rat made of gears

Note: Post image created with Adobe Firefly.

I’ve been thinking about what education should and shouldn’t be, particularly with the flood of AI talk. How we use technological tools for teaching and learning has been a major area of research for decades, but not much has actually changed in schools. I recently read an article by Tony Frontier that addresses this issue nicely, and it made me consider the limitations in how we teach teachers about technology. And what else might be possible.

But first, some background.

RAT: Replicate, Amplify, Transform

In the field of educational technology, we talk a lot about true “technology integration.” Basically, much of what we do in schools with new technologies simply replicate traditional teaching and learning practices. For example, during the pandemic, many classes moved to Zoom–but the structure of the classes didn’t change much. They still consisted of a teacher lecturing to students, some group work, some independent practice, and homework. We just changed the container of the process, not the process itself.

Another use of technology is to amplify what we’re already doing. EdPuzzle allows a teacher to embed questions into a video, amplifying the process of watching a video and answering questions. Learners can watch at their own pace and on their own schedule. The teacher is able to see every single student’s response to every question and personally respond to each. Like much traditional learning, it still uses a format of watch and answer questions, but it does so more efficiently and often more effectively.

Replicate and amplify aren’t necessarily bad uses of technologies. However, we can also do more–we can actually transform learning. We can use a new technology to support a whole different type of learning, one that would be impossible to do without the new tool. For example, today students can share their ideas through blogging. They improve their writing and media literacy skills in service to sharing a message they care about–and others can read it and even respond. Blogging gives students a voice and offers an avenue for impacting others beyond the classroom. Learning becomes a active and purposeful; learning is impacting others through new skills.

Learn more about RAT here: Kimmons, R. (2020). Technology Integration: Effectively Integrating Technology in Educational Settings. In A. Ottenbreit-Leftwich & R. Kimmons (Eds.), The K-12 Educational Technology Handbook. EdTech Books. https://edtechbooks.org/k12handbook/technology_integration

The Problem With RAT

As I’ve taught teachers, I’ve found that many of the truly transformative uses of technologies are not options in many classrooms. Teachers have been given a set curriculum that they must follow, they are preparing for standardized tests, they must obey sometimes outdated school policies. These are systems-level variables that limit innovative designs for artifacts, processes, and experiences.

With all the AI hype, I often ask myself–is this the time that a technology will actually change learning? I think back to all the times in history when schools were going to change because of radio, TV, and the internet, and yet our classrooms still look quite similar. Don’t get me wrong, there are changes, but not significant, systems-wide changes in what it means to learn in school. I fear that without changing the foundation of our educational system, our children will not be prepared for an AI-based society.

From RAT to Magnitude of Change

Tony Frontier introduced a different perspective on technology use in education–what he calls three “magnitudes of change”:

  • Status Quo- We continue to use the same knowledge and strategies with new technologies
  • Transactional- We still use existing knowledge and strategies, but with some improved efficiency
  • Transformational- We find novel ways of thinking, apply new knowledge and strategies, and create something truly transformative

Magnitudes of change are quite similar to RAT, but instead of replicating/amplifying/transforming traditional practices of learning, it forms a continuum that considers how knowledge and strategies are used in relationship to the technology.

Although each magnitude of change is not necessarily good or bad, there is cause for concern with certain uses of technologies. For example, Frontier argued that, with AI, a transactional approach might focus on improving efficiency for both teachers and students, as is currently seen in tools like MagicSchool.ai. He added:

Now carry these transactional approaches of both students and teachers using AI to fulfill basic processes of schooling to their logical conclusion: teachers use AI to design assignments, students prompt AI to complete the assignment, and teachers prompt AI to grade it. What started as a quest for efficiency becomes a process of data-entry specialists tweaking a series of algorithms to improve the AI’s automaticity. This could be the worst-case scenario for AI use in schools, with students and teachers relying on AI to churn out more work, but that work being soullessly devoid of relevance or meaning.

Tony Frontier

Notice that last line- “work being soullessly devoid of relevance or meaning.” The challenge with major technological advances like AI is that they change what learners need to be know to be successful in life. It changes the world outside of school. If we keep everything the same in the school building, learning is boring and meaningless. But making these changes isn’t easy.

Systems Change

I believe that the biggest barrier to using technologies in a transformative manner that supports the new knowledge and skills students need for the future isn’t the tools or teachers. It is the systems that these tools and teachers are anchored in.

Making a change in a school is hard. Making a change that requires a new interpretation of “learning” is perhaps the most difficult. For example, consider the “math wars” of the 1990s. Curriculum designers attempted to redesign currciulum to focus on conceptual understandings and constructivist learning–new knowledge and strategies–and many pushed back. The curriculum did not align with traditional strategies for “learning math,” and some parents felt the schools were failing their children. This is not to say that parents shouldn’t be involved in schools or carefully consider curricular changes, just that it is very difficult to change how we think about learning.

Empowering teachers to find and apply transformative uses of AI requires system-wide support. Teachers need financial support, equipment/infrastructure, adjustment to requirements of curriculum and the content of standardized tests. Preparing future teachers will also be impacted–and the teachers already in schools may struggle as they need to acquire new knowledge and skills and as their role in the classroom shifts. In most cases, these changes cannot be made at the school or even district level; they will require changes in legislation.

We will do our best to help teachers think critically about AI and create transformative uses for their classrooms. However, there will not be transformative change–change needed to prepare kids for the future–without attention to the interdependent systems of education.