Policy & Advocacy | Feature

The Waterbed Effect in K-12 Education

Waterbeds, first introduced in the 19th century to guard against bedsores, grew to be wildly popular in the 1970s. Since then, however, be it because of leaks sprung by zippers and other sharp objects, or floors cracking under their weight, the popularity of waterbeds has waned significantly, along with bell bottoms, paisley (and my hair line).  The old-fashioned waterbed does, however, provide a useful metaphor for the use of technology in education today, as it illustrates the potential interconnectedness we could be enjoying. 

Let’s start with a very simple physics exercise: Compare and contrast the reactions of a waterbed and a featherbed to a singular thrust on one corner. Only the corner of the featherbed that received the impact and its immediately surrounding area responds. On the other hand, waves emanate from the impacted corner of the waterbed, travel across the entire surface to all other areas of the bed, and push every boundary. Additional waves are created from the interaction of the initial wave and the responding ones. In short, the entire waterbed is affected in multiple ways. Every action is connected to, and affected by, every other action.

The concept of interconnectedness is nothing new to systems thinking, but its application to technology and education is a relatively recent phenomenon--and not a moment too soon, because there is a series of interlocking reform waves moving through our education system, all spurred on by technology.

  • First, we have a content shift from print to digital in general taking place--particularly with textbooks--in states and school districts across the country. 
  • Then there is the shift from print to digital in assessment, with the use of clickers, online formative assessment, online summative assessment efforts (in 33 states), and the "next-generation" assessments (i.e., beyond multiple choice) to be delivered online in 2014. 
  • Next, a move from print to digital in professional development also is in play, providing the possibility of online, just-in-time professional development and access to colleagues around the world.
  • Finally, underlying all these efforts is a technology infrastructure that is changing more quickly than any reform it is poised to support.

It is as if each of these elements were pushing down on its own corner of the waterbed. Unfortunately, in too many circumstances, we in education are planning and acting as if we are pushing on the four corners of a featherbed, with separate and unconnected efforts, all the while different elements are crashing into one another.  

The Shift in Content
The shift from print to digital in textbooks has been well-documented in past issues of T.H.E. Journal, with more than a dozen states changing policies or launching initiatives that encourage the use of digital content and, in some cases, open educational resources. Momentum for these changes will continue to grow with the implementation of the Common Core Standards in most states, making it easier for publishers of all kinds to enter the market. In addition, teachers and students are both accessing content over the internet and creating their own. Each of these efforts presents challenges.

The first challenge has to do with the way content is organized--or not. In the digital world, the meta-tagging of content (by assigning a symbol or tag to connect content to a common keyword or knowledge base such as the Common Core State Standards) is crucial for its effective and efficient use. The creation of a common code for the CCSS is just now nearing fruition. Absent that common code and meta-tagging to it, the advantages of having Common Core State Standards is seriously diminished.

Another challenge is the vetting of content to ensure it is accurate and appropriate for a specific set of students. Many states have adoption processes that provide such curation, but how is that process replicated when there is so much content beyond what has been available in the traditional textbook? And how do you maintain standards of accuracy and appropriateness with digital textbooks that are continuously updated?

Finally, there is the matter of equity. How do you ensure that all students have access to the digital content 24/7, and not just the more affluent among them?

The Shift in Assessment
The proliferation of clickers and various forms of online formative assessments have shown the power and potential of immediate feedback. Likewise, all the data that can be manipulated easily to analyze how well students are learning and what is working. These systems are touted as "must haves" by education reformers of every stripe.

Most of these assessments, however, are mostly multiple choice. New assessments slated to be delivered online in the 2014-15 school year are supposed to take greater advantage of technology, providing simulations and activities that address higher order thinking skills. While we have all screamed for more meaningful, robust, real-world assessments, they do present some challenges. 

If these new assessments will ask students to demonstrate knowledge and skill in computer-based simulations and with higher order thinking skills, students need to have similar instruction and learning experiences prior to the assessment--and with the same technologies they will have access to on the tests. Teachers and students need the technology, and teachers need to know how to create those types of experiences. Unfortunately, at this time, that kind of instruction is not within the ken of many of our teachers.

In addition, access to the technology is a continuing challenge. How much technology, of what type, and how much bandwidth is needed to administer these new tests without significantly disrupting "normal" instruction?

Professional Development
Schools have been much slower to adopt the use of internet-based materials for professional development than they have for student instruction. Teachers continue to remain most comfortable with face-to-face professional learning experiences.  But face-to-face is expensive and research from a variety of sources--most dramatically illustrated by Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers‘ 1995 book, "Student Achievement Through Staff Development"-- shows that one-day workshops do not change teacher behavior in the classroom. However, if educators have ongoing access to the internet, they have a variety of resources from lesson plans and videos of "best practices," to podcasts from experts and online courses. Perhaps more important, they have access to each other.  

But challenges abound here as well. How do we move people from face-to-face to online and encourage online communities of practice?  What are some alternative ways, besides seat time, to reward teachers for participating in and applying what is learned in professional development? Is it time to stop treating all teachers in the same way and start differentiating roles and responsibilities and stressing teamwork? Can we assume every teacher has access to technology and can use it for professional development?

Technology Infrastructure
Without the appropriate technological infrastructure, all of the above efforts are for naught. But the frontiers of technology are shifting faster than any educational reform. The advent of smartphones and tablets, accompanied by more liberal policies that allow students and teachers to bring their own devices to school, significantly increases access to digital content, assessment, and professional development. But is there sufficient bandwidth to support this access? 

Different types of technology in use in the classroom can create both equity and management concerns for teachers that could get in the way of actual learning. How do we ensure that students have access to sufficient technology and bandwidth outside of school? How do we ensure that teachers and administrators will access and use the available databases linking the digital content with the assessment with the student information system and accompanying gradebooks? Are our network and tech support people sufficiently aware of all these shifts to digital to enable thorough planning and sufficient capability?

I have raised a lot of questions, many of which you probably are struggling with right now. I will attempt to address--if not answer--many of these questions in future columns over the coming year.

And I’ll be keeping that waterbed metaphor in mind. A featherbed approach to planning and preparing would be to look at each of these components separately or serially. A waterbed approach would look at all of the pieces and see how they interact. Get ready. Have a seat. Feel the waves.