the teacher and student experiences, will save money, and will expand our learning horizons. Anyone pushing gimmicks and gizmos should be subjected to very close scrutiny.

  2. harry674

    March 30, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Mr. Bower has put his finger on the most important aspect of technology in education. The rush to hardware has strangled the budget for software and training. In recent years, interactive whiteboards have been the worst offender by unnecessarily draining dollars from other, more effective programs. A teacher can get by nicely with an LCD projector with a computer and Internet connection. The latter two are required anyway.

    The absolute best situation has a technology injection that improves learning outcomes AND reduces budget costs. Only software can achieve that result.

    I’ve seen it happen with the assignment of online science labs as homework. These are real experiments, not simulations or animations. An entire course of labs costs less than one in-class experiment. Well over 100 real experiments with individual data collection using students’ judgment and care cost about $5 per student in this particular case. Complete records of all student work are kept. Students do lab reports in a clear, consistent format online. And so it goes.

    I’m making the point that technology need not drain budgets. Eventually, new technology ideas will enhance the teacher and student experiences, will save money, and will expand our learning horizons. Anyone pushing gimmicks and gizmos should be subjected to very close scrutiny.

  3. rclegg

    March 30, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Great observations. Here are a fewof mine after trying to sell innovative software into schools over the last 4 years:

    1. The purchasing agent is so far removed from the children that they don’t know what to buy. Secondly, they buy things that “work for everyone” and are not niche products. Therefore you don’t see impact, you see diluted products designed for everyone.

    2. Sales forces and the sales channels are dominated by the big text book companies. Purchasing agents rely on the brand name so they can’t be blamed for making any mistakes.

    3. teachers are so pressured for time using the text books and standard curriculum that they won’t use a product that requires any time to implement (software that is effective is comprehensive and in depth). It therefore gets relegated to use on a Friday or thrown into the library for “fun” and extra options for work. So it never gets used to the full potential.

    4. IF, IF, you follow the scenario of having many kinds of software doing interesting and substantial work in the classroom, teachers will be overburdened learning the admin features of each program not to mention the content in the programs. Think of all the set up codes for access for individual students so progress and grades can be tracked. Every piece of software does it differently. It’s a mini-nightmare watching teachers not computer savvy and not from the digital generation manage kids passwords and log in procedures.

    5. Last, the content. If the software is truly innovative, engaging, and full of content, the teacher will be required to know how the software runs and works so they can answer questions. This is the training you mention. The budgets for training only allow a day or so. There’s no way for a teacher to be familiar with all the content. So when kids dive in and really embrace the learning, the teacher is lost.

    For example, imagine a complex science simulator with a huge library of experiments. A child randomly picks experiment 24 and starts having problems half way through. The teacher floating around the classroom pops over and won’t be familiar with what’s going on, the interface, or the objectives. And that’s assuming there’s only one piece of software from one company in the classroom. What if kids have found a totally different simulator, application, or game?

    While many claim the teacher “role” will change to a guide on the side, the problem becomes one of accountability. The administrator who pops in to see what’s going on will expect the teacher to know what’s happening. if the teacher doesn’t know how the software works, what the kids are doing and learning, it quickly gets removed. Plus, have you seen kids at the computer? Many will take any chance they get just to fool around.

    It’s similar in business. The manager walks in and expects to see the employee working hard. If what’s happening is unfamiliar to the manager, or if it looks like the computer is doing the work and not the employee, the manager gets very uncomfortable and insists everyone goes back to the old ways so he can monitor you.

    Bottom line, the solution to our education system will not come from within or be implemented there.

  4. rclegg

    March 30, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Great observations. Here are a fewof mine after trying to sell innovative software into schools over the last 4 years:

    1. The purchasing agent is so far removed from the children that they don’t know what to buy. Secondly, they buy things that “work for everyone” and are not niche products. Therefore you don’t see impact, you see diluted products designed for everyone.

    2. Sales forces and the sales channels are dominated by the big text book companies. Purchasing agents rely on the brand name so they can’t be blamed for making any mistakes.

    3. teachers are so pressured for time using the text books and standard curriculum that they won’t use a product that requires any time to implement (software that is effective is comprehensive and in depth). It therefore gets relegated to use on a Friday or thrown into the library for “fun” and extra options for work. So it never gets used to the full potential.

    4. IF, IF, you follow the scenario of having many kinds of software doing interesting and substantial work in the classroom, teachers will be overburdened learning the admin features of each program not to mention the content in the programs. Think of all the set up codes for access for individual students so progress and grades can be tracked. Every piece of software does it differently. It’s a mini-nightmare watching teachers not computer savvy and not from the digital generation manage kids passwords and log in procedures.

    5. Last, the content. If the software is truly innovative, engaging, and full of content, the teacher will be required to know how the software runs and works so they can answer questions. This is the training you mention. The budgets for training only allow a day or so. There’s no way for a teacher to be familiar with all the content. So when kids dive in and really embrace the learning, the teacher is lost.

