The Three Pillars of Lasting Change – Part 2: Evaluating Educational Technology

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Richard Bitgood

On October 16, 2014, the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest district in the US, resigned. What led to his resignation was one of the most public and costly debacles in the history of educational technology. Just over a year earlier, the superintendent had championed the decision to purchase an iPad (at a premium price) for every student in the district at a price tag of over 30 million dollars. And the result? Not much except a lot of distracted students and a ton of bad press. It remains to this day one of the most famous cautionary tales in education — a reminder that adding technology for the sake of technology, without having a plan for how it will support growth, is never a good idea.

In part 1 of this series, we advocated for the perspective that people can and do change, but it requires structure, accountability, and the desire to change. We ended by posing this question:

If the goal of education is personal change, and the three pillars of change hinge on relationships with people, does educational technology support that goal, or does it undermine it?

As we discuss this further, we want to be specific that the kind of personal change we are aiming for in education is positive change. Let’s call that positive change, “growth.” Educational technology (edtech) can either support growth or undermine it. In order to understand how, let’s zoom out briefly and talk about technology in general.

Human Augmentation and Amplification

What is technology? My definition is that anything a person uses to augment or amplify their abilities is a technology. Augmenting technologies allow us to do something we cannot do without them. Amplifying technologies enable us to do more of an activity we can already do. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, as some technologies both augment and amplify.

For example, the invention of the wheel allowed us to move objects across flat ground much more efficiently than dragging them or carrying them, amplifying the amount we can move. That’s a technology. The pencil is a powerful technology that allows its user to augment their ability to think by making that thinking visible. And of course, a device connected to the internet augments our ability to store knowledge and amplifies the sharing of that knowledge.

It’s important to recognize that while, from a philosophical or ethical framework, technology in general is generally considered morally agnostic — neither good nor bad — specific applications of technologies can amplify unhealthy or unhelpful human behaviour. The classic example of this is the harnessing of the power within the atom. Nuclear power plants can provide reliable energy with zero carbon emissions, but nuclear bombs have also been used as terrifying weapons of mass destruction. Or, consider the technology of social media, which has positive impacts, such as staying connected to loved ones from a distance, but it also has negative impacts, such as the potential for increased mental health challenges.

The Goal of EdTech

This reinforces the importance of having a framework for evaluating technology in the particular context of education. If the goal of education is growth, at risk of stating the obvious, educational technology should help us create more growth. Specifically, what types of behaviours do we want to amplify, and what new possibilities could be created from human augmentation? On the flip side, what behaviours do we need to be careful not to amplify?

This is where we need to circle back to the three pillars of lasting change and apply them to educational technology. Can edtech help with structure, accountability, desire, and most importantly, the relationships upon which those pillars depend? I believe that the myth of a powerful new technology, where students go into a room with an iPad and come out a semester later, magically smarter remains just that — a myth.

At StudyForge we are convinced that without teacher support, true, transformational growth does not happen. Therefore, when evaluating an educational technology, we always advocate for resourcing teachers. It is the teacher’s ability to care for their students that we want to amplify. It is teachers we want to augment with new ways to support their students that would not be possible without that technology.

For example, teachers often notice patterns of behavior that students get into. These could be undesirable behaviours such as distracting their peers, or desirable ones like always being the first one to complete their work. What is harder for teachers to notice is when there isn’t any pattern of behaviour at all. The human brain is less inclined to notice lack of activity. This is why StudyForge’s dashboard highlights when a student stops working for an amount of time, thereby augmenting the teacher’s ability to notice students. Technology can aid the supportive relationship that a disengaged student needs.

Teacher Augmentation and Amplification

Finally, we can get to a general framework for evaluating K-12 edtech. When looking at any educational product, we should ask questions under the headings of teacher augmentation and teacher amplification, thinking towards the pillars of structure, accountability, and desire, which are necessary for student growth. Here are some questions we hope you are asking when you evaluate StudyForge, or any edtech tool:

Augmentation Amplification
  • What new understanding of student behaviour will this edtech tool provide?
  • What actions will this tool help teachers take that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to take?
  • In what ways does this tool allow for new avenues of collaboration with students?
  • What new structures of accountability are enabled by this tool?
  • How does this tool make teacher’s connections with students more powerful?
  • How does this tool allow teachers to reach more students?
  • Will this tool tend to amplify any harmful behaviours in teachers or students?
  • Where does this tool save teachers time?

To be clear, considering the student experience within a product is absolutely essential as well. However, the student experience needs to be considered within the context of the teacher-student relationship. Unfortunately, within the ed-tech world, the crucial role that teachers play in providing a meaningful learning experience and the vital role of this relationship is often overlooked. Without you, the teacher, the greatest edtech tool in the world will not lead to true growth. They might learn something, but it is the teacher-student relationship that leads to true transformation.

That’s where many edtech tools fall short. They may provide engagement or cool learning experiences, but if they do not enhance the student teacher-relationship, they’re just fancy Speak-and-Spells.

So, before you spend $30 million on the latest and greatest edtech tool, ask yourself this question: Will this tool actually result in lasting and meaningful growth in my students? If person-to-person relationships are not augmented or amplified through it, be careful. It might just be another “iPads-for-all” debacle waiting to happen.

About the Author

Richard Bitgood

Director of StudyForge

Richard has taught math and technology in the classroom and online for 10+ years, and has done every job imaginable in curriculum development: writing, editing, animation, software development, technology consulting, project management, sales, and learning-experience design. His passion is for authentic, deep conversations about topics that matter, and this is reflected in the products StudyForge creates. Richard lives in Kelowna, British Columbia with his wife and their five children.

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