Educational Technology is at a Fork: Instruction vs Construction

Context for this week’s blog post: While standing on only one foot, describe where educational technology (in K-12) is headed. Hmm; interesting challenge. If the great sage Hillel could explain the essence of the Old Testament in such a demanding position, we felt we should be able to explain, to a funding agency who asked for a briefing, the near-term future of educational technology. We do have a definite opinion, as “all y’all” surely would surmise. So, here’s our opinion — what’s yours? (This isn’t a verbatim transcript; it’s a narrative re-creation.) Care to read this blog while standing on only one foot? (JK, JK, JK…)

Thank you for asking us to give you a briefing on where we feel educational technology is headed in the near term. Without giving the whole story away at the outset, we do want to say this: We feel educational technology in K-12 is at a fork in the road. And, following Yogi Berra’s pithy observation that “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” we feel that indeed, the educational community will take both paths! With that teaser, to set the stage for describing that fork, we feel we first need to describe the status of the technology itself — the hardware and the software.

In classrooms, students have had ready and virtually immediate access to pencil and paper.  For computing devices to be a primary tool for learning, computing devices need to be as ready-at-hand as pencil and paper. Today, a recent study suggested that 50 percent of the U.S. students have 1-to-1 access, i.e., students have ready and virtually immediate access to a computing device. By 2020, K-12 should be at 100 percent 1-to-1. The cost of computing devices continues to plummet: iPads, which dominated K-12 for a few years, were at $400, while today Chromebooks, which are dominating sales in K-12, are at $200. Smartphones, with 5-6 inch screens, can be purchased for $100.

Software too is undergoing a transformation. While in the iPad era, “native” apps – apps that would run only on in an Apple device or apps that would only run on an Android device – were dominant, today we are seeing the rise of “web apps” – apps (tools, games, simulations, etc.) programmed in HTML5, apps that are device-agnostic, apps that can run on virtually any and all computing devices. While the transition will take a few years — just like the transition to 100 percent 1-to-1 will take a few years — web apps afford developers the “write once, run everywhere” business opportunity.

(Our inner techie — OK, OK, it is ES speaking here — can’t resist pointing out that connectivity is also going to undergo a transformation. While currently cellular connectivity is at 4G — 300 megabits per second — by 2020 it is predicted that 5G will be rolling out — and 5G provides upwards of 10 gigabits per second, i.e., 5G is 30 times faster than 4G; wireless connectivity will perform like wireline connectivity.

  • ES (wide-eyed): WOW!
  • CN (smiling indulgently, and sighing): Very, very nice — but how do teachers and students benefit from 5G?)

The implications of 1-to-1 becoming the New Normal, supported by a rich array of educational software, is huge: Instead of students using an app on a computer two, three or four times per week for 45 minutes, students will have access to many apps all day long, every day. As computing devices become as accessible as pencil and paper, computing devices become primary tools for teaching and learning — not secondary tools, as they are today.

Now we are ready for the fork in the road!

While there are many, many pedagogies, there are two, in our opinion, fundamental, types of pedagogies: instruction-oriented pedagogies and construction-oriented pedagogies. For example, direct instruction pedagogy, is in the former category, i.e., students watching a teacher holding forth or students watching a video of a teacher holding forth. The maker movement, inquiry pedagogy and project-based learning are examples of construction-oriented pedagogy.

Now, computing devices can be programmed to support either type of pedagogy — instruction or construction.  For example, in “personalized learning” — a type of instruction pedagogy — information (i.e., content in the form of text, video, simulation, etc.) — is presented to a student that is specifically tailored — by an algorithm — to what the student’s current understanding is. See Figure 1, left-hand side.

In contrast, in an “inquiry-oriented pedagogy,” students come to understand the content through a process of asking and responding to questions and, in the process of responding to those questions, constructing artifacts — solo and/or collaboratively. See Figure 1, right-hand side.

What are the children learning in each of these situations? What are their test scores? While given the variety of situations, comparing instruction vs construction is like comparing apples and chairs, there is evidence that students learning via construction do just about as well on content-oriented tests (e.g., multiple-choice tests). While not exposed to the same content with the same vigor as are students in instruction pedagogy situations, students learning via construction learn how to “figure things out” and that skill set serves them well, apparently.

That said, the costs involved in delivering instruction pedagogy via computing devices is, like the devices themselves, plummeting. The Carpe Diem Charter School system claims they have reduced the cost of educating a child to $5,300 per year — instead of $8,300 per year. In Figure 1 — left-hand side — there are more than 250 students and only four teachers. Inasmuch as human teachers are the main cost in education, reducing the number of teachers needed will reduce total cost of delivering instruction.

At the outset of this one-legged presentation, we observed that the educational community will follow Yogi’s advice and “take the fork” — i.e., both paths will be taken. However, while it appears that the instruction path is attracting resources, e.g., venture capital in support of start-ups, we are less sanguine that construction pedagogies are attracting comparable resources. And, while the cost of delivering instruction may well be lower for instruction pedagogies, we are concerned that the cost of students not developing their creative skills – their “figuring things out” skills — is not being taken into consideration.

We have appreciated the opportunity to explore, with you, the future paths of educational technology. Many thanks.

NEWS FLASH: Please visit the just-opened NSF Video Showcase and review our short (three minute) video of a construction-oriented, 1-to-1 classroom — and please, give the video “some love.” Thank you, thank you!

(Crash, bang: That was ES falling over. Not CN, however!) 

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