Interview with J. Michael Spector
July 6, 2015
Abstract: Emerging technologies, such as tablet PCs, wearable devices, 3D printers, interactive whiteboards, educational games and etc., have become more and more popular in classrooms at all educational levels, especial in K-12 schools. The applications of emerging technologies can bring enormous benefits to K-12 schools, especially in classroom teaching. However, they also bring challenges and changes, not all of which may be desirable. For teachers, school leaders, and policy makers, how best to response to these challenges and changes? How can researchers do better with regard to the accumulation of knowledge? We conducted an interview with Professor Jonathan Michael Spector, who is a top scholar in the field of educational technology. He gave us detailed and enlightening ideas and suggestions related to the above questions: 1. Technology is just a drop in a bucket; in and of itself, technology is not enough to support education reform. 2. Digital literacy is not equal to digital competency, and they are not increasing in the same pace. 3. The key point in teacher education lies in increasing education technology capacity and productive use of technology in the new generation of teachers. 4. Educational technology researchers should not believe that the solution to educational problems will be new technologies; rather, they should emphasize the importance of replication studies, meta-analyses, and large-scale studies devoted to the accumulation of knowledge. 5. Policy makers should visit representative classrooms, listen to the voice of teachers, students, and parents, and invite them to participate in policy-making.
Keywords: Emerging Technologies; K-12 Classroom; Technology-Rich Environment; Digital Competences; Teacher Education; Meta-Analysis; Replication Study
Interviewer: Dear, Professor Spector. It is a great honor for us to have the opportunity to interview you today. We are student volunteers from Beijing Normal University. In April, you gave a lecture entitled “Future Trends of Designing Learning in the Global Context” in Beijing. Today’s interview is related to your lecture.
J. Michael Spector: It is pleasure for me to have this interview. I’m glad you’re interested in my ideas.
1. Role and Challenges of Emerging Technologies for Classroom Teaching
1.1 Role of Emerging Technologies for Classroom Teaching
Interviewer: Emerging technologies, such as tablet PCs, wearable devices, 3D printers, interactive whiteboards, educational games and etc., are more and more popular in the classroom at all educational levels, especially in K-12 schools. What and how do these emerging technologies transform K-12 teaching and learning? What role do they play in the K-12 classroom? Thanks.
J. Michael Spector: OK, well, I will try to give an answer. The question assumes that these new technologies are effectively transforming K-12 teaching and learning. I do not think that’s true. I think they have the potential to transform learning and instruction, but basically they are not doing that. What I see happening more and more often, especially in American schools, is that new technology is being used according to what I think of as a replacement strategy. Those using new technologies don’t change the organization of the learning, they don’t change the learning activities, and they just substitute one technology for an older technology. So the interactive whiteboard, for example, is replacing the chalkboard or the whiteboard, but they are not really taking full advantage of the interactivity. In the earlier generation, the television was introduced into the classroom and that was going to replace the teacher, but no strategies changed, pedagogy didn’t change, it was a replacement strategy. Primarily we’ve been using replacement strategies, but there has been no transformation. So that’s what I believe that – there is a potential to do transform and improve education but that has not been happening.
However, if you really want to transform K-12 schools, you need much more than new technology; you need a lot of teacher training, teacher education, preparation, support, maintenance, follow through, different assessments, and restructuring of curricula. A lot of other things have to happen to transform learning and instruction. Technology is just a drop in a bucket, and right now there is a hole in the bucket, so there is no transformation happening.
Summary: In 1922, Thomas Edison said, “I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will support largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks” (Andrews & Haythornthwaite, 2007). Over the decades, the changes Edison anticipated have never occurred. However, predictions such as Edison’s and many that followed from an endless stream of unfilled prophecies. Technologies have the potential to transform the learning and instruction if used appropriately with associated changes in teaching, learning and support. Yet, technologies are more and more often being used as replacement mechanisms which rarely realizes their potential and does little to transform education. When technologies are introduced into classrooms, instructional strategies have not changed, nor has pedagogy changed. So, there has been no transformation happening for technology-enhanced learning and instruction.
