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Instructional Technology: School Improvement and the Seduction of Technology

The personality of education has, for quite a while now, etched out a tug-of-war existence between the demand for a return to the "basics" and the simultaneous demand for a push toward the future. In an article called Education for Tech? we once again return to an argument that is exclusively based on the future promise of technology. Certainly, Internet technology offers potential to provide opportunities to change the design and underlying structure of education, but it also seems quite reasonable to assume that the changes required are not limited to the adoption of new technologies...

"Rather than using technology to imitate or supplement conventional classroom-based approaches, exploiting the full potential of next-generation technologies is likely to require fundamental, rather than incremental reforms," Phillip Bond, Commerce undersecretary for technology, said in a speech yesterday at the Enhancing Education Through Technology Symposium in Pasadena, Calif.

"Content, teaching, assessment, student-teacher relationships and even the concept of an education and training institution may all need to be rethought," he continued, adding technology's beneficial effects on learning could change U.S. competitiveness and standard of living."

"Fundamental, rather than incremental reforms"
During his presentation we assume that Mr. Bond went into detail about what precisely this idea of "fundamental, rather than incremental reforms," and provided some examples of how "the concept of and education and training institutions may all need to be rethought," as well as how technology has a beneficial effect on learning. Unfortunately the article doesn't provide these insights, but it is still interesting to explore these statements on their own.

There is an assumption that "education" has been slow to adapt and that nothing innovative has ever taken place inside its domain. This kind of thinking is a mistake. There have been and will continue to be a tremendous number of innovative projects in education that have had the potential to encourage fundamental change. There have been and will continue to be a tremendous number of courageous and creative educators that go against the status quo to find new potential for others. There have been and will continue to be many inspiring students who have reached well beyond the confines of their own education to seek more.

There is also an assumption that the generalization we call "business" has somehow been more "innovative" with respect to the adoption of new technologies, and this in some vague manner makes them more pioneering. Perhaps to some degree, but we have also seen a plague of inane e-Learning systems, floods of email that make the paperless office comical, an inability to develop knowledge about knowledge management, co-opting of the Internet to a large degree, and more.

The notion that "education" has not been involved in innovation is incorrect and misleading. The notion that "business" is a kind of best practice model that education should aspire toward is incorrect and misleading.

Let's return to that word "fundamental" for a moment. Fundamental, rather than incremental reform. The fundamentals of education are curriculum, instructional design, and evaluation. It can be argued that this trio comprises a kind of underlying technology in itself, but we'll leave that aside. Around these fundamentals is an extensive bureaucracy that serves as the agent of administration. New digital technology is not a "fundamental" of education, just as a pen, pencil, crayon or notebook are not fundamentals of education. To speak about changing the fundamentals of education and immediately segueing into vague notions of technological innovation misses the point.

It may be that the kinds of patterns we see in our new technologies, for example networked technologies, provide a metaphor for how curriculum, instruction and evaluation may be influenced and perhaps evolved. But they do not cause fundamental change by virtue of their presence. Innovation in education has not been stifled by a lack of creative teachers, motivated students or the lack of awareness of new technologies - but all this potential for innovation that has been with us for a very long time has been dramtically squandered by lethargic bureaucracies that are far too comfortable and self-serving to be bothered with any meaningful change.

"The concept of an education and training institution may all need to be rethought..."
They have been rethought - many times over, by many different people. I doubt we need to "think" more about it. We need to "do." Education has a long history of creating brilliant insights and opportunities that are marginalized by inept forms of administration, governmental policies, poor leadership, and self-serving bureaucrats. The problem is not a lack of new concepts and ideas, the problem is a systemic lack of will to live out an initiative that fundamentally alters the system.

For example, if we are to "fundamentally" alter the curriculum we need to first know what the exisiting curriculum is built on. In my experience, curriculum is typically a collection of information about: a) knowledge; b) skills; and c) attitudes. This is the source of design. A fundamental change would work at the level of these three assumptions - not above them, not something added to them. In other words, we would be fundamentally altering the structure of curriculum, and therefore the source of design for education.

We might, to take the argument further, challenge the antiquated notion that knowledge is best organized by areas of expertise (or subject disciplines) and seek to replace the usual gaggle of subjects with something new. Or we might question that knowledge should even be a key organizer and replace it with another idea, for example, interaction. We could then proceed to develop a broad approach to interaction in education that oriented us toward a new source of design. The Connected Intelligence Network Learning Projects in Maderia Portugal were based on a challenge to traditional curriculum that included interaction design as a core curriculum component. Schools were viewed as centres for knowledge development rather than knowledge dissemination. In addition, we might even challenge the idea that a "curriculum" is something that can be effectively communicated on paper through static text. Perhaps curriculum is a dynamic interactive force that is in constant flow.

If the concept of education and training require even more rethinking, then this will need to occur outside of the bureaucracy. The current hierarchical structure of education is too over-weight, hierarchical, and centered on education as mass communication to be of any help to itself. This rethinking will also have to be given the will to survive in an administrative morass that will seek to marginalize it and contain it within something called "a project." Calling something a project is an excellent way to isolate it and prevent it from taking hold. It's the bureaucracy that needs to be given project status, a project focused on phasing it out.

Some useful metaphors to explore are oriented toward ideas about networks, connectedness, relationships, interaction design and mobility. The problem is that the bureaucracy responsible for managing education has very little in common this new potential. It may be that the new potential is a serious threat to existing centres of influence, auhtority, power and money. And the threat is quite real - the bureaucracy simply isn't required anymore. It isn't the technology that is the cause of this, but people using the potential of technology to connect, interact, build relationships and develop greater mobility is. This empowers them in a way that traditional curricula cannot. This in turn renders the exisiting forms of administration both ineffective and inefficient.

"Technology's beneficial effects on learning could change U.S. competitiveness and standard of living..."
Statements like these seem to occur frequently and just as frequently stop short of explaining themselves. The notion of "technology's beneficial effects on learning" are frequently left hanging out in the air as if we are all supposed to know what they are. We also know that technology can have negative effects as well. This is an issue that has inspired an overly long-winded debate on good versus bad in technology.

In addition, there is a need to focus on issues in education that are outside the realm of technology, such as the dramatic increase in school violence, the severe marginalization and abuse of those bullied by their peers, the rise in the high school dropout rate, the growing prevalence of youth depression, the belief that twelve years or so of education is a requirement and right of passage to gainful employment, the obsession with standardized forms of evaluation, and so on. Perhaps leveraging new technologies can afford opportunities for finding better ways to communicate these problems from all parties concerned, but this is unlikely to happen by focusing on vague notions technological innovation as a means to improve the standard of living.

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