Dear Bill Gates
I attended a media briefing yesterday given by one of your education bods (nice guy). It was about what Microsoft is doing to support education. I understand that you set up an education section with people going all over the world to share good practice and communicate with "teacher technophiles". Great! But the only good practice cited was anecdotal, and the only theoretical base cited was "the constructivist", Seymour Papert. Actually, he calls himself a constructionist and he U-turned after he suggested in Mindstorms that teachers should back off and let computers teach children.
I'm pleased that Microsoft is serious about making its software better and more affordable for schools so that every kid has access to that big playNet in the sky. Your term 'the connected learning community' has emotional resonance, and yes, there are powerful examples - have a look at NZ's own LEARNZ programme if you want to see potential for constructivist online learning supported by a well-researched, well-designed website - but I remain unconvinced.
Now I'm all in favour of Microsoft improving its product for teachers and schools. I'm stuck with Word 6.01 and it's a dog. As a self-employed academic I teach part-time to support two magazines which go free to schools, so I can't actually afford Office 2000. I try to provide good, accurate, impartial information to teachers about IT and learning, and I'm honoured to have the backing of local bods, like Apple, who support me in my efforts to give teachers good information, who employ experienced teachers with street creds, who support research, and support teachers in very real ways with excellent training and examples of good NZ practice.
But I was given a free copy of your book, Business @ the speed of thought. Thank you. I found it very interesting. It has some compelling arguments, and this is why I am writing to you. I particularly liked what you said on page 15, "When thinking and collaboration are assisted by technology, you have a digital nervous system."
My research supports this, but suggests that a digital nervous system, as you define it, might be a useful and increasingly necessary condition for learning, but it is not a synonym for learning. I have done a substantial amount of serious academic research into the context we are providing for meaningful learning in our schools, and how IT can enhance student learning.
Apart from motivation and enjoyment, which may, similarly, be conditions for learning, but are NOT synonyms for learning, there is, to date, little concrete evidence of any significant IT-attributable increase in quantity and quality of learning anywhere in the world.
There's a brilliant book, published in 1998, by (American) Jane Healy called Failure to connect: How computers affect our children's minds - for better or worse. You may care to read it. She is a rare beast, an academic who writes interestingly and accessibly. She has surveyed the literature and visited a huge number of schools, academics, parents, students, and come up with two categories which I really like - hype and hope. Healy is concerned about the false expectations the hype creates. She says, "Today's children are the subject of a vast and optimistic experiment" and goes on to talk about "exaggerated hopes and unmet promises."
My own research relegated at least 90% of what I found (a lot came from the Internet) to the hype pile. Not all of it was tripe, but much of it was unsubstantiated wishful thinking, what might/ will/ should be possible with these wonderful machines - and I include the early writings of people like Papert and the rantings of dear Dale Spender in this pile. What I'm going to summarise briefly is the remaining 10%, the hope pile, which splits roughly, just for argument, into four lots of 2.5%
1. Firstly there is a small body of responsible, well structured academic studies and meta-analyses which do provide evidence of positive benefits from CAI, ILS and other systems (like SuccessMaker) where the learner is largely taught by the software with little teacher mediation. There is clear evidence that computer-mediated learning is effective for students with learning and language difficulties. It affords them a high-status, motivational opportunity to practise the skills they lack, and they feel as if they are in control of the learning. To a certain extent this is true of ALL students. Even high ability students enjoy practising routine skills and there is no reason why they shouldn't. They all NEED some structure, guidance, repetition and rote learning although we tend to forget it in our curriculum-driven quest for endless problem-solving, enquiry, etc approaches. The evidence for the increase in motivation for learning is true of almost all children, though it is also true to say that in IT-immersion environments children reach a boredom threshold beyond which, however glitzy, IT lacks the ability to motivate. In other words, if you eat too much chocolate you get sick!