1.2 Challenges for the K-12 Classroom Teaching in the Technology-Rich Environment
Interviewer: We are in a technology-rich environment more than ever before. When faced with ever-changing and complex technologies, what are the challenges for K-12 school education and classroom teaching? Which is the biggest one for K-12 teachers and why? Thanks.
J. Michael Spector: That may vary from place to place, school to school, and teacher to teacher, but one of the challenges is that teachers are very busy doing what they already do, so finding the time to learn just how to operate a new technology is a challenge. Then, once they learn to how to use the technology, the next challenge is to integrate that into meaningful learning sequences and learning activities. That requires even more effort and more time. Teachers get very little support to do that and they are already very busy. Then, if teachers decide that they really want to make a dramatic change, they are going to need the support of the principal, or the headmaster, or a lead teacher. They are going to have to have parents who are willing to support big changes and students will have to expect an adjustment period. So, there are a lot of challenges about the effective integration of technology in the classroom. Most of the teachers I have seen, are willing to try, but they don’t get the right kind of training and support. Hence, I think that the proper teacher training and teacher support are critical.
Interviewer: Which is the biggest one for K-12 teachers?
J. Michael Spector: I don’t know what the biggest one is. You maybe know the Bible story about The Exodus from Egypt; Moses let the people out of Pharaoh’s iron fist into a land of freedom, but they wandered 40 years in an area that maybe is forty miles long. I used to ask my father: “Why 40 years?” His answer was: “They had to let the previous generation die off so that a new generation could take over.” I think we need a new generation of teachers, teacher-educators, administrators and policy makers. We have teachers who grew up in one system, they taught that way for 20 years, and to expect them to suddenly change is not realistic. We have to start with teacher training for the next generation.
Interviewer: You talked about teacher training and the next generation, but what are the responsibilities involved? Who is responsible to train teachers? Is it the policy-maker, the principal, or teachers themselves?
J. Michael Spector: Well, I cannot speak to every context or situation. In the U.S., teachers are trained by university schools and colleges of education. The colleges set the curriculum and they try to accommodate state requirements, but the college of education gets to decide how they are going to train these teachers. Quite often, because not every university has a lot of resources, it happens that the technology in schools is more advanced than the technology being used in the university to train the teachers. Therefore, the teachers that are being trained are not even being trained on the latest technology that they are going to see when they get to the schools. So, it is a shared responsibility. The other thing about colleges of education in the U.S. is that they want to control all of the courses and everything the teacher does. So if the teachers are going to get technology support, teacher training programs do not go to another department or to a college information studies or information science and get outside support. Teacher training programs don’t go to an instructional design program or expert to get help with instructional strategies or technology integration; teacher training programs are inclined to believe that they can do it all themselves, and they have been doing it that way for years and years. Now, they need to open up the doors to have broadly interdisciplinary training and preparation for teachers.
Summary: Rich technologies can make the class more convenient and perhaps more interesting, but they also pose challenges for teachers. Firstly, teachers are very busy doing what they already do; now they have to find the time to learn just how to operate a new technology; this is a challenge. Secondly, even if they have time to learn how to operate the technology, they will require much more effort and more time to learn how to integrate these technologies into meaningful learning sequences and learning activities. Most of the teachers with whom Professor Spector have worked are willing to have a try, although they don’t get the right kind of training and support. So, proper teacher training and teacher support are critical.
It is difficult to say what is the biggest challenge for teachers. The reality is that a teacher has taught a particular way for several decades. It is not realistic for them to suddenly change their approach and beliefs. Inspired by the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we could understand that it is critical to have proper pre-service teacher education. It will be important to reorganize the curriculum and invite experts in subject areas, in instructional design and in information science to join in reshaping teacher training.
