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A Parent's Simple Questions about Educational Technology: Let's Provide the Answers!

The following letter was sent to ES by a parent whose children's school is using technology. We reprint the letter, with the permission of the parent, because it is an amazing letter! (We have sanitized the letter; no names, no locations.)

Dr. Soloway, I'm writing to you after watching your YouTube video about BYOD in schools after following the link in a recent Michigan Engineering eNews e-mail.

My wife and I have been attempting to influence better practices for 1:1 teaching practices with iPads at our daughters' elementary school in the [YOUR] School district (in [YourCity, YourState]) for 4 months now. Towards the end of last school year, the school announced they were going to implement "1:World" for preK-5 starting in the fall. At first we were open to the idea, but after much research of journal articles we realized that the school is following a trend rather than implementing correctly. We agree that implementing technology is inevitable and there are likely good ways to enhance learning, but are very disappointed at how our daughters' school is implementing it. At this point, because many parents are not buying their kids iPads, the school is stuck in a worse situation…a hybrid of shared iPads and kids with their own. The school has even teamed up with Project Red, but aren't even following Project Red's guidelines.

We've been attempting to influence the Principal and also the school board without success. Your blog on THEjournal.com entitled "The Great American iPad Buying Binge Has Commenced!" rings very true and we expect no substantial impact except extra cost to parents and the school. I've read many journal articles about technology implementation in schools and generally find:

1) I cannot find any success stories in grades lower than 3rd or 4th grade
2) all success stories seem to be subjective rather than showing statistically significant and measurable improvements

After watching the YouTube video and reading more on the internet from and about you it is clear you have a vision of success and are passionate about this topic. I was encouraged there might be some hope. If possible, I'm wondering if you can help me with any of the following:

1) can you point me to any case studies or journal articles that show statistically significant success and proper ways to implement 1:1? I'm especially interested in success in lower grades (K-3).
2) do you know of any respectable supporters or researchers of the 1:1 program in the [YOUR] area?
3) do you have any advice on influencing better practices with the Principal or school board?

I appreciate any references or advice you may be able to provide.

Wow! Great questions! Before we attempt to respond, here are our questions:

Why did this parent need to send us these questions in the first place? Why hasn't his school provided adequate answers to these questions before he raised the questions?

Response: See response below.

Why was the parent not able to answer these questions in about 10 minutes using Google/Bing? Why hasn't the educational technology field provided answers to these questions — readily available answers?

Response: Actually, answering the parent's questions is hard.... the questions appear simple enough, but unfortunately, when one unpacks the parent's "simple" questions, there are lots and lots of subtle, nuanced issues. For example:

  • Academic quandary: "case studies" tend not to be quantitative in nature and thus finding case studies that are "statistically significant" is very unlikely.
  • Practical quandary: The parent refers to iPads in his questions. But, in a classroom, "iPads" are really composed of hardware and software. Software makes the iPad (hardware) actually do educational-type activities. If the educational software being employed is ineffective, then it might appear that the iPad is ineffective. So, how does one answer a question about iPads per se?
  • Researcher quandary: Academic researchers tend to be careful when doing research on brand-name products. They — we (CN & ES) — don't want to be perceived as shills for a company. But, just as "Kleenex" — a brand — stands for a tissue, and "Xerox" — a brand — stands for "making a copy," perhaps iPads — a brand — stand for tablet computers since they are so dominant in K-12. (Apple claims 94 percent of tablets in K-12 classroom are iPads.) And therefore, when an academic reports a positive outcome in a study that employs iPads, the academic is not seen as a shill — and not seen as "hating on Apple" when reporting a negative finding.
  • Industry quandary: Educational technology companies rarely sponsor academic-style research. If a company's product is seen as ineffective in a study, the company is not going to be happy to see that result published.
  • Government quandary: Interestingly, though, in the world of pharmaceuticals, companies do sponsor research, and the public, with FDA oversight, do trust the outcomes of such research. Unfortunately, there is no FDA for education. And, a discussion of why there is no educational FDA would devolve into a political quagmire — so let's just move on.
  • Educator quandary: Teachers want specifics; they want to know what to do tomorrow with technology with their students; teachers want "take-aways" — concrete lesson plans that they can use. But academics, as we pointed out above, are not keen to focus on specific pieces of hardware or software — the iPad being a glaring exception.

Indeed, there are lots of good reasons (excuses?) for not answering or being able to answer the parent's ostensibly simple questions.

That said: "we" (CN, ES & the ed tech community) do need to answer the parent's simple questions! The parent's questions are fair, and the parent is fully justified in seeking answers to those fair questions! And we, as a community, need to answer these questions; parents are one of the keys to the widespread adoption of technology in schools. Administrators listen to parents! If — when? — parents are convinced that technology is good for their children — woe unto the administrator who stands in the way of dedicated parents!

So, here's a start toward answering that parent's simple questions: There are individuals (e.g., "Kathy Schrock's Guide to Everything") and organizations that do an excellent job of vetting educational products. For example, we just came across Graphite, a project of the Common Sense organization that reviews educational products; on their site they state clearly: "Graphite's unbiased ratings and reviews are conducted by expert reviewers and are not influenced by the developers of the products or by our funders. We never receive payments or other consideration for reviewing any product."

That's just a start! You folks in Blogland — help us to answer the parent's questions. You can add comments to the end of this already too-long blog post — or you can send us email (soloway@umich.edu) and we will print your suggestions in another blog post. We (CN & ES) thank you; and you can rest assured that all parents will thank you, too!

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