No Child Left Untableted
By CARLO ROTELLA
Published: September 12, 2013
Sally Hurd Smith, a veteran teacher, held up her brand-new tablet computer and shook it as she said, “I don’t want this thing to take over my classroom.” It was late June, a month before the first day of school. In a sixth-grade classroom in Greensboro, N.C., a dozen middle-school social-studies teachers were getting their second of three days of training on tablets that had been presented to them as a transformative educational tool. Every student and teacher in 18 of Guilford County’s 24 middle schools would receive one, 15,450 in all, to be used for class work, homework, educational games — just about everything, eventually.
There was, as educators say, a diverse range of learners in the room. Some were well on the way to mastering the tablet. Ben Porter, for instance, a third-year teacher who previously worked as an operations manager for a Cold Stone Creamery franchiser, was already adept at loading and sharing lesson materials and using the tablet’s classroom-management tools: quick polls, discussions, short-answer exercises, the function for randomly calling on a student and more. Other teachers, including a gray-bearded man who described himself as “technologically retarded,” had not progressed much further than turning it on.
Smith, the most outspoken skeptic among the trainees, was not a Luddite — she uses her Web site to dispense assignments and readings to her students — but she worried about what might be lost in trying to funnel her teaching know-how through the tablet. “I just don’t like the idea of looking at a screen and not at the students,” she said.
A couple of seats over from her, I was thinking the same thing. I teach college students, not middle schoolers, but I count on being able to read their faces and look them in the eye, and I would resist — O.K., freak out — if obliged to engage them through a screen in the classroom. And as a parent of middle schoolers, I would strenuously oppose any plan by their school to add so much screen time to my children’s days. The tablets, paid for in part by a $30 million grant from the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, were created and sold by a company called Amplify, a New York-based division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and they struck me as exemplifying several dubious American habits now ascendant: the overvaluing of technology and the undervaluing of people; the displacement of face-to-face interaction by virtual connection; the recasting of citizenship and inner life as a commodified data profile; the tendency to turn to the market to address social problems.
Still, I came to Guilford County, I hoped, motivated by curiosity and discovery rather than kneejerk repudiation. I try to be on guard against misrecognizing complex change as simple decline, and I acknowledge that my tendency to dismiss the tech industry’s marketing might blind me to the Amplify tablet’s genuine potential as a teaching tool — and to major new developments reshaping not just the nature of schooling but also the world in which my kids are growing up.
The first time I met with Joel Klein, the chief executive of Amplify and an executive vice president of News Corporation, he checked his e-mail on his phone a lot, even as we talked about the concern that technology isolates rather than connects people. I pointed this out, and he, in turn, expressed wonder that I don’t even allow the use of laptops in my classroom.
We were discussing his frequently stated view that education is “ripe for disruption.” Entrepreneurs sound boldly unconventional when they talk about disrupting an industry, but they also sound as if they’re willing to break something in order to fix it — or just to profit from it. Klein, who was chancellor of New York City’s public schools from 2002 to 2011, begins from the premise that our schools are already broken.
“K-12 isn’t working,” he said, “and we have to change the way we do it.” Citing global assessments that rank the United States well behind the leading countries in reading and math, he said: “Between 1970 and 2010 we doubled the amount of money we spent on education and the number of adults in the schools, but the results are just not there. Any system that poured in as much money as we did and made as little progress has a real problem. We keep trying to fix it by doing the same thing, only a little different and better. This is about a lot different and better.”
He was talking about the curriculum and games being developed by Amplify, as well as its custom-built, open-platform Android tablet. Klein thinks the moment favors his enterprise. The new common-core standards, adopted so far by 45 states, define educational goals for schools — and present commercial opportunities for companies like Amplify. The initial price of a tablet has dropped to $199, including support and training, making it feasible for school systems to buy large numbers of them. And generational turnover in the teaching profession will help, too, as what Klein calls “digitally sophisticated millennials” replace retiring boomers.
