Friday, February 1, 2013

The Technology Fix and Disrupting Class

Bring on the Revolution

Karen Hamilton June 1, 2010

According to Pflaum in The Technology Fix (2004), the schools illustrated in the first three parts of his book range from good to average in their use of technology. In the mostly low income Part I schools, he sees schools that have strong leadership and focused use of technology. In his Part II, he sees schools in higher income areas that have leadership and commitment and less focus and finally in his Part III schools, he sees schools that have average use of technology but lack focus and may have haphazard faculty and administration commitment.


While Part I schools had the advantage of having committed faculty as illustrated by the St Mary’s teachers who put together their own computer labs and therefore understood them, Part III teachers in some cases had teachers who were uncommitted and uncomfortable with technology like the ones at Carter Elementary who found technology over-rated or a distraction.

Money and Technology and a Focused Plan
Part II schools from a superficial glance might have seemed to be the lucky ones with technology and more money, but according to Pflaum their lack of clear and focused plans put them behind when compared to the poorer Part I schools who had focus. Clearly St John’s High School in Part II had a strong and committed leader who wanted to do what was necessary to move technology forward; however, instead of defining a technology plan he and his faculty believed that the introduction of a laptop program would be the catalyst for change. Certainly a laptop for all could be an advantage but it would have faired better if a plan for its integration with curriculum had been planned before its introduction. So although money would seem to be an advantage, it’s really only an advantage when its use is well thought out as part of a plan.

Computers and Usage
While many of the schools had computers, they were not always being used and sometimes their use was less than effective. In more than one case, students rushed through work so they could be rewarded with computer play. At Springdale High in Part II there were plenty of computers but teachers were not knowledgeable to use them. Their newer teachers just out of teacher’s college were unprepared to integrate technology into their classes. Computers that should have been an advantage became a problem for some. In many cases students did not have enough quality time on computers for them to make a difference. According to Donald Clark who refers to Ebbinghaus’ memory research, “The real solution, to this massive problem of forgetfulness, is spaced practice, little and often, the regular rehearsal and practice of the knowledge/skill over a period of time to elaborate and allow deep processing to fix long-term memories. “

Technology Coordinators/Lack of Support/Tech Failure
A disadvantage for many schools was a lack of support for technology and its integration. While many schools had technology coordinators, some had only part-time support and sometimes their coordinators were like the one at Carter Elementary (Part III) who was off that term and was not a certified teacher. Many schools suffered with outdated and inadequate technology, and many had long periods without Internet access.

Professional Development
A huge disadvantage for many schools was a lack of specific professional development. While many did have professional development, it often didn’t focus on how technology could be integrated into the curriculum and it was given as more of an afterthought than part of a clear plan. Some teachers in Part II and III seemed to use technology to just do the same old things; PowerPoints were glorified overheads, and one teacher sent emails with assignments to students while she sat in front of the class. Professional development that linked the technology to the curriculum could have helped. Clearly most of the schools had not allocated 30% of the technology budget on professional development as many recommend. (Whitehead, p. xiii)

Teaching/Learning Philosophy/Methods
Most of the schools took a traditional look at how they approached teaching and learning; however, one school seemed to have a more visionary approach. Part III’s Academy City took a constructivist approach using project-based learning. As the school’s demographics changed, they were forced to adopt more traditional methods to try to meet state standardized tests. Some schools like Lambert Elementary in Part III made no bones about the fact that tests were their driving force (p. 156) As a high performance school, Lambert teachers like many other school’s teachers didn’t know how technology related to performance but they knew parents liked it. According to Pflaum, this was an example of style over substance. While parents and state might find an advantage in a school like Lambert because of its test results, others might find a school like that a disadvantage.

Committed and interested parents would certainly be an advantage, and sometimes it seemed that teachers catered to them by having young students create PowerPoint presentations for teacher nights. Again the focus seemed more on the tool than the content and how the parents would react. In many cases schools were not focused on how the technology could facilitate learning.

Standardized Tests
The pressures of state standardized tests seemed to be a disadvantage to all teachers except maybe for Lambert teachers who seemed to be proud of teaching to the test. Most all of the schools had to spend considerable time preparing and drilling students for these tests. Schools like City Academy tried to do something different but were forced to fall in line with reality and at least partly teach to the tests. These pressures lead to problems with “time.”Teachers were forced to stick to strict curriculum guidelines which certainly led to less creative methods of delivery and less time to integrate technology into the curriculum.
Overall advantages are a well thought out plan with vision; an interdisciplinary team approach to planning; committed teachers, management, and community; learning/technology coordinators; adequate funding; appropriate space and facilities suitable for technology integration; a student centered approach; appropriate professional development; integrated use of technology, reliable and appropriate software, hardware and systems and support.

A Collectively Defined Job Description?
Planning for Technology (p.166) includes a chart called a “Collectively Defined Job Description.” The chart includes things you want to do, things you want input on, and things to delegate or coordinate. Stage 1 begins with a team that includes visionaries, people on site, troubleshooters and people to delegate to. When looking at the schools in Part 1-3, it’s hard to see clear examples of this first stage. Perhaps the school in Part II Sunset Hills High that was in a planning process and not yet built might fall into this category. But since it was only in the planning stages it would be hard to say what it would become. Step two and three in stage 1 is to define a technology plan and to communicate priorities to others.Perhaps some of the schools in Part I of the Technology Fix had done this but with the sometimes cursory look that the author takes, it’s hard to tell.
Clearly from my vantage point there is no one school that I can confidently say fits the Collectively Defined Job Description. It’s rather like looking for the ideal spouse and trying to say I’ll take this quality from here and that quality from here and this one here and put them together. In defense of all the schools, I’d say that the first problem isn’t even always them. It’s the larger system that creates a culture dependent on testing. Even if a school were to perfectly fit into the Collectively Defined Job Description, I’m sure it would be good but how great can it be when the focus of the controlling group is numbers and standardized test scores? There is much debate in Canadian schools about standardized testing, but the use of standardized tests is limited compared to the testing in the US. (see Coutts, 2009)

Reform, Evolution, Revolution, Disruptive Innovation
While Pflaum suggests that computers may move schools toward change, he believes that the change will be evolutionary not revolutionary. (p. 86) Others believe that we need more than an evolution.

