From the Editor

Technology Counts 2017

Education Week released "Technology Counts" this week, its annual look at technology use in American schools. Once I got over the shock of realizing that this is the 20th edition of "Technology Counts" (and my own awareness that I've been doing this stuff for a lot longer), I was struck by two different trend lines in the report. One set of stories talks about the rapid evolution and improvement of various technology tools – like projectors and significant advances in numbers of computers purchased and mobile devices. Technology has made it easier to access the rich archival information, primary sources, and video holdings of major museums, libraries, research institutions, and scientific powerhouses like NASA AND NIH, making it possible to expand social studies and science classrooms well beyond local boundaries. Cloud-based productivity tools support collaborative writing and online course are expanding students access to a wealth of offerings.

But some of the most basic data, derived from an analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress data gathered in 2015 from background surveys completed by educators and students. That analysis does not show a lot of progress. The percent of 4th and 8th grade students who said they used a computer in math classes at least once every few weeks has risen. Eighth grade use went from 28% of students in 2011 to 41% in 2015. Fourth grade usage went from 46% to 58% in the same time period. That is progress, but what the students are doing with those computers sounds more like what was true 10 year ago (and longer). Fourth graders reported using computers far more frequently for rote activities, such as practicing and drilling math than for activities that require application of math skills such as making charts and graphs. Ed Week reports that the gap between active and passive use has grown over time.

Another question asked eighth graders to report if they had used computers at least once a month for a variety of purposes. Sixty-one percent said they had used computers to practice or review math, 53% to extend math learning and 47% to play math games. Only 29% reported using computers at least once a month to use a graphing program, 26% to research a math topic and 16% to draw geometric shapes. Ed Week breaks these numbers out by state, but not by any other demographic, so we don't have data about how these percentages might vary by student race or poverty level. But given that teachers in high poverty schools are somewhat less likely to have received training in integrating technology into the classroom than teachers in schools with better-off students, it would seem likely that classroom use in those schools may follow the path of least resistance. It's a lot easier to run a class of students through a skills practice computer program, than to plan a lesson in which students are challenged to use a computer program to graph functions or explore some aspect of geometry.

It's always difficult to paint a comprehensive picture of something like technology use in the schools. And it's too easy to make judgements. In today's classrooms where blended learning is being implemented, students may be using computers to practice skills and play math games as they move through a curriculum meant to ensure that students are meeting grade-level expectations. And that's fine as long as it frees up teachers and students to work together on deeper learning—projects and activities that ask students to apply the skills they are learning to real-world problems.

What teachers and students do every day varies from classroom to classroom, from school to school, from district to district. Within even a relatively small and homogeneous district there is great variety between schools and within schools, and that's to be celebrated as long as education leaders are doing all they can to ensure that whatever goes on is well-thought out and well-executed.

Some of this is a failure of imagination and it's not just about technology. It's about what makes a great classroom tick. You can't easily do what you can't imagine or have not seen modeled in some way. We need to turn the lids lose more. Most are using their personal technology to engage with learning outside the classroom. They are better at teaching one another how to use technology to find/use/benefit from things they find of interest. Districts have to identify the classrooms where technology is used well, not as an exercise in using WOW technology, but where teachers and students turn to technology to help them solve complex problems that are worth pursuing. Then they need to find ways to cycle teachers in and out of those classrooms and to build learning communities in the district where teachers can help one another find the best ways to reach their goals—and that's not always technology. It's about great teaching and engaged learners.