    For example, imagine a complex science simulator with a huge library of experiments. A child randomly picks experiment 24 and starts having problems half way through. The teacher floating around the classroom pops over and won’t be familiar with what’s going on, the interface, or the objectives. And that’s assuming there’s only one piece of software from one company in the classroom. What if kids have found a totally different simulator, application, or game?

    While many claim the teacher “role” will change to a guide on the side, the problem becomes one of accountability. The administrator who pops in to see what’s going on will expect the teacher to know what’s happening. if the teacher doesn’t know how the software works, what the kids are doing and learning, it quickly gets removed. Plus, have you seen kids at the computer? Many will take any chance they get just to fool around.

    It’s similar in business. The manager walks in and expects to see the employee working hard. If what’s happening is unfamiliar to the manager, or if it looks like the computer is doing the work and not the employee, the manager gets very uncomfortable and insists everyone goes back to the old ways so he can monitor you.

    Bottom line, the solution to our education system will not come from within or be implemented there.

  5. anilkm3944

    March 31, 2010 at 1:48 am

    Yes, we are top-heavy with hardware. No more please!!

    We need to switch over to a regime where the only hardware tools we need are the ones already there with most of us – a computer and a broadband connection. We need to lay more stress on Online Learning.

    Companies like Eduwizards ( http://www.eduwizards.com/ ), are doing great work in this regard. They have a huge tutor bank of qualified and certified tutors, post tutor reviews to promote transparency, are affordable and are available 24/7.

    Enough hardware please! More stress on tutors and software.

  6. anilkm3944

    March 31, 2010 at 1:48 am

    Yes, we are top-heavy with hardware. No more please!!

    We need to switch over to a regime where the only hardware tools we need are the ones already there with most of us – a computer and a broadband connection. We need to lay more stress on Online Learning.

    Companies like Eduwizards ( http://www.eduwizards.com/ ), are doing great work in this regard. They have a huge tutor bank of qualified and certified tutors, post tutor reviews to promote transparency, are affordable and are available 24/7.

    Enough hardware please! More stress on tutors and software.

  7. computerhead

    March 31, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Very good article and following comments.

    Yet productivity comparisons to business can often be less-than-useful.

    Where I (and many other teachers) work, technology funds are grossly
    inadequate. So what we have can barely get enough hardware and
    wiring–let alone software and training.

    I would take issue with the idea that K-12 has not improved. Everybody has sport knocking it. As if business and finance has been doing so great lately : -)

    Educational technology–especially the Internet–has transformed the educational world. That’s improvement.

  8. computerhead

    March 31, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Very good article and following comments.

    Yet productivity comparisons to business can often be less-than-useful.

    Where I (and many other teachers) work, technology funds are grossly
    inadequate. So what we have can barely get enough hardware and
    wiring–let alone software and training.

    I would take issue with the idea that K-12 has not improved. Everybody has sport knocking it. As if business and finance has been doing so great lately : -)

    Educational technology–especially the Internet–has transformed the educational world. That’s improvement.

  9. kerryk

    April 7, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    Comments to eschool news

    I teach in a small private school in the Los Angeles area; my wife teaches in LAUSD, the nation’s second largest school district. My comments are thus based on these two poles of observation.

    The comparison Mr. Bower makes between business and education is useful in one regard: businesses function to produce profit – a clearly quantifiable outcome that can guide all other decisions. The decisions themselves may not be good, but they are guided by a measureable effect that is generally agreed upon.

    Education has none of this clarity, and in some respects cannot be quantified neatly at all. What is to be taught and how it is to be taught are at the heart of all issues swirling around education, and the outcomes are only marginally quantifiable in the sense that businesses use the term. If test scores are the ultimate “deliverable,” then other skills that are not as “testable” may be, and often are, neglected.

    What we can probably agree on is that dropout rates have become frightening, and businesses must engage in a huge amount of remedial training for many workers (white-collar and tertiary labor alike) because they lack basic skills. This is the more pressing issue – and the overt focus on hardware (cheerfully perpetuated by the computer-industrial complex pushing new product iterations on schools) is a dangerous distraction from the real crisis in education.

  10. kerryk

    April 7, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    Comments to eschool news

    I teach in a small private school in the Los Angeles area; my wife teaches in LAUSD, the nation’s second largest school district. My comments are thus based on these two poles of observation.

    The comparison Mr. Bower makes between business and education is useful in one regard: businesses function to produce profit – a clearly quantifiable outcome that can guide all other decisions. The decisions themselves may not be good, but they are guided by a measureable effect that is generally agreed upon.

    Education has none of this clarity, and in some respects cannot be quantified neatly at all. What is to be taught and how it is to be taught are at the heart of all issues swirling around education, and the outcomes are only marginally quantifiable in the sense that businesses use the term. If test scores are the ultimate “deliverable,” then other skills that are not as “testable” may be, and often are, neglected.

    What we can probably agree on is that dropout rates have become frightening, and businesses must engage in a huge amount of remedial training for many workers (white-collar and tertiary labor alike) because they lack basic skills. This is the more pressing issue – and the overt focus on hardware (cheerfully perpetuated by the computer-industrial complex pushing new product iterations on schools) is a dangerous distraction from the real crisis in education.