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Achieving a return on investment from education technology: Q & A with Elliott Levine

Going from rhetoric to reality in the era of outcomes.

Elliott Levine is HP's Director of Education & HP Distinguished Technologist.

What are school districts doing right, and what are they doing wrong, when it comes to education technology?

School districts want to see change happen and they seem to be willing to put a lot of financial resources behind it. So I think that’s wonderful that they see that there is tremendous opportunity there. A problem arises when they see a new technology or new product and think that’s the solution. In fact it’s a conduit to a solution but it’s not the solution. We’re still running into districts that are doing rather lengthy bond levies to pay for technology that will be long disposed of while they’re still saddled with debt from the purchase. They’re not listening to their stakeholders. Mid-level officials aren’t always reporting their concerns up the administrative ladder.  Change management often becomes much more difficult than expected.

What should the decision-making process be for most school districts when it comes to securing technology? 

The problem is in most districts, buying the devices is one of the first 10 things they do, and when they do that they immediately limit their options. Project RED research has shown that, among 1,500 steps, selecting the student device should be No. 568 on the list. The first thing a school district has to do is figure out the desired outcome. Will the result of doing 1-to-1 learning improve math proficiency and ELA proficiency? Then go and pick the best curriculum and digital tools out there to support those outcomes. You’re having technology adapt to the curriculum. What often happens is a school buys a lot of hardware and then has to backpedal to figure out how to use it. In that instance you are forcing the curriculum to be adapted to the technology, and you have immediately eliminated options that may have ultimately been the most effective. By securing technology last in the decision-making process, teaching and learning take precedence.

What happens most often when school districts make technology-first decisions?

It’s usually toward the tail end of the first implementation cycle, about three years in, once they’ve deployed all these devices that I ask them, “How it’s going?” And when I hear the response “It’s been OK,” then I know it’s time to talk. We get beyond the original reasons why they did it, and now we put those reasons aside. And usually the one thing that they start investing in, more so the second time than originally, is professional development and curriculum planning. 

What happens when the focus is on professional development and curriculum planning as opposed to technology?

What’s interesting is when they start to do both of those things the process seems to start working itself out. They will pick the right tools and then they decide what piece of hardware can best accommodate it. If there is any disconnect it’s that we are not focusing on the end customer for whom we all serve—our students. I go into school districts and I will hear the staff say that they’ve got to have bigger screens. Why do they need bigger screens? Students live on cellphones and those screens are probably no more than 5 1/2 inches. What is in the best needs of the teachers and the administration may not necessarily be the same device and fit the needs of individual students. 

 How do you distinguish fads from trends in educational technology? 

I think with some devices, schools thought they could simply buy this new technology and it would be the end-all solution to any issues. On one side you’ve got technologies like interactive whiteboards that many schools now are not refreshing simply because they don’t find them to be very instructionally effective. You can look at specific devices—certain tablets, certain netbooks in their time—that were considered game-changing, but when the schools just rely on the hardware, they usually don’t get the desired results. I find that the overall market is a really good judge of character. When we see a particular technology’s market share fall 50 percent or even more, I think it’s showing that school districts have tried it, it didn’t work and they’re moving on to something else. But it also worries me that many schools have spent a lot of money to learn a very expensive lesson.

Does the learning dynamic for students need to change as well?

This hits upon the decades-old concept of edutainment with education and learning as a passive experience. We really haven’t changed the learning dynamic. Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience, which dates back to the 1960s, says learning by reading, learning by listening, and learning by watching are the three worst methods of retention possible. So instead of listening to a lecture, we should engage in a meaningful discussion. Instead of reading about something, we should roll up our sleeves and do it. Instead of watching something, we actually should get up and teach others about it. Those are more active methods. That’s where you get beyond the small laptop or cloud-based device and go to high-powered, more immersive computing experiences.

Can you provide an example of a potentially high-powered immersive experience?

If we look at the kind of learning experiences students have in elementary school, students have to do a 3D model of the human heart. A lot of these models are going to look like Frisbees, and then you’ll see one or two that look like softballs, which is what they should look like. Students base their conceptual understanding of the human heart on a two-dimensional drawing because that makes it easier to see all the parts for labeling purposes in a textbook or an online textbook. Immersive technologies like zSpace’s virtual reality displays help bring 3D environments in front of students, helping to make sense of the difficult concepts of anatomy and design, which is often a challenge with videos or mere two-dimensional images or illustrations. If you did three-dimensional, virtual reality to dissect a human heart, students would understand the inner workings of the heart and how those parts interrelate and work together. It gives students a greater mastery of the subject much faster. 

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