1.3 The Categorizing of Emerging Technologies in the K-12 School
Interviewer: Could you categorize these emerging technologies in K-12? One-to-many technologies (usually used by the teacher at the front of the classroom), and peer-to-peer technologies; or technologies specific to the school, or those used across formal/informal boundaries; or both stand alone and online, networked technologies (Livingstone, 2012)
J. Michael Spector: The way that I think about these technologies — and I know you have some ideas in mind like one-to-many, peer-to-peer, formal/informal and so forth —is that it is the use of the technology that matters, and not the technology itself. And the way I would categorize uses of technology is: effective/non-effective. Most of the uses fall into the no significant difference or non-effective category because a replacement strategy is used rather than rethink the larger context of learning and instruction. So, you replace the whiteboard, or the blackboard with the interactive whiteboard and there is no improvement in students’ learning. Therefore, I regard that as an ineffective use of technology; it may make the teacher’s life a little easier but it’s not improving learning and instruction.
Interviewer: Do you have any kind of ideas or of references that any other studies already have categorized these technologies?
J. Michael Spector: Well, the way I see it, they are often put into such categories as cloud-based technologies, or social network technologies, or individual tutoring technologies, or adaptive technologies. There are multiple categorizes and they often overlap. I would not start with categories; I would start with what you are trying to achieve. What is the learning you want to support: What are the problems? What are the needs? Then, what technology is best suited to support that kind of learning.
Summary: The use of technology in the classroom is closely related to the learning to be supported. We should pay much more attention to the use of the technology, and less to the technology itself. Only after setting learning goals and objectives and identifying problems and needs can one select what technology use is best suited to support that kind of learning. So, it will be better to categorize learning goals, problems, needs and uses of technology rather than focus on specific technology characteristics.
2. Changes for K-12 Teachers & Students with Emerging Technologies
2.1 Does the Characteristics of the “Digital Generation” exist?
Interviewer: The digital generation is always thought to have their own characteristics, such as they prefer to read on screens rather than on paper. However, some of studies show no evidence to support these ideas (Woody, Daniel, & Baker, 2010; Spitzer, 2012). What do you think about this?
J. Michael Spector: I would bet you would find no significant difference in many cases;, that’s what I would bet on. There are many myths and oversimplifications out there.
First of all, it seems like one myth is that everybody in the digital generation is the same. That is simply not true. Then, if you narrow it down, thinking that all those who were brought up with digital technologies in the home, and had smart phones and connected to the internet are the same, that is not true. So, even though they learn how to operate a smart phone, how to have friends on Facebook, do iChat, and all these other things, they typically don’t know how to use those same technologies to support their own learning. So, being digitally literate is not the key. Being literate with regard to how to use the technology to support your learning is the key. So we believe that students are more advanced with the technology than some of the teachers, but the teachers understand in general how to support learning. They may not know these technologies so well but they are better in understanding how to support learning. It is just a myth that the kids have these characteristics.
I also see kids having this mistaken idea that they can be more productive if they do more than one thing at a time － multitasking. For example, they have a 4G device with multiple windows open; they are chatting with 12 people, writing a paper, and taking a test, all at the same time. There are studies that show － a lot of studies, long before we had personal computers － that multitasking tends to degrade performance on each of the tasks involved. So, it is a myth that multitasking improves productivity. Only in a rare few people do that happen. The Air Force, for example, selects pilots based on their ability to multitask, because they have to be aware of all the instrumentations and they have to be aware of the outside environment. So, they select people who tend to do better on multiple tasks, and there are very few people who fall into that category.
Summary: Now, we have to discriminate the two technical terms: digital literacy and digital competence. Digital literacy is defined as the knowledge, skills, and behaviors used in a broad range of digital devices (“Digital Literacy,” 2015). Digital competence is defined as the confident, critical and creative use of ICT to achieve goals related to work, employability, learning, leisure, inclusion and / or participation in society (Teresa & María, 2011). It seems that the digital generation who grew up with rich digital technologies are able to operate tablets and computers and are proficient in the use of digital games and social software. They have high digital literacy. However, it is not necessarily true that they have high digital competence. For a teacher, the situation is often reversed. Although they are not familiar with a technology, they are good at using some technologies to support learning. The ability to operate one technology is not equal to the ability to use this technology to support your learning, that is to say that digital literacy is not equal to the digital competence.
The kids thought that the multitask would make them more productive. That’s not true. Only very few people would be multitasking.
