Monday, September 21, 2009

The challenge of effectively integrating technology and education--A Utah district turns to expensive Play Stations with no teacher supervision?

I posted recently about the desire of some to use technology resources as a replacement for classroom teaching or an excuse to raise class size. I use computer assessments and online resources in my own classroom that are extremely beneficial for the students. However, I think “technology” or its euphemism, “21st century teaching,” often become context-free buzzwords used as an end to themselves rather than a means to learning content or skills. In most cases, technology is just a tool that succeeds or fails according to the preparation and skill of the teacher. A traditional public school teacher and a dedicated homeschooling parent can both successfully use technology, especially online resources, and likewise, they can both fall for enticing gimmicks with little real educational value. I plan on posting about some current situations in Utah schools that demonstrate the hit-and-miss, politicized nature of educational technology. (I also plan to follow up on what little information I have on the implementation of the Waterford Software program and would love further information or data anyone could point me to.)

This post will talk about a recent purchase in a Utah school district that appears to fall squarely into the “enticing gimmick” category.

The Bullet Point Version for easy digestion:

1. A school district received a large amount of stimulus money earmarked for Title I schools. Title I is a 45-yr-old federal funding grant for schools designated as having a high percentage of low-income students.

2. A single employee had almost complete latitude to make the decision on how to spend that money.

3. That person had the feeling, true or false I’m not sure, that he/she had to “hurry” and spend that money.

4. The person got the idea somewhere that kids would use learning programs more willingly if they were on a Portable Play Station (PSP).

5. 60 of the PSP’s were purchased for a pilot program at a cost of $180 each. However, the district did not want to be seen as having purchased Play Stations, so employees are under strict instructions to call them “Achieve Now devices” instead, referring to the name of the learning software that was purchased to play on the non-Play Stations.

6. The Achieve Now software was purchased from a vendor the district had previous experience with, Plato Learning, but Plato had no previous experience making games for the PSP. (Many districts and schools had used Plato “lab” in the past as a remediation class where students spent time using a set math or language drill program from Plato. Both my school and the district in question had cut those labs in past years. My school changed because we found the lab was not as effective as we wished; I believe budget concerns drove the elimination of Plato in this district. I’m sure Plato programs are still in use in schools around the state.) The new Achieve Now “games” for math and language skills are not engaging or adapted for the PSP in any way. They do not use the graphic capabilities of the PSP or even the joystick. You can only use the arrow keys and the games appear to just be bumped over from Plato’s already-mentioned computer division. They are just drill games that could be played on a regular computer.

7. Furthering this unwise rush to spend money on the appearance of progress, the Achieve Now games come in a different format than the regular mini-CD-like discs used for PSP games. Instead, the learning games come on little memory cards similar to what is used in a digital camera, and the PSP has to be specially formatted to use these cards. If a child places a normal game disc into the PSP, an automatic prompt will ask them if they want to update the PSP. When the child selects yes, their game disc will work perfectly, but the PSP will no longer accept the memory cards with the Achieve Now games. This change is irreversible without shipping the PSP back to Plato for expensive reformatting. Plato has advised the district that the reformatting is not cost effective, so they should just tape the game port in back shut and lie to the kids that these PSP’s will not play the regular games.

(Insert memory of some kid named Josh sneaking a Weird Al Yankovic cassette tape into the machine at an audio learning center in 5th grade. We LOVED that center for the week or so he got away with it.)

8. Speaking of cost-effectiveness, two of these memory cards, one for math and one for language arts, were purchased for each of the 60 PSP’s. Each card cost $550, bringing the total for each PSP with two cards to $1280. If a kid reformats the PSP on the first day—sorry, no refunds. Total cost so far = $76,800.

9. At the district’s bulk pricing, that $1280 for each set is enough to buy about 2 and ½ desktop computers. A multitude of websites feature free drill games of the same quality, or in many cases higher quality than the precarious memory cards. If the computers were installed in a lab in a school, they could then be used to play math or language practice games AND ALSO be available for all of the other activities computers are used for in a school. (writing, powerpoints, grades, research, etc.)

10. These 60 PSP/2-card sets were purchased to pilot in 2 schools’ summer programs. The current plan is to soon purchase 30 sets for each of the Title I schools in the district, with each set costing that same $1280 price—$38,400 per school. I don’t believe those purchases have been made yet.

11. The early feedback from those involved in the summer program has been negative. The games are boring and the employees involved had difficulty cajoling the students to play the Achieve Now games for any extended period of time. The language arts games are especially confusing and their real effect on reading comprehension, vocabulary, etc. is extremely questionable. The problem is magnified because the the PSP’s and Achieve Now games are being used exclusively in after-school settings supervised by aides. The aides are generally assigned only to supervise and are unprepared to answer questions that arise if a student is practicing a skill he/she does not understand. The classroom teachers will not be involved in order to give advice at what level of practice to place kids on the Playstations. It’s a case of throwing the kids in a room with a game and hoping they learn.

12. I believe this was a well-intentioned attempt to find creative ways to reach struggling students, but the spending decision was made hastily at a district level without input from school personnel actually working with these disadvantaged students. The district is paying an extremely high cost for a mediocre product. Just sticking a boring learning activity on a Play Station will generally not make a kid enjoy it more. If high quality learning content were developed that took advantage of the PSP’s enticing capabilities at a cost effective price, then maybe an investment into these machines would aid student achievement.

As it now stands, I believe the “Achieve Now devices” are merely an ineffective boondoggle. I hope that district personnel will seek honest feedback about the program and reconsider the upcoming purchases. There are better ways to use the hundreds of thousands of dollars from the stimulus.


Jesse Harris said...

The edutainment software market as a whole has been rather lackluster in recent years. I grew up with Math Blaster, Carmen Sandiego, and Oregon Trail. Where the heck are these franchises now? Where are the new ones? Those games were entertaining AND educational. Now you can get more education (and, arguably, entertainment) out of an hour with Wikipedia than you can with an entire box of allegedly educational titles.

michaeledlavitch said...

Nice thought. Have you tried the math games site:

UtahTeacher said...

Hi Jesse,

Nowadays, the intent goes far beyond "edutainment." We have a version of Oregon Trail that is I think is exactly the same except for updated graphics, but kids can only play it before or after school or during lunch. Math Blaster may be relevant still (skill practice), but the learning from an Oregon Trail or Carmen Sandiego is too unfocused and "not on the test" to use class time on now.

The learning software used now usually focuses on "core" as defined by NCLB--math, reading and writing--and is usually not a game. (Some is very good though...) I can't speak 100% for elementary schools, but the software I know of is similar or identical to ours.

The shill comment here is part of the endemic of companies trying to make a buck off of education. I was wary of the link and didn't click over, but I need to post about the educational supplement and material industry sometime. It's like the textbook industry, but more pointless and desperate.

Cameron said...

I remember feeling this same way about some of the cool new gadgetry my teachers put in the classroom. Even at that age I couldn't help but wonder, what's the point?