When I asked Klein, who routinely characterizes current debates about education as “ideological, not evidence-based,” what evidence supports spending tax dollars on educational technology, he boiled it down to three things. First and most important was the power of “customizing.” Plenty of research does indeed show that an individual student will learn more if you can tailor the curriculum to match her learning style, pace and interests; the tablet, he said, will help teachers do that. Second, educators have not taken full advantage of students’ enthusiasm for the gadgetry that constitutes “an important part of their experience.” Lastly, teachers feel overwhelmed; they “need tools,” Klein said, to meet ever-increasing demands to show that their students are making progress.
Amplify has tested preliminary versions of its tablets and curriculum in a dozen small pilot programs, but Guilford County is its first paying customer. By next fall the company intends to have its products in middle schools across the country, with high schools and perhaps elementary schools to follow. Competition for this market is growing more intense. Major competitors — like Apple’s iPad — are scrambling to get in on the sales bonanza created by what educators call “1:1 technology programs,” those that provide a device to every student and teacher. And so potential customers — 99,000 K-12 schools spend $17 billion annually on instructional materials and technology — will be looking closely at Guilford County, a district with a modest budget and a mix of urban, suburban and rural sections that makes it a plausible proxy for school systems nationwide. They will want to see teachers’ enthusiasm for the tablets, as well as increased “time on task” and other signs of students’ greater engagement. Most important, of course, they’ll be looking for higher test scores in two or three years.
When Klein says things like, “If you just stick a kid in front of a screen for eight hours and hope it works, it’s not going to work,” he means that the success of his tablet depends above all on how teachers exploit it. They might begin by transferring to it what they already do now — existing lessons, homework, tests — but it can only make the hoped-for difference in how and what students learn if teachers come up with new ways to use it. “If it’s not transformative,” Klein told me, “it’s not worth it.”
Robin Britt, the Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator (PLEF) leading the all-day training session I sat in on, acknowledged the anxiety in the room but encouraged the trainees to focus on the possibilities. Britt made an ideal recruit for the corps of PLEFs, tech-savvy educators hired by the school district to help teachers adjust to the tablet. A native of Greensboro who previously taught at local middle and Montessori schools, he holds an M.B.A. and a J.D. from the University of North Carolina and also started a company that designs software for teachers. Youthful, dynamic, earnest, Britt radiated sympathy and confidence as he explained how technology could help transform not only their classrooms but also their profession.
His “before” picture was the typical 19th-century classroom, the original template for our schools. He likened it to industrial shop floors designed for mass production: “People sitting in rows, all doing the same thing at the same time, not really connected to each other.” He contrasted that with a postindustrial workplace where temporary groupings of co-workers collaborate on tasks requiring intellectual, not physical capabilities. “We need a schoolhouse that prepares students to do that kind of work,” he said.
The key, he said, is personalized learning — breaking free of the mass-production model, tailoring the curriculum to the student and redesigning it around proven competence rather than accrued face time, so that each student can go at his own pace. “Now your job is not to dispense knowledge,” Britt told the trainees. “It’s to facilitate learning. No longer is the teacher the bottleneck between students and knowledge. Rather, the teacher architects the environment — in the classroom, on the tablet, online, everywhere.”
In the “after” classroom Britt envisioned, some students might be working together on an assignment appropriate to their shared level of competence. Others would be ranging ahead on their own, catching up, exploring a special interest. A small group might be gathered around the teacher, who, having instantly scanned the responses to a short-answer exercise just given to the whole class on the tablet, decides to spend some extra time with those students still hazy about the lesson. Britt repeatedly made a fluid gathering-and-pushing gesture with both hands, as if demonstrating a basketball chest pass, as he said: “Then you move that group out, they’re off practicing to reinforce what you just taught them, and you pull together another group, or you go to an individual, then you flow them out to the next task. Gather and flow.”