2.2 How does the K-12 Teacher Cope with the Ever-changing Technologies in the K-12 Classroom?
Interviewer: For K-12 teachers, their personal characteristics (such as gender, age, professional fields and computer assisted learning experiences) may affect attitudes and practice of technology adoption. How to cope with the ever-changing technologies in K-12 classroom for teachers？Do you have any recommendations and suggestions to help teachers?
J. Michael Spector: Well, I can tell you what I’ve learned by making mistakes. A long time ago, I was trying to work with teachers when I was a computer science professor in Alabama. I thought I would volunteer my time working with teachers in the elementary school. They had a new Apple II e-lab that they were not using so I thought: “Well, I will teach them how to make good use of that lab.” The mistake I made was to not understand how busy the teachers were; I treated them the same way I treated my computer science students. Later, when the experience was over, indirectly I heard that the message that the teachers were hearing was that considered them incompetent if they didn’t learn to use these computers. I never said or believed that, but that’s what they were thinking because of the way I treated them. I didn’t respect what they knew and all of their experience. These were teachers that had 20 or more years of experience. Obviously they were not incompetent.
So the first thing is to respect and understand the teachers’ environment when we are introducing new technologies, and that’s a big lesson learn I have learned by not doing that.
The second one is that teachers are well-intentioned; most of the teachers want to do the right thing; they really want to support kids and learning, but they are very busy. So, the second lesson I learned was that, if you are planning to make a big or dramatic change involving technology, you need to show the teachers that this use of technology will make them more productive. You need to show them that it will make their job easier and not harder; it will free up time to do the real instruction and support for learning that they want to do. Unfortunately, that step is often overlooked because we are researchers, we are academics, we believe it, and we think they should believe it. But they don’t. You need to show them the possibilities and convince them that integrating a new technology is worthwhile for them as well as for their students. This is going to help teachers do what they really want to do better, so this is an overlooked step.
The next thing has to do with how things are introduced. Are changes introduced top-down? Do teachers feel empowered to make choices and decisions? One time, I had a large project involving poorly performing rural K-8 schools in the southeast. These were schools that were not doing well and that had a record of inadequate annual performance. I went in, assuming the teachers would not be very good, but it turned out that was not true. The teachers had the most stable job in these poor rural counties. Teachers stayed on the job and they were highly respected, but they didn’t have the ability to decide which technologies to use or how to integrate those. So, in that project having learned lessons from the past, I decided that we will let teachers pick the technologies and how to use them. And, rather than have them hear from me how this technology helps, we will have one teacher tell another teacher how the technology they picked helped to be more effective as a teacher. It turned out that all of these schools came off of the poorly performing list and one of them moved to the highest performing school in the district; this had been a poorly performing rural school. So, you know, several years after we left the project, one school really did well, there were eight schools involved.
So, I learned that respecting the teachers, understanding what they really need, believing that they want to do the right thing, and then showing them how using this technology may help them really improve learning and instruction – that is what seems to work. All of these important steps are too often overlooked, however.
Interviewer: So the point is that the teachers can make a community to support self-learning, is it right?
J. Michael Spector: Yeah, that’s hard to do. Because, in my experience, I had to work with three different states: Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. I wanted to build a community of learners across school boundaries and across state boundaries, and we had technologies that could be used to support that. It turns out that, for example, there was only one reading teacher in those schools – in an Alabama school, and she was willing to talk to teachers in other schools who had to teach reading without a background in reading, so we gave them technologies to do that. They didn’t do that. What they did was form their own local communities. So, the reading teacher would talk to an English teacher in the same school rather than talk to the reading teacher in another school. So, I think, at least in the US, at least in those schools, we were not able to create communities of practice that cut across school and state boundaries. And I don’t know how it works in other place, but I think people prefer local contact and they like the face-to-face contact; those teachers did anyway.
Interviewer: What should policy-makers do?
