Marc Tucker wrote an article for one of Ed Week's blog entitled "Why Ed Tech has Made so Little Difference?" He questions why the past two decades have wrought little change in how we teach in regards to technology. In fact in places with higher tech use, there is lower performance on international tests. In no way is this a reflection of technology not being out there to support learning or teachers being untrained to teach using technology (although I might argue this one).
Our classrooms are often full of technology. Interactive whiteboards are becoming a mainstay. Teachers who use them as projectors miss the value of the technology and would be better off with a TV and an overhead projector for a tenth of the cost. (For interactive whiteboards to be educationally enhancing they need to increase student response rates and feedback- clickers are required to be used, every day.) One-to-one programs have generally demonstrated poor educational results because we are doing the same thing- read and answer these worksheet questions- we did with textbooks. We need to know how to use the technology to enhance the learning, not just to use the technology.
He argues that "change in the whole paradigm of the way education is organized in our schools" is required. This would be one that emphasizes problem solving and deep understanding of concepts. It would mean that technology supports the curriculum and the curriculum supports technology use. Interestingly, this focus on problem solving and deep understanding is at the root of the Common Core's math curriculum. Students are supposed to understand concepts rather than simply memorize. They are asked to be fluent with basic arithmetic but also to be able to solve word problems with ease. Here is the essence of the disconnect: we put in place a curriculum that was a slightly shaved version of the previous one with the addition that students think much deeper about the ideas and were surprised when teachers continue to complain that there is too much to teach in the school year.
Simulations are brilliant opportunities for students to explore complex systems. Back when I first started teaching Oregon Trail was a hallmark program. It showcased the challenges of traveling across the country during our period of western expansion. Unfortunately, it took approximately an hour and a half to two hours to cover what a lecture might in about 15 minutes. Students in my resource room were encouraged to use it because it brought home some critical ideas and we had time, but the whole class did not get exposure to it. Years later my son's fifth grade teacher used it as a station during her American history program. The kids loved it, but only three computers in the room meant that it took practically forever to get the kids who worked in teams through the experience. Simulations take time. Simply put, without re-envisioning education so that the point is not merely getting through the curriculum, they will be sparingly used. Marc is right our current paradigm needs a shift.
I do believe that the other place that technology can really enhance learning is in the area of personalization. Students can move through lessons as quickly or slowly as they are able to master the content. Programs for this sort of personalization abound. Districts often use them for interventions when students are struggling, but they can be used as more than support- they can be the center of the program.
Back when I was a student I had two experiences with learning contracts. Teachers had spelled out the curriculum, put worksheets with learning experiences in folders and let students go through the program at their own speed. There were targets for achievement per quarter, but no penalty for soaring past or taking too long. Teachers were available for help and small groups were separated for extra support through difficult topics. You received more teacher time to help you get through the trouble spots. We worked independently and learned the material- this was fifth grade ELA and seventh grade advanced math. Computers allow for an enhanced program. instruction can involve video and podcasts instead of just reading. Mini quizzes within a program can be the gates to progress- we had to wait until the teacher graded our work. One challenge becomes what to do with students who soar. If they finish the program by the end of September, then what? A good program allows for "grade acceleration" within it. The other side is also a concern- students who do not progress because of learning disabilities, poor motivation, or weak executive skills need a plan as well. They may need to have access to extra time to move through the program- perhaps extra time during the school day, at home through weekends and vacations, during the summer or ungraded school programs with an allowance for extra time.