Reinventing Curriculum

Two Important Lessons About Digital Transformation From Outside Of K-12

We have commented before on the Digital Transformation (DT) happening inside and outside of K-12. Well, sports fans, it’s DT time again! DT is absolutely and unquestionably one of the tippy top issues in K-12 — right up there with equity, quality, and achievement. In this week’s blog post, then, we point out two lessons from DT outside of K-12 from which that those in K-12 might well learn.

Lesson 1: Informate – don’t just automate!

In the '80s and '90s, computers were being integrated into virtually every company in every industry. But, those companies weren’t seeing the kinds of significant gains in productivity that the computer salespeople had been promising. That lack of productivity gain was commented on by Dr. Robert Solow, Nobel Laureate in Economics

An explanation for why companies weren’t experiencing productivity gains came along in 1998 with the publication of the book "In the Age of the Smart Machine" by a Harvard business school professor. Dr. Shoshana Zuboff showed that when companies "automated" — when companies simply took a paper-and-pencil process and put that process on the computer, companies experienced only modest gains in productivity. However, when companies invented new processes not possible with paper-and-pencil  that exploited the capabilities of the computer, then significant gains in productivity could be had.  Zuboff coined the term "informate" to indicate when a company went beyond paper-and-pencil and invented a new process that leveraged the unique characteristics of the computer.

The "textbook" example of "informating" comes from Dell Computer Inc. In the '80s computer manufacturers used the computer to track the massive inventory of parts they kept on hand. But, computer chips are like bananas — as bananas ripen on the shelf, their value decreases. The pace of computer chip production was rapid. As a result, a new chip today was an old chip tomorrow – and that old chip could only be sold at a fraction of its original purchase price. Having an inventory of computer chips was inviting financial trouble!

So, in 2000, using the Internet, Dell "informated." Dell introduced online ordering of computers by customers promising to deliver those custom-configured computers in about two weeks. In addition to enabling customers to order computers configured to their specific needs (e.g., in contrast to a computer used by an accountant, a video editor needs a computer with gobs and gobs of main memory and a fast CPU and GPU), Dell knew exactly how many computer chips — and cases and power supplies and all manner of parts — it needed to order to fulfill its outstanding orders. Dell no longer used the computer to track inventory; Dell used the computer to eliminate inventory!

In K-12, it is not hard to find curricula that runs on the computer — curricula that were originally designed for paper-and-pencil. Digitizing paper-and-pencil curricula is "automating," in Zuboff’s terms. Such digitized curricula doesn’t really leverage the capabilities of the computer. The first lesson, then, in the Digital Transformation of K-12 is this: informate – not automate. If schools want to see significant gains in student learning when using their newly minted 1-to-1 classrooms, then digital curricula needs to be different from paper-and-pencil curricula – digital curricula needs to leverage the unique capabilities of the computer. For example, rather than filling out a worksheet in order to assess a student’s understanding, that student might well create a textual report — or a video!

(Red lights flashing, red lights flashing! Grading a student-generated artifact is much more demanding for the teacher than scoring a multiple-choice worksheet. So, if computers make more work for the classroom teacher — how likely is that teacher going to embrace the computer? A serious conundrum that we will address in a later blog post!)

Lesson 2: Informating Can Take Time

When the motion picture camera was invented (1892) by Thomas Edison, Hollywood wasn’t around. So, the motion picture camera was pointed at the stage to capture the action in a live play. It wasn’t until 1910-1915, that Hollywood folks realized that this new technology could be used to tell a new kind of story — a movie. That realization, that transformation, didn’t happen overnight.

In K-12, the SAMR Model appears to accurately characterize the technology adoption process by teachers.  There are four phases in the SAMR Model:

  • Substitution: Here, a teacher simply uses the computer to do a paper-and-pencil task, e.g., a teacher might have her students read a PDF on a computer rather than reading the paper version.
  • Augmentation: Here, a teacher adds a computer resource to a lesson, e.g., a teacher might include a video from YouTube.
  • Modification: Here a teacher actually changes the design of the lesson, e.g., incorporate synchronous collaboration, where two students work together on the same document.
  • Redefinition: Here, a teacher actually changes the lesson to take advantage of the unique capabilities of the technology, e.g., after the students collaborate, they use the Internet to collaborate with students in another school – or another country!

Zuboff — and Ruben Puentedura, the author of the SAMR Model — would see S and A as automating while M and R as informating. It is our impression, based on going to classrooms and on talking to teachers from all over the U.S., that, by and large, teachers are stuck in S and A, i.e., computers are being used to replicate/augment paper-and-pencil curricula.

Why? Actually, it’s not complicated: Schools, by and large, have put digital transformation on the backs of classroom teachers.  Teachers have been exhorted to "integrate technology into your curriculum." Or, in the words of a 3rd grade teacher:

  • "In the absence of textbooks, individual teachers are forced to spend hours searching the internet for resources. The process is not only time consuming, but much of the material online has little to no editorial oversight. With no textbooks, every teacher becomes an improvisational curriculum designer, which they try to do on-the-fly while also teaching their classes every day. When this amount of effort is multiplied by all the teachers doing the same thing around the country, it is clear that we are reinventing the wheel, nightly, to the detriment of both the students and the teachers."

ES (who never taught in K-12, but who has the fervor of a convert): "It’s not the teachers’ fault!!!! If education wants teachers to informate in their use of technology, then education needs to provide teachers with informated curricula!!!!"

CN (a math teacher in high school for 14 years before moving to the University):  "Breathe, breathe… Relax, relax…"

ES (huffing and puffing, and turning bright red): "I am just singing your song!"

CN (smiling, indulgently but concerned): "Yes, and doing a good job, thank you. Now, relax before you have a heart attack."

The second lesson that DT in K-12 can learn is that it does take time before the breakthrough happens. Unfortunately, K-12 knows this lesson all too well! Teachers will be stuck, IOHO, in Substitution and Augmentation until they are provided with digital curricula — not digitized curricula — and provided with appropriate professional learning opportunities.

Question: Is there a "Hollywood" — or HollywoodS — within sight that is informating and creating deeply digital — not digitized — curricula for K-12?

Answer: There are vendors who provide digital curricula; but, like textbooks, such materials need to be purchased. And, for those districts looking for a free alternative, OER is only just beginning to offer digital curricula.  (Search for "Roadmaps" on the state of Michigan’s OER microsite for a glimpse of digital curricula to come!)

Bottom line: These are early days for informated, digital curricula — especially for free, digital curricula! Towards developing an understanding of the challenges involved in creating informated, deeply-digital curricula, in our next blog post we will take a deep dive into the process for creating just such free curricula. Stay tuned!