J. Michael Spector: Well, this is an easy one. They should all resign. (Oh! Really? Why?) They don’t listen to researchers first of all, and they don’t even listen to the teachers or the parents. (Why they don’t listen?) It’s hard to say why, I mean, there are political things going on and I really don’t understand the politics all that well. But, if they want to get re-elected, they might listen to a powerful parent group or powerful lobbyist and so forth. I am talking about the U.S. because that’s most of my experience, although I worked in Indonesia and other places as well. In Indonesia, it was actually worse. The Ministry of Education just didn’t really connect well with educational needs in that highly diverse country. In the U.S., the problem is more at a state level. In Indonesia, it’s at the national level. For example, in the U.S., they have developed something called The Next Generation Science Standards (National Research Council, 2011). This was developed between 2010 and 2013 to help teachers and public schools improve science education, and one of the main thrusts was to integrate engineering into the science education. Well, they created standards that are not usable in schools. They had a few teachers involved in these panels, their standards all sound great but they are not easily implemented. They are not feasible to use by many teachers and schools, and there is nothing associated with those standards about training teachers, retraining teachers, or providing them with all the support they are going to need to follow the standards. It was unrealistic. That’s what educational policy makers do; they make things that sound good but they are not very realistic; they are not practical.
Interviewer: Should we then turn to the school principal? What should the principal in one school do?
J. Michael Spector: Yeah, that’s a good question actually because during the same study I did with the poorly performing schools in the southeast, one of the things we looked at, was the role of the principal or the headmaster in the school. And it turns out that there were two schools that did exceptionally well, and both of these schools had principals who were very active in support of the teachers. The school that did the worse had a principal whose only concern was discipline of the students, and that was actually (well I will not say which school it was). So, school leadership makes a difference, and the leadership needs to be supportive of the teachers, recognize their needs and do what they can to support them. If the teacher sees the principal not being supportive, what motives are there for the teachers to really do extra work to integrate some new technology? On the other hand, the way it is organized in the U.S. is that the principal is important, but there is also a district that covers multiple schools. And there is a district superintendent, and that district superintendent can help or hinder progress in individual schools. I made a mistake of ignoring the district superintendent in one effort. But, in a second effort, the district superintendent was the key person and was totally on board, and I had much more success. So again, supportive and engaged leadership, that understands the teachers and the students, is critical for success in general and especially with regard to integrating new technologies.
Summary: Educational technology researchers should not be the person to directly instruct teachers about beliefs and approaches to using technology in classroom instruction – it is better to have respected teachers do that. What is needed is to fully respect the teachers’ existing knowledge and experience, and to understand the real situations that teachers are facing. When carrying out teaching reform, in the first place, we should help the teachers understand how a technology can help them work much more efficiently and easily. Then, we need train teachers about effective uses and integration of technology into teaching and learning.
As for policy makers, they need listen to the voices of researchers, teachers and parents – especially teachers. When making state policies, plans and standards, they need to pay more attention to the opinions and suggestions of front-line teachers, and invite them to participate in policy formulation. After publishing a policy, they also need to develop relevant teacher training and teacher support guidelines. In addition, the role of school leadership is also very important. They can connect educational management departments, schools, parents and students together. While, they also need believe and support teachers, not just focus on student’s grade.
2.3 Does the Teacher Training work?
Interviewer: “The focus for educational reform will be the teachers, not the learners. Teacher’s ICT ability will be the essential professional factor for the nowadays educational reform. The nature of the educational reform is to focus on the teacher education.” Do you agree with this viewpoint? Could you please give your opinion about this?
J. Michael Spector: No. (Really?) No, really, given what I said, you think I might, because I was emphasizing the teachers, but I don’t see teachers as standing alone. It’s not an individual unit of analysis; so teachers and students should be considered together. I mean, there’s an interaction effect going on. So, to implement change you have to focus on the pedagogy first, technology second. When you focus on the pedagogy, you are looking at both the learners and all of the support given to the learners. The teachers are primarily providing the support, but you have to understand who the learners are. So I think the teachers and the learners together are the focus, and not one rather than the other. But in order to make a change, we have to reeducate the teachers; we have to do something different, and we have to take students where they are.