Sir Ken Robinson in his 2010 Ted Talk, “Bring on the Revolution!” says that reform is not enough. What we need is a revolution. He believes that schools need to create conditions that encourage students’ natural talents and to do this there must be a shift away from standardized schools and towards personalized learning. Christensen, Horn & Johnson in Disrupting Class believe that what is necessary is disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovation shakes the status quo to create a new paradigm; it may initially lack refinement and appeal to a small audience. Opposite of disruptive innovation is sustaining innovation that seeks to improve what exists within a current framework.
Although both Pflaum and Christensen et al. agree that computers haven’t really changed classrooms very much, they take two different perspectives on how change should or will take place. The changes that Pflaum proposes in his final chapter, clearly fit within the current structures and would be considered sustaining innovation. There is no doubt that institutions need to have a focused plan, committed management and faculty and the support necessary to implement change. He recommends focusing computer use on those who would benefit most; using computers to align instruction to standards; using computers for testing; teaching students to use productivity tools when they are ready and coordinate this across grade levels. But is Pflaum’s answer here enough? How much longer, do schools need to teach computer basics when most students have already been using them since early childhood. And if students need instruction, why not do as Sugata Mitra did with his “Hole in the Wall” experiment, put them in a room and let them at it themselves. Pflaum’s suggestions are possibly good, predictable really, but what overall impact will they have if the system they are in is broken? His suggestions sustain the system.

To Christensen, Horn & Johnson, schools’ use of computers “has been perfectly predictable, perfectly logical –and perfectly wrong.” (73) The implementation of technology has not disrupted the “entrenched forces within the organization.” The implementations have fit neatly inside the current system and they do not address the market they need to serve-students. While Pflaum accepts standardization and recommends computers being used as tools and instruction focused on those who need it most, Christensen, Horn & Johnson seek customization and would have computers being used in a personalized way as an instructional delivery method for different intelligence types. They want to move away from the idea of computer use as just another activity centre with games that supplement learning. (p.82) They recommend gradually implementing computer-based learning where there are no teachers “in small, rural, and urban schools that are unable to offer breadth, in remedial courses for students who must retake courses in order to graduate, with homeschooled students and those who can't keep up with the regular schedule of school, and for those who need tutoring”. (Christenson & Horn, Edutopia). They believe this disruption will lead to more student centric classrooms. They even see a time when students will begin to create their own learning software. Their concept is very appealing, but I’m not totally sold on the singular focus on multiple intelligences. Even if we all have these tendencies to learn in certain ways, does it mean that we should only focus on the strong ones? Should we not try to shore up the weak ones too? Won’t we be faced with a “real world.” that has all these things? And doesn’t the online environment already appeal to many ways of learning when it is done well?

As I read the description of a disruptive technology as one that had limited appeal and offers an alternative that is not perfect, and considered online courses, I had an Ah ha moment. Many early and some current examples of online courses certainly seem flawed. Over time though I have seen how many have become engaging and interactive. In my division at my college, I’ve seen the number of offerings in our small general education school division increase from a few to 45 in two years. These courses are disrupting the status quo as those who do not teach them speak out in meetings about how wrong headed the online movement is.At the same time I am hearing quite the opposite from students. In the past, one big complaint has been that the drop out rate from online courses was significantly higher than face-to-face. The gap between the two has now narrowed and the impact of online education is significant. (Learning on Demand, 2009) Could this movement online in higher ed. be the disruption that Christensen, Horn & Johnson predict? Will it happen in k-12?

I’m up for a revolution and a little disruption sounds like a very good thing.
I’m with Sir Ken--Bring on the learning revolution!

P.S. Pflaum certainly suggests that technology is not enough and that commitment and a plan are necessary. But isn't that just the usual thing you would tell any organization to make it better? For me Pflaum's stuff is easy listening kind of Kenny G elevator music, while Christenson, Horn and Johnson are more Sex Pistol's or Hendrix..talkin about a disruptive revolution!

I like revolution.."Hasta la victoria, siempre!"

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

Christensen, C., Horn, M. (Aug, 2008). Disrupting class: Student-Centric education is the future, Edutopia. Retrieved from

Clark, D. (May 28, 2010). 10 Techniques to massively increase retention, Donald Clark Plan B. Retrieved from

Coutts, M. (Jan 16, 2009). Debate flares over British Columbia’s standardized school testing,

National Post. Retrieved from

Creating a new culture of teaching and learning. On Alan November (May 2010) Dialogue Online. Retrieved from

Disruptive Technology, (May 11, 2010). Wikipedia

Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States. (2009). Sloan Org. Retrieved from

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

Robinson, K. (May 2010). Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution!, Retrievd from

Sugata Mitra: Can kids teach themselves? (Aug 27, 2008) TedTalksDirector:YouTube. Retrieved from

Whitehead, B., Jenson, D., & Boshee, F. (2004) Planning for technology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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