2. The next 2.5% represent anecdotal accounts based on real classroom practice. While these are not 'research' in the academic sense, they represent a growing body of solid documentation that lends support to current MOE initiatives, and proves that good teachers with training, technology AND TIME can design and implement exciting, innovative online learning which they and their students enjoy and see as beneficial even if it is very hard to quantify the learning or compare it with what results from other learning/teaching methods. Computers in NZ Schools, provides consistently good documentation of such studies in New Zealand, and several other recent NZ publications have contributed in this way (see Good Teacher Term 2 and Auckland Education Term 1).
3. The next 2.5% represents substantial, academically respectable, long-term, well-funded, well-designed, well-monitored and properly evaluated studies. Numerically you can count them on the fingers of two hands but they have generated some good analysis. The findings are emerging with amazing clarity and consistency.
They say that, irrespective of the technology or software, success results when teachers are well trained over a long term, when the focus is on carefully supported student-directed learning which integrates ICT into the classroom programme, when teachers are provided with adequate technical support and classroom help, when IT is introduced in an atmosphere in which teachers do not feel threatened and intimidated.
Beyond the honeymoon, 'Hawthorn' phase, it is long-term strategic planning within the school, school climate, learner/ learning expectations, principal's vision, teacher training and infrastructural support which determines success.
4. The next 2.5% represent a proliferating body of populist books and articles emanating from people who are NOT Luddites - from people like Nicholas Negroponte, Clifford Stoll, Neil Postman, Sven Birkerts, Douglas Rushkoff, Jane Healy, to name a few, who have themselves been at the cutting edge of IT in education. They aren't negative. They are just extremely cautious about the damaging effects of over-selling the product.
They see the much-maligned teacher as a key success factor; computers don't teach; they can help people to learn. Plugging teacher-free kids into the Net to become self-directed learners belongs to idiots and technoromanticists; most real computer+learning analysts don't have much faith that surfing aimlessly teaches anyone very much about anything.
Parents, politicians, policy makers, even teachers, WANT a panaceatemol solution to the many problems that beset education.
ICT is a ready candidate, and some silly technoromantics embrace these irresponsible 'plug-them-in-and-their-cognitive-motherboards-light-up' claims. Most NZ teachers are more sensible.
There is some good solid academic dirt on IT and learning generated, not by technophiles or technophobes, but by technosceptics who are asking the tough questions about learning, and searching for responsible answers!
We DO need to look very closely at these studies. They say clearly that kids like to be taught. They like programmes with structures, scaffolds, boundaries, lots of self-monitoring options, some repetition and reinforcement.
Instead of sneering we should look at reasons for the success of computer-based literacy and maths coaching programs. They emphasise real teaching, not 'facilitation', and a lot of what is called cognitive coaching - training kids, by rehearsal and repetition, to use their cognitive software.
We ignore these messages at our peril. It is simple: Brains don't train themselves. The computer that sits on top of the occipital joint needs to be programmed. It needs to be TAUGHT how to learn, TAUGHT how to think and TAUGHT how to select, reject, analyse, synthesise and interpret information. We wouldn't dream of buying computers without buying software, but we go from year to year assuming that someone, somewhere, somehow has programmed students' cognitive software - taught them how to think, taught them how to learn, taught them how to use and process and produce information with critical discrimination.
It comes down to the simple recognition that people, who are taught to think
and learn, with or without technology, will make better use of
computers than people who get through school never having learnt
how to learn because they are taught by people who offer excuses,
New Zealand acquits itself brilliantly at international Future Problem Solving events. Pro rata we knock the socks off American students. Mr Gates, I really like the title of your book, Business @ the speed of thought, but if we want to achieve what you suggest might be possible, we need to beef up the speed of kids' cognitive software. In a word, we need to teach them how to think faster and more effectively. Harness these FPS thinking Kiwi kids to computers and we'll see Learning @ the speed of thought.
Yes, I do understand. Hype, platitudes and anecdotes sell more software. So be it.
Just consign my letter to the Poor Nutcases file.