The Amplify tablet helps make personalization possible. It provides immediate feedback to the student and to the teacher, who can then make timely decisions about working with individuals and groups. Entire units of curriculum can be loaded on the tablet in advance or sent out as an instant update, accommodating students working at drastically different paces. An expanded set of tools for research, discussion, practice and demonstration of mastery allow students to come at their studies from various angles and let the teacher move into the role of a mentor who “meets each student where she is.” The teacher’s tablet also has an app blocker and monitoring functions that can see and control what’s happening on student tablets, and a one-touch classroom-control feature to lock their screens, replacing whatever was on them with an eye symbol and the phrase “Eyes on Teacher.”
Sally Hurd Smith appeared to be coming around. “It’s like I design the flow chart,” she said, “and the kids follow their own path through it.” She worried, though, that their greater technological sophistication would allow them to game the system.
“Then have them teach you,” Ben Porter, the former operations manager, told her. “On the flow chart, put an assignment like ‘Create a lesson for me.’ ” Smith said, “I can do that.”
It wasn’t just that Britt had made a persuasive case. Smith accepted that there was no avoiding the tablet or what it represents. During a lunch break, she told me: “As an older teacher, when all this stuff started coming out, I fought it. You know: ‘This is the new fad, and in two years there’s another.’ ” Good teachers, she felt, already get the “data” that matter just by paying attention to their students, and they reach children with all kinds of learning styles. But the more Smith learned about the tablet and the kind of teaching it made possible, the more she thought that this time was different. “And I realized that if I don’t get with this, it’s going to leave me behind,” she said.
When I asked Arne Duncan, the U. S. secretary of education, about the increasing amounts of money being spent by school systems on educational technology, he said: “We spend precious taxpayer money now on textbooks, buses, milk, all kinds of things. The real question is, ‘How do you spend more effectively?’ ” Electronic readers could make textbooks better and cheaper, he said. “As a country we spend $7 billion to $8 billion a year on textbooks. My simple question is, ‘Why?’ ” Referring to the six-year textbook-adoption cycle some states still use, Duncan said, “That’s a Neanderthal system.”
He continued: “To keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the past hundred years — everybody working on the same thing at the same time, not based on competency. . . .” He sighed and let the thought trail off, then added his standard reminder that we must equip our students to compete with counterparts in India and China. He did acknowledge, though, that the fear of falling behind puts added pressure on school systems to do something, anything, which then makes them more vulnerable to rushed decisions and to peddlers of magic bullets. “There are a lot of hucksters out there,” he said.
Duncan, whose longtime allies include Joel Klein, Bill Gates and other apostles of disruption, has a record of supporting reforms that increase the role of market forces — choice, competition, the profit motive — in education. He wants private enterprises vying to make money by providing innovative educational products and services, and sees his role as “taking to scale the best practices” that emerge from this contest.
There are reasons to be skeptical about the invisible hand’s mystic touch. Educational technology opens new avenues for marketers to reach students in a school setting, and links between screen time and childhood obesity raise public health concerns. Despite all the research showing that the educational benefits of new technology depend on good teaching, it can be easier to find money for cool new gadgets than for teachers. The Los Angeles school district, for instance, cut costs in recent years by laying off thousands of teachers yet is now using bonds to finance the spending of $500 million on iPads. And privacy issues can arise because school systems lack the experience to negotiate data agreements that anticipate all the ways technology companies could put student information to use.
“When you’re talking about Rupert Murdoch and his empire,” says Josh Golin, the associate director at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, “there are a number of ways that data could be valuable to his companies beyond instruction.” Klein, who has grown used to addressing privacy concerns, says flatly, “The data belongs to the district.” The agreement with Guilford County, he notes, requires Amplify to secure the district’s permission if it wants to use any of that data — in anonymized form — to improve its products. “The more you rely on big data to improve the human experience, the more risk there is,” Klein says. “But we shouldn’t be able to freelance with the data. I’m not Amazon. The only reason I need to know about you is the school district needs me to know these kids are struggling with X and these others with Y.”
Apart from privacy issues, Golin says, it’s still not clear that cutting-edge educational technology justifies its cost with results. Companies with vested interests are pitching themselves as the solution to the country’s educational problems, he says, “but we don’t have research proving it’s true.”
