Friday, February 1, 2013

More Disrupting Class and Technology Fix

Karen Hamilton June 7, 2010

Perfectly Predictable and Perfectly Wrong

Computers in schools? Yes!

It’s apparent from the readings in The Technology Fix and Disrupting Class that the introduction of computers into K-12 classrooms has been extremely problematic. Computers have as Christensen Horn & Johnson suggest been crammed into classrooms with little thought about how they can facilitate learning. As Pflaum repeats again and again, often there is a lack of an overall plan that ensures that technology will be integrated in meaningful ways. These problems multiply when teachers are either unmotivated or unable to use the technology for their lessons. Teachers become victims of time poverty and rush to prepare students for repeated standardized tests and have little to no time to try to implement change. Dependent upon grants, even when the technology is adopted, there is no guarantee there will be ongoing support. Many schools have not spent the suggested 30% of technology budget for professional development to ensure their teachers are prepared. In some cases schools decided that computers would be the catalyst for change. Unfortunately, a tool is not what creates change. It is easy to see why Christensen, Horn & Johnson in Disrupting class say that schools’ use of computers “has been perfectly predictable, perfectly logical –and perfectly wrong.” (73)

Let’s Keep the Baby

However, just because the implementation has been bad, it doesn’t mean it should be abandoned. Computers are a part of our everyday life and they should become a natural part of the curriculum. Our students have grown up in a digital age. To them a computer is what a paper and pen was to many of us when we went to school-- it’s just a part of the tool kit. For computers to be missing in school, forces students into a time they do not live in, and makes them very unhappy and potentially unmotivated campers. For me, computers are a necessary component of today’s classroom. On the other hand, computers and technology should only be used when they add value to the learning. There needs to be a symbiotic relationship between real life classroom experience and computer mediated experience.

Computers in College - Harness the tools in the room

In colleges today, many students bring laptops into the classroom. Rather than having students shut down their technology, as some would want to do, we need to find ways to harness the power of the tools in the room. With an engaged audience, this is possible. Instead of worrying about whether Jessica is facebooking, we have to worry about ensuring that the classroom experience is meaningful and engaging. In my experience, this has been my most meaningful tool-- to attack the problem with the tools of their engagement--facebook, youtube, and twitter on their playing field.

Computers vs. Handheld- Smart Phones
- Mobile Learning

I’m not sure that smart phones or handheld devices face the same problems with integration that computers have. One would hope that the problems with integrating computers into classrooms would provide lessons learned for adopting any new technology; although, I’m certainly not 100% confident of that considering the multiple levels of technology related problems in K-12 schools. One of the big problems with handheld devices in K-12 is that many institutions ban their use outright. In that case there could be no adoption. The only kind of adoption would be devices that provide secure lockdown of content. This then necessitates expenditures on technology with a limited use. A number of schools are experimenting with the use of gaming and augmented reality with handheld devices. Leading researchers like Karen Shrier, Chris Dede, MIT Teacher Education, Education Arcade, and Harvard are working together with K-12 schools to create games that provide students with the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills to solve realistic problems in a natural environment.

Mobile- Hand-Helds in Action

One recent example of this is Qualcomm and San Diego Unified School District’s “School in the Park” which began a pilot in May of 2010 of an augmented reality mobile game with students from Rosa Parks and Hamilton elementary schools. The schools sent grade 3-5 students to the "School in the Park" for 8 weeks. Using smart phones, students visit the San Diego Museum of Art and nearby Botanical Building. Students take on the identity of multiple characters and work in pairs to solve problems as part of a Chinese folk tale. With the help of GPS and AR triggers, the students use text messages, video, and email to collaborate with classmates to research art and flowers. According to Maureen Magee, "Qualcomm partnered with the Balboa Park School, in part, to introduce low-income students to cutting-edge technology.” The goal is to help the students learn to use the tools they will need to compete with their more-affluent peers. Initiatives like this could provide the impetus to motivate other schools to integrate the technology.

The difference between adopting the hand held device as noted above and the previous adoption of computers in schools, is that here one would consider the adoption of the device based on its ability to provide real world experience; whereas, in large part the adoption of computers has been to keep up with or catch up to technology.

In colleges today most students have cell phones and an ever-increasing number have smart phones. More and more, smart devices do not need to be provided. They are in the room; their power just has to be tapped into. Next semester, I will be experimenting with the use of QR codes in my classes. This technology costs nothing except the effort to integrate it into the lesson plan. The wireless in the room can be accessed so there would be no network charges for students on their smart phones. In colleges there is an opportunity for a more natural integration of handheld devices.