We don’t get a chance to send them off to four years of college to become students, I mean, they are just your students, so… But also, if we make a big change in the classroom environment, for example, instead of going from rows of desks to little working groups, students are not used to that; if we ask students to work in collaboration with others, they are not necessarily used to that; so we have to help students become used to something that is different. And that’s why the role of the teacher is critical in doing that.
Summary: In the digital age, the interaction between people includes constructing cognitive structures and developing social relations. So, we should consider issues with connected and progressive eyes. This applies to problems in education as well. The teacher is not the only center of focus in teacher education. We should treat the teachers and students as a whole; that is to say, they are an interactive community, and they are growing together and progressing together. When carrying out the teaching reform, we need consider it from the views of students, parents, schools, society and so on. Not only do we need to help teachers grow, but also we need to help students adapt and become more productive.
2.4 How to Develop Teacher Education?
Interviewer: More and more countries governments have recognized that teachers’ ICT ability is an essential professional factor in the information society. In order to improve their ICT ability, many countries have published many plans. For example, the Ministry of Education (MOE) of China has implemented large-scale primary and secondary teacher training regularly, which aims at helping teachers use ICT effectively and update their teaching philosophy. In October, 2013, the MOE of China launched the National Primary and Secondary School Teachers ICT Application Capacity Improvement Project, combining training, assessment and application that focuses on teachers’ active usage of ICT in daily teaching activities. So, what is the starting point for teacher education in your opinion? What is the key point about teacher education?
J. Michael Spector: Well, This is a complex kind of situation, and the situation you described is also familiar to me in the U.S. The starting point is that it is coming top-down where the Ministry of Education or someone else has set a policy and established a mandate. Now you will use these Next Generation Science Standards, but where were the teachers? Did they have a say in making that policy? Were they involved in making that policy? Maybe not, and if they were not, they are going to resist that kind of change; this is just natural; it is a human characteristic. In the U.S., there was a publication called A Road Map for Education Technology (Woolf, 2010) that the National Science Foundation (NSF) commissioned; a dozen highly regarded researchers and academics produced this road map about how we are going to make effective use of technology in the future. It was led by Beverly Park Woolf, and it had people other distinguished folks involved. So, they provided the report to the NSF. One of the things I remember, one of the areas where they emphasized a change, was regarding assessment and particularly emphasizing formative assessment. So, now the government agency in the U.S. called the NSF has asked academics what they thought; they never asked teachers. And now NSF is funding projects in schools, but they didn’t have involvement from the teachers. So, this whole idea of policy making and funding and support and developing policies and standards is more disconnected from practice than it should be. So that’s one complaint. I guess the starting point is to involve teachers in this decision, and also students, in the decision-making process, and typically we don’t do that. Policy makers go to a bunch of academics and say: “What do you think?”, They haven’t talked to teachers, they haven’t thought about “Will it work in the school? Will it really improve learning for these kids?” And, in lots of cases, it violates what I call the prime directive. If you know Star Trek, the prime directive is to not interfere with other societies, and in my mind, the prime directive for educators is the same as it is for doctors, DO NO HARM. DO NO HARM. And these new policies or new uses of technologies can disadvantage certain groups of learners, so now we make the digital divide worse than it was before, because we are so excited that the new technology is going to transform learning and instruction. When the reality is that poorly performing kids who started out with a disadvantage are put at a bigger disadvantage because they don’t have all the support access at home and elsewhere. DO NO HARM, and we ignore that all the time in educational policy-making and practice.
Summary: Technology is the extension of human organism. The use of technology is not the ultimate goal of human; technology is ultimately providing services for mankind. Meanwhile, technology is the most direct way to reveal humanity. Any use of technology cannot go against the laws of human nature. Technologist often exaggerate the effectiveness of technology, and ignore what has been learned about human cognition and behavior. There are is not problem with technology itself, but the problem involves how humans use technology.
