The Declining Significance of Space and Geography: Educational Technology Offers Both Promise and Challenge for a System That Assumes Learning Takes Place in a Defined Space and That Has Designed Schools and Districts According to Geography

By Henig, Jeffrey R.; Hess, Frederick M. | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2010 | Go to article overview

The Declining Significance of Space and Geography: Educational Technology Offers Both Promise and Challenge for a System That Assumes Learning Takes Place in a Defined Space and That Has Designed Schools and Districts According to Geography


Henig, Jeffrey R., Hess, Frederick M., Phi Delta Kappan


"It doesn't look like a school. It's a small, renovated warehouse in Oklahoma City's vibrant 'Bricktown' district. The building's third floor can barely hold 50 people. Yet 60,000 high school students took courses there during the 2006-07 school year. The school is called Advanced Academics, and it provides education over the Internet to students in 29 states."

Thus begins John Chubb and Terry Moe's Liberating Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2009), a feisty but scholarly discourse on the potential of technology to revolutionize the delivery of K-12 schooling. Along with Clayton Christensen's influential Disrupting Class (McGraw-Hill, 2008), Liberating Learning reflects a growing interest in the power of technology, properly applied, to revolutionize schooling. Chubb and Moe enumerate the potentials of technology, noting that it permits curricular customization, frees schooling from geographic constraints, permits students to interact more freely with teachers and each other, allows parents to be readily looped into school-student communications, enables teachers to escape their traditional roles, makes possible sophisticated data systems and granular monitoring and intervention on a previously impossible scale, and enables schools to operate at a lower cost.

These dynamics are possible because new tools and technology, along with new management practices and organizational routines, permit us to unbundle the elements of K-12 schooling and to then recombine them in new ways. This reconfiguration makes it possible to reallocate time and effort, and to reorder teaching and learning, in smarter and more cost-effective ways. But foreseeing the possible is different from predicting the probable. Generations of technological advances--from the television to the calculator to the personal computer--have had massive influence on society in general but haven't fundamentally changed the shape of schools and schooling. Computers have been tucked into otherwise unchanged classrooms even while schools have spent tens of billions on high-speed Internet access. Research shows that, to date, "students with access to computers in school don't necessarily perform better on standardized exams" (Christensen and Horn 2008).

Decades of disappointment have prompted skeptics to question if it's possible to use technology to make teaching and learning fundamentally more productive or cost-effective. Such skeptics sometimes echo the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was fond of saying that producing a Mozart quartet two centuries ago required four musicians, four stringed instruments, and, say, 35 minutes, and that today it requires the same four musicians, four instruments, and 35 minutes. However, Christensen argues this analogy is misleading when it comes to schooling. In the arts, new technologies like radio, CDs, television, and digital media mean that the number of people who can hear and appreciate a given performance has increased dramatically while the cost has declined (Hess 2004: 161-190). Most obviously, these new tools mean a gifted lecturer can now speak to hundreds or thousands of students, or that a talented tutor in New York City or even Nepal can work one-on-one with a child in Topeka or Tampa Bay. Improved technology has now made available to the general public what was once the preserve of the elite.

That technology has been a disappointment thus far should come as no surprise. Christensen has argued that the instinctive response of just about any established organization is to do what schools have done when innovations emerge--cram them into the existing model in order to do the familiar a little bit better. The problem is that such efforts, by their very nature, prevent organizations from reorganizing themselves to take advantage of what new tools or technologies make possible.

Champions of technological transformation, though, may be letting their enthusiasm for change turntoo quickly into righteous indignation over perceived foot dragging--impatiently dismissing even legitimate questions and concerns. …

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