I ran that criticism by Greg Anrig, vice president of policy and programs at the Century Foundation and the author of “Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools.” The research on successful schools and good teaching, he said, highlights the importance of relationships among the people in a school: administrators and teachers and students. “None of these studies identify technology as decisive.” Where technology makes a difference, it tends to do so in places with a strong organization dedicated to improving teaching and where students closely engage with teachers and one another. “A device that enhances such interactions is good,” Anrig said. “But kids focused on the device, isolated, cuts into that.”
With that caveat, Anrig was enthusiastic about the personalization made possible by technology like Amplify’s tablet. That qualified enthusiasm is shared by Jonathan Supovitz, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education, who stresses that “individualizing instruction does lead to better outcomes — if teachers can manage the environment to make that happen.” Among other things, teachers will need better tools for processing and interpreting all the additional information they have to handle. “They used to have too little data from students,” Supovitz says, “and now they’re going to get too much, and they need to be ready.”
Justin Leites, Amplify’s vice president in charge of games, works in the company’s Brooklyn offices, in a converted paper-goods factory with open-plan spaces and high ceilings — a model of the postindustrial workplace. Its 652 employees tend toward youth, body art and fixed-gear bikes, which are stored during the day in hanging racks. When I visited Leites in July, the whiteboards lining the walls of his office were covered with lists and diagrams in black, brown, green and purple marker. Directly behind his desk chair, framed by converging arrows in all four colors, was written “DATA,” and below, “That’s what I want!”
Amplify’s variety of reading, math and science games, like its curriculum, are calibrated to the national standards, but the games are meant to feel like free play, not more schooling. The objective is to recapture for educationally worthwhile purposes some of the seven-plus hours per day the average middle schooler spends gazing at a screen outside of school. The logic of games lines up well with personalized learning. Sophisticated commercial games already set the standard in responsiveness to what a player does, and the convention of arranging a game world as a series of increasingly difficult challenges fits the sequencing of curriculum. When you conquer the fractions level, you move up to the algebra level.
Amplify’s games are still at the pilot stage, but a year from now the company will be offering them for sale to schools, and they will contribute to the feedback students and teachers get from their devices. In the near future, Leites said, the flow of data will expand enormously as the costs of better tablet cameras, faster connections and other features come down. Soon, games that know what a student has read (the tablet’s library will contain 1,000 books) will be able to strategically sprinkle a particular word in his path based on how many times the research says you need to see a new word in order to learn it. In a few years, according to Leites, advances like “gaze tracking” and measurement of pupil dilation “will revolutionize” the gauging of cognitive response by making it possible to determine exactly what students are reacting to on the screen.
This growing stream of information, which can be analyzed down to individual keystrokes, yields a picture that will eventually progress in complexity from, say, a list of words a student looks up to a profile of metacognitive skills — like the ability to concentrate — and in time to a full-blown portrait of a developing mind. In theory, each student will generate the intellectual equivalent of a fantastically detailed medical chart.
My antipathy to this kind of faith in big data tended to abate whenever I visited Amplify’s Brooklyn building, which is full of smart, well-intentioned people doing interesting things. That was especially the case when I spoke with Leites, a former doctoral student in philosophy at Yale, staff member in Clinton’s White House and speechwriter for Madeleine Albright and Strobe Talbott.
One afternoon, we watched a half-dozen students from nearby schools eat chips and test games on Amplify tablets. The raptly tender way they touched, pinched and stroked the screens awoke in me an urge to yank the gadgets and junk food out of their hands and lead them to a library or a good climbing tree. Leites and I had been talking about the achievement gap, much of which can be traced to what happens out of school — the difference between haves and have-nots in access to private lessons, academically enriching summer experiences and the like. Glancing over at the white, black and brown girls and boys fused to their screens, Leites said: “Think of school as a not very good game. You pretty much know at the beginning which kids are going to come out on top at the end, and they do. But this” — the educational games, the 24/7 access to the tablet’s many resources, the whole premise of technology-enabled personalization — “is among other things a way to make that game more meaningful and rewarding for more people.”
