The Future of Education: Transcending the status quo

This is part one of a five-part series.

Where Are We Now? (An overview of the research on digital tools in schools)

Getting a bead on the future of education is a tricky, but necessary exercise. It’s tricky because there are simply too many variables, concerns, and considerations that have to weigh into such a lofty calculus. It’s also necessary because unless we know where we want to go, we’ll never arrive at a desirable destination.

While nobody can predict the future, there is a process we can follow to more reliably extrapolate education’s future. We first have to get a sense of where we are right here and now. Then we have to consider how we got here. Only then can we piece together a heading towards a preferred horizon—and make the necessary course corrections all along the way.

With that in mind, we have to wrap our minds around the fact that we are living through what can arguably be described as period of profound digital disruption. The advent of digital technologies has disrupted nearly every imaginable human endeavor from astronomy to zoology. Technological innovations have catalyzed countless breakthroughs that were unimaginable only a few decades ago. In such a highly globalized and technologized world, vast sums of knowledge and information are made readily available, through the digitization of media, to toddlers and centenarians alike.

Digital tools have enabled innovations in such a dizzying array of disciplines that educational leaders, teachers, and stakeholders have high hopes for achieving the same types of transcendence in education. We’ve optimistically invested the billions of dollars digitizing our nation’s classrooms. We’ve also invested billions of hours training teachers how to use those digital tools. However, the impact of educational technologies does not support the optimism. Despite decades of evidence-free propaganda bombarding educational decision makers about the inherently transformational nature of digital tools in schools, the reality simply does not match the hype. In fact, the average impact of computer technology in education has been downright dismal.

How do we know this?

Because evidence matters.

A meaningful way to look at the evidence of technology’s impact in education uses a measurement called “Effect Size.” Effect size is a statistical construct that is arguably the most useful means of determining practices or interventions which have a positive impact on student achievement. Advanced by internationally renowned education researcher John Hattie, one can think of effect size as a scale starting with practices that negatively impact student achievement, and incrementally moving towards methods that positively impact student learning and achievement.

Developed by analyzing hundreds of thousands of studies and looking for emerging patterns of impact, the tipping point on Hattie’s scale of effect sizes is the average impact of all of the interventions that were analyzed. This average is .4 and can also be considered the entry point for practices that have a desired effect on student achievement (see Figure 1). Practices with an effect size above .4 can be considered desirable—in fact, the higher on the scale, the more desirable—anything below an effect size of .4, not so much.

After reviewing over 160 meta-analyses from over 10,000 studies on the impact of computers in education, Hattie observed that the average effect of digital tools in schools is an anemic d = .34, which is well below the zone of desirable effects. An average effect size of d = .34 is equivalent to a 13 percentile point gain in student achievement (which, theoretically, advances a child from the 50th percentile to the 63rd percentile). This is well below the lowest value in Hattie’s range of desired effect sizes. Worse still, this meager impact has not changed in over half a century. Sadly, the overall average impact of computer technology on learning has been meager — particularly considering the vast leaps in digital technologies in the last half century.

Stop and think about that for a moment. Despite the extraordinary developments in computer technology since the Kennedy Administration, not to mention the vast sums of taxpayer money spent on digitizing classrooms since the 1960s, the average effect of computer technology in education has been stuck well below the zone of desired effects. This is hardly cause for celebration.

Perhaps the main reason for this disappointing impact is that the inclusion of technologies has done little to change the “tell and practice” approach to teaching and learning — the predominant pedagogical practice of our time. In this model, teachers tell students what knowledge is and what knowledge is worth knowing; students meanwhile invest their vast capacity for creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration by memorizing and practicing what they were told. The overarching goal of this model is simply for students to accurately repeat the information they were told.

Unfortunately, this model involves very little thinking on the part of the student. When the tell and practice model of teaching and learning is translated from an analogue realm into a digital realm — in other words, when technologies are simply overlaid onto this model — the resulting impact on student achievement has been dismally low. I call this the translational stage of technology use. Translational technology use describes how digital tools are used to automate the administrative tasks associated with teaching such as attendance-taking, grading, communicating, testing, budgeting, and reporting. It is also the predominant way that technology tools are used in our schools. Even more concerning are the findings from a nation-wide teacher survey conducted by the National Education Association (NEA) that concludes, “we have few assurances that [educators] are able to use technology for teaching and learning.”

If the tell and practice model of schooling does not change, then we should expect the same meager impact of new and emerging technologies on instructional quality and student achievement for the next 50 years or more. That is clearly not a desired destination.

So what can we do to transcend this disappointing status quo? This will require taking a deeper look into how we got here. We’ll first need to gain a historical perspective on the principles of what constitutes effective teaching and learning as well as the principles of effective technology integration.

I’ll delve into both in the second installment of this 5-part article series.