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Is There an Uncrossable Chasm Between Research and the Classroom?

Part 1: A Tale of Two Educational Technologies

There has always been a chasm between what educational researchers do in their labs and what educational practitioners do in their classrooms. There is no well-defined path for taking an idea from research and putting it into practice. Indeed, it’s not clear that there is any path at all.

Geoffrey Moore, in his now-classic book on high tech marketing, Crossing the Chasm, and in subsequent books, does try to argue that there are ways to “cross the chasm” — to go from innovation to adopted product. Profit drives Moore’s strategies. Capitalism drives the crossing of the chasm. While Moore’s suggestions for crossing the chasm are clearly useful and insightful, his suggestions only go so far, seeing as how university research is, for better or worse, typically not driven by the profit motive.

Moving right along, two pieces of educational technology have crossed the chasm from lab to classroom. One even thrives to this day!

Let’s start with Logo. Did we hear you say,"What’s Logo?" Yes, it is a graphic that a company uses to hawk its products, but no, that’s not “our” Logo.

In 1967, the prehistoric days of educational technology, Seymour Papert at MIT and Wally Feurzig at BBN had an idea: If kids were to learn to program computers, then 1) they would have an amazing skill and 2) by learning programming, they would also learn problem-solving skills and gain a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts.  

There are lots of fun videos of Seymour and friends working with kids as they programmed a robotic turtle — an 18-inch, circular, domed object on wheels connected by a wire to a computer. Children typed commands on the computer and the turtle obeyed the commands (pendown, forward 50, right 90, forward 50) that would, for example, cause the turtle to draw a right angle on the sheet of paper over which the turtle was moving.

Logo did catch on — for a while. Teachers, hungry to use technology for more than flash cards, jumped  in and used Logo in their classrooms. Publishers jumped in and produced books of curriculum that employed Logo. Researchers jumped in and tried to substantiate the claims for Logo’s impact. Amazingly enough, Logo crossed the chasm: It went from a laboratory innovation to worldwide classroom adoption!

In hindsight, Logo crossed the chasm because of classroom teachers talking to each other at meetings and conferences, sharing their experiences, running workshops for other teachers. These methods of social networking were robust enough to support Logo crossing a chasm — but not THE chasm.  The availability of solid Logo implementations, the availability of computers in the classroom and availability of Logo curriculum books were key enablers too. 

But, for more reasons than there are atoms in the universe, Logo hasn’t been included in the curriculum for science nor for math.  And thus, Logo has remained a fringe activity. (Okay, okay: Lego Mindstorms lovers hold forth and tell us that we are wrong in calling Logo a fringe activity.)

In contrast to Logo, the graphing calculator has become incorporated in the math curriculum and is with us today. It is specifically mentioned in the Common Core State Standards, and the SAT and the ACT websites have current policies on using graphing calculators.

And, as with Logo, it was university types who were the instigators: “Professors Bert Waits and Franklin Demana of the mathematics department at Ohio State University led the early use of handheld calculators in the classroom in the mid 70s and then graphing calculators in the mid 80s…,”

But as as not the case with Logo, one company, Texas Instruments, realized it had a lot to gain by promoting its calculators in K-12. Indeed: "[TI employees] actually went out and found educators who were really trying to push the boundaries …. Texas Instruments … established a close partnership with the educational community... [involving] educators in the design and production of their calculators.”

Now, teachers were also critically important to the adoption and scaling of the graphing calculator. “Teachers using the product even created a newsletter, which TI actively supported, on how to integrate the calculator into the classroom, helping to spread the word and appeal of the gadget.”

But in the end, it was the close collaboration between TI and the math educator community that drove the successful adoption of the graphing calculator in K-12 math education in the U.S. (On PARCC’s website, Texas Instruments is referred to by name!)

While both Logo and the graphing calculator had roots in the university, and teachers played major, active roles in promoting both technologies, we see two differences between Logo and the graphing calculator: 1) in math education, as it has been constituted, there was/is a clear need for the graphing calculator; and 2) a company played a hugely critical role in promoting its technology.

So here are can draw two lessons for university researchers who are trying to promote their educational technology:

  1. Accept the existing curriculum and support it with your technology. Logo tried to change math curriculum. Papert’s model of math instruction was one of inquiry and discovery where students learn math by doing math.  
  2. Find a company with significant resources that stands to gain from using their existing technology. Waits and Demana hadn’t invented any new educational technology; they were exploiting existing technology for educational purposes.

But, ahem: Waits and Demana are the exception, not the rule. University researchers are trying to change the nature of knowing through the use of technology. University researchers, by and large, are not supporting the existing curriculum, they are supporting the “new” curriculum. OMG!

In Part #2 of this post, we will discuss strategies for how university researchers might still cross the chasm with their efforts!

P.S. Interestingly, TI supported early versions of Logo on one of its early personal computers (TI 99/4). What if TI had thrown its wholehearted support behind Logo instead of the graphing calculator? 

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