For data to work its magic, a student has to generate the necessary information by doing everything on the tablet. That seems like an awful lot of screen time to me, but suspecting that the surge of horror I feel at that prospect may be both irrational and out of step with the times, I checked with some experts.
It turns out that there isn’t yet much solid research on the effects of screen time on schoolchildren, but that will soon change. Larry Rosen, a research psychologist at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and an expert on education and technology, told me: “It’s starting to gear up because it’s being clamored for by the educators. They’re saying, ‘Now that we’re doing this, what does this do to our kids?’ ”
Rosen’s own studies of attention and multitasking show that pre-teenagers and young adults focus for no more than five minutes before becoming distracted. “There’s also a concern,” he said, “that technology tends to overstimulate your brain,” disturbing sleep cycles and preventing the mind from going into what psychologists call the Default Mode Network — the highly creative state you enter when daydreaming or between waking and sleep. And overstimulation can just plain hurt. Erika Gutscher, who teaches science at a year-round school in East Cary, N.C., that has been piloting the Amplify tablet since March, reports that she and her students love the tablets but get headaches if they use them too much.
Then there are concerns about the effect of screen time on how children learn to be members of a human community. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health who specializes in the study of adolescents, describes the tablet’s ability to provide instant feedback as “particularly brain-friendly” — but, he says, “a lot of our brain activity is devoted to social interaction with other people, and an enormous amount of the change in the adolescent brain is about socialization. What if we’re inadvertently interfering with development in ways that will show up in 20 years in ways we didn’t expect?”
Sherry Turkle, an M.I.T. professor and a prominent Cassandra who writes about the unanticipated consequences of our immersion in electronic technology, described some aspects of tablets in the classroom to me as “the dystopian presented as the utopian.” She said, “We become smitten with the idea that there will be technological solutions to these knotty problems with education, but it happens over and over again that we stop talking to kids.” That’s the root of what she calls “the crisis in the ability to talk.” High-school teachers are already complaining, she said, that their students “are fixed on programs that give the right answer, and they’re losing the notion of talking and listening to each other, skills that middle school is supposed to teach.”
I told her stories from Amplify’s pilot programs about previously marginal, quiet students blossoming: the boy in Georgia whose tablet-troubleshooting skills made him popular; the tall girl in Connecticut who blew away her classmates with an essay about what it’s like to be 5-foot-11 in middle school. The tablet also includes features like discussion groups that let students engage one another directly. “There’s a reason they call them ‘discussion groups’ and not ‘conversations,’ ” Turkle said. “You learn how to broadcast, which is not the same thing as what you and I are doing now. Posting strong opinions isn’t a conversation.”
Responding to her criticisms, Joel Klein said, “This is an important issue, and she’s obviously an important mind at work.” When I confessed to my own reaction to students staring at screens, he said, “I understand that; I have some of that same emotional response.” His near-affectless delivery made it hard to tell whether he was dismissing, simply acknowledging or genuinely sympathizing with these points of view. He did go on to say that he wouldn’t put fourth graders in a MOOC — a massive open online course — and that he would exercise great restraint in introducing technology into a kindergarten classroom.
But he wasn’t conceding much ground. “The world is living in this tech-driven experience,” he said. “Maybe we all should be concerned about it, but think about how empowering it’s been, and the notion that a device is going to make us less good at producing citizens runs counter to how democratizing this technology is.”
In a room down the hall from Robin Britt’s social-studies teachers, a group of English teachers appeared to have fallen into a post-lunch professional-development coma, brought on by too many videos and too much jargon. Across the hall, math teachers were methodically proceeding with minimal discussion through the checklist of tablet skills. Only Britt’s group, led by a virtuoso, was wrestling with the big questions that resonated in the details of the tablet training. As he told them more than once, “It’s the teacher, not the technology.”