Pflaum’s Recommendations? Too Little-Too Late

According to Pflaum computer use in the classroom can be divided into- use as teaching machines, Internet portals, test givers and data processors. He believes that students have spent too little time on computers for them to have had an impact on performance. He finds there is a surplus of materials not being used, and that there are problems related to class size, lack of commitment, integration of technology and a focus on standardized tests.
He makes four recommendations:

1. To focus use on students who would benefit most

2. Use computers to align to standards, instruction and assessment.

3. Use computers for test taking.

4. Teach students to use tools but wait until they are ready (p. 198-207)

To me his recommendations are weak, too little and too late. On page 197, he lists a summary of his observations. His last point #11 states, “Computer technology is too complex to be cost-effective for many school uses.” To me this is a defeatist attitude that is just not acceptable. It’s like saying, well we can’t figure out how to use it, so let’s skip the big picture all together and just use it over here and that is precisely what he suggests in his first recommendation. It makes sense to use what you have to help those who are most needy, but to me it is shortsighted to suggest that, that is the best we can do. His point two to use computers to align instruction with curriculum seems logical but not revolutionary. Did we need to read the book to come to that conclusion?

Point 3 makes obvious sense especially because I have been using online testing with my students for 8 years already, and that is at least a few years before he wrote the book. His point four to teach students how to the use the tools but wait until they are ready might also be off given that kids today from birth are watching and very soon interacting with computers. Certainly, like any subject some things must be taught at certain stages, but how much longer will some of the basic things have to be taught? I’ve ranted before about the Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment, but isn’t it time we give kids a chance to try to learn some of the basic things on their own. Put them in a room, and they’ll surprise us, I’m sure.

For Pflaum it seems we should trudge the same old tired path, try to piece together this and that, fix this bit for now and do what we can. He’s not getting to the root of the problem for me. In his list of conclusions at number eight, he mentions standardized testing as problematic. Number eight, are you kidding me? How about number one! I know that maybe that list was not in order, but really --embedded in the middle? The system is broken and from my point of view the systemic insistence on standardized testing is interfering with learning.
That has just got to change.

Disrupting Class- Yes, Please Do!

I felt in familiar territory when on page 185 of Disrupting Class the authors talk about meetings where every one is talking, everyone is an expert but really everyone is talking past each other. I’ve been in many of those meetings, so it was easy for me to buy into the authors’ idea of the importance of creating a common language and a shared framework. Too often people don’t agree on the two dimensions they mention in their chart 8.1 (p.184) It seems hard enough to get teachers and management to agree on what they want and just as hard to agree on what is the cause and effect. When we all agree on a problem and decide on cause and effect we have a chance to work towards solutions.

Christenson, Horn & Johnson place public schools in the lower left quadrant where there is no consensus on either dimension. If we buy into Pflaum’s many examples, these authors are justified in this placement. Schools and the individuals in them were all over the map in what they should do and how best to do it. Within that structure a sustaining innovation only lives within a chaotic framework, and it is not enough.

To create change Christensen et al. suggest that leaders can use power. In some cases it is possible to rip things apart and start over, but in many cases where there are unions that kind of change is not possible. Their alternate solution- separation sounds harsh, but may be effective. It may be better to start up new schools where those who are hired all agree on a common language and framework than to just stay in a broken system where there may never be agreement.

To me the author’s idea of disruptive innovation to create change makes sense. Pflaum would have us march along on a road to nowhere (better). What Disrupting Class offers is a different way of looking at things. Since the release of the book, the authors have written several articles and given many talks. In a talk in elluminate called “Michael Horn Disrupting Class, Web 2.0 and More”, author Horn acknowledges that they didn’t supply all the answers but that what they wanted to do was start a conversation. He stresses the importance of sometimes taking a counter-intuitive approach. He says too, if he were writing the book today, he would have more emphasis on motivation-especially creating intrinsic motivation for learners, including the fun factor. Interesting to me also was his urging to see technology not as just tools but as a process whereby we transform inputs to outputs. Is it possible that if we begin to think of technology as a process that we will stop just buying tools, and instead focus on what we need to do and how best to do it?


Christensen, C., Horn, M., & Johnson, C. (2008). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Dede, C. (Jan 2, 2009). Immersive Interfaces for engagement and learning, Science Vol 323 (591)66-69.

Pflaum, W. (2004). The technology fix: The promise and reality of computers in our schools. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Gaming in the fourth dimension, University of Pennsylvania, UnivPennsylvania: YouTube. Retrieved from

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Klopfer, E.(June 2008). Augmented learning: Research and design of mobile educational games, MIT Press.

Magee, M.( May 19, 2010). Students get hold of augmented reality: Museum, city schools employ smart phones as interactive teaching aids, Sign On San Diego News. Retrieved from

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Schrier, K. (2006). Using augmented reality games to teach 21st Century Skills, International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. Portal. Retrieved from

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Welcome to the MIT STEP's Handheld Augmented Reality Simulations Site, Augmented Reality Games, MIT. Retrieved from

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