Asked how to handle students goofing off on the tablet in class, Britt reviewed the mechanics of the app blocker. “But,” he added, “that’s a case where maybe you want to use proximity instead.” Proximity? A couple of the trainees started scanning their tablets’ apps in the hope of finding that feature. Maybe it controlled a miniature drone. But Britt moved up the row of desks to stand right next to the questioner and said to everyone: “You already know how to do this. You keep going with the lesson but you move closer, you show him you can see what he’s doing.” While talking, he gave the questioner a look I remember well from middle school, the one that says, Both you and I will be much happier if you stop doing that before I have to interrupt the lesson to make the choice for you. “You don’t need a technological solution for everything,” Britt said. “All that stuff you already know about teaching still works, and you need it more than ever.”
To get the most out of educational technology, teachers must combine those traditional classroom skills with new ones. And their repertoires will have to expand as the tablet’s powers grow. This fall, mastery might mean giving a quick quiz, then breaking up the students on the fly into groups based on their answers and sending each group a different exercise from the teacher’s tablet. In not too many years, it might mean using sophisticated pattern-recognizing algorithms to analyze data from homework, games, leisure reading, social media and biometric indicators to determine that one student should be guided to an interactive simulation of coral-reef ecology, another to an essay exercise built around a customized set of coral-reef-related vocabulary words and concepts, and others to something else.
Throughout the training day, Britt addressed the deep worry, voiced by Sally Hurd Smith and others, that technology can undercut the connection to the student that makes teaching feel rewarding and worthwhile. “Once you develop familiarity with this kind of teaching and your students catch on to the routines, you find you can actually give each student a lot more of yourself,” Britt said. “Instead of talking at a group where one-third are bored and one-third are lost, I can have everybody working at their level, and I have time to give the love to you and then you and you.” He pointed around the room at individuals, dispensing the force of his conviction in concentrated bursts.
Someone asked Britt, who had used laptops and Kindles in his classroom for years, how long it took him to develop those teaching routines. “Three years to really get it,” he said. In a month, the trainees would begin the real work of adjusting to the new ways, day by day in the classroom. Another PLEF, Wenalyn Bell, told her group, “It’s like building a plane while it’s flying.”
At my second interview with Joel Klein, during which he barely looked at his smartphone at all, I asked if he felt technology was essential to improving American education or if we might be better off committing our resources otherwise. “We’ve spent so much on things that haven’t worked,” he said, making a list that included underused computers as well as obsolete textbooks, useless layers of bureaucracy and smaller class sizes. “We should have spent that money on preparing higher-quality teachers.” So there was at least one other way to do it a lot different and better.
“Take Finland,” Klein continued, citing everyone’s favorite example of a country that puts its money on excellent teachers, not technology, and routinely finishes at the top in international assessments. “There’s a high barrier for entry into the teaching profession,” the kind that lets in the Robin Britts and keeps out weaker aspirants. Teachers there are also well paid, held in high esteem and trusted to get results without being forced to teach to the test. But America’s educational system is a lot bigger, messier, less centralized and more focused on market-based solutions than Finland’s. Also, our greater income inequality and thinner social safety net make for much wider variation in student performance, and a toxic political climate has encouraged our traditional low regard for teachers to flower into outright contempt.
Still, if everyone agrees that good teachers make all the difference, wouldn’t it make more sense to devote our resources to strengthening the teaching profession with better recruitment, training, support and pay? It seems misguided to try to improve the process of learning by putting an expensive tool in the hands of teachers we otherwise treat like the poor relations of the high-tech whiz kids who design the tool.
Are our overwhelmed, besieged, haphazardly recruited, variably trained, underpaid, not-so-elite teachers, in fact, the potential weak link in Amplify’s bid to disrupt American schooling? Klein said that we have 3.5 million elementary- and middle-school teachers. “We have to put the work of the most brilliant people in their hands,” he said. “If we don’t empower them, it won’t work.” Behind the talking points and buzz words, what I heard him saying was Yes.