Applying technologies in classroom teaching and even hoping to use technology to transform the teaching are the pursuits and dreams of the educational technology researchers. However, there are many obstacles that should be confronted and overcome, but which are too often overlooked. Education inherently involves technology – the challenge is determining which technologies to use, how, with whom, when and why. The definition of learning has not changed for thousands of years – learning involves a stable and persistent change in what a person or group of people know and can do. Educational goals have evolved and include developing (a) basic knowledge and skills, (b) job skills, (c) problem-solving skills, (d) critical thinking abilities, (e) responsible citizenship, and (f) life-long learning skills. These are differently prioritized in various places and at various levels. Educational broadly conceived should address six goals and not just the first three; addressing only the firs thee of those goals shows a lack of respects of human potential. Overall, education management has not reached a state of empowering students by emphasizing the last there of those goals. This is a chronic problem in society at a crucial time in human history. New technologies and teaching training are not a complete solution. Social issues and values and a long-term vision for human potential are involved.
3. Applications of Emerging Technologies in Education
3.1 Is the MOOC a Course?
Interviewer: As we know, you and the other two editors of Educational Technologies Research & Development (ETR&D) provided a hierarchy of components to support learning and instruction (J. M. Spector, Johnson, & Young, 2014). That hierarchy included information objects, knowledge objects, learning objects, instructional objects, courses, programs and ongoing efforts, with each subsequent component building on the former components. In another article titled as “Remarks on MOOCs and Mini-MOOCs” (Spector, 2014), you argued that most of the MOOCs are not actually courses; the ‘C’ in MOOC which stands for ‘course’ should be an ‘R’ for ‘resources’; many of the MOOCs are more like communities. Could you please give more explanations about this?
J. Michael Spector: What bothers me is all of the hype and attention that MOOCs are receiving, as if MOOCs were going to transform everything. University will be different – that is ridiculous. MOOC advocates give examples saying “Now we can reach thousands and thousands of people that we didn’t reach before.” But providing access is not the same thing as providing support for learning. So, the very first MOOC that was implemented in Canada really was implemented as a community and not as a course. It opened what was a small group of learners in a course to a much wider community; that MOOC was actually a community and not a course.
I think that’s the way most of them are, but there are some MOOCs that claim to be courses. Here is the way MOOCs have evolved: we had an early one in Canada, then we had people in MIT, and Harvard, and Stanford jumping on board. At Stanford, they had a famous artificial intelligent professor who put his lectures, video tapes, and other things online and he call that a MOOC. And I don’t know, ten thousand people signed up for, it was a big deal. And, you know, only a very, very few people finished. The non-completion rate was about 99%. Would that be acceptable as a course? So what was missing? First of all, that there was no instructional design; it was just whatever a famous professor thought. So MOOCs, like other online learning environments, need to have an instructional designer involved; now that is actually happing; the newer MOOCs are involve instructional designers so you got a more coherent sequence of activities and resources. The second mistake that happened was that there is no meaningful, timely, formative feedback to learners as they followed the MOOC. A graduate course in artificial intelligence is not a good topic for a MOOC, because providing timely, meaningful and informative feedback during complex problem solving activities to ten thousand people is impossible. So, the proper subject for a MOOC is something for which one can automate feedback – something with a very narrow focus in a highly structured, well-defined topic domain. So, teaching multicolumn addition, or teaching particular reading skills or something like that, is good because it is focused and you can have a computer-generated test, that’s automatically graded with informative and supportive feedback to the student. That’s the right kind of topic for a MOOC, and that’s what I call a mini-MOOC. So, that was what I was after. That was the second mistake of MOOCs – they did not really give appropriate feedback to ensure that learning is likely to occur in most of those earlier MOOCs. The myth is that they are providing access to people that would not otherwise have access. They are not doing that, I mean, the people that succeeded in the Stanford MOOC were people who could go to the library and check out a book on the artificial intelligent and learn just as much. So they are not helping all learners – only the best prepared and highly motivated learners benefit.
So we have information object at the lowest level in the hierarchy – that’s anything you can find on the internet or posted on the bulletin board or anywhere else; that’s an information object; that’s not the typical object to support a course. We don’t know if it’s true or not; we don’t know if it is valid; we don’t know if the information is reliable. So, first of all, we have to do a reliability check; once we know this information is reliable, it becomes what I call a knowledge object. So other people can check it in a book or elsewhere and then have confidence that what is being said, or presented, or detected is reliable. That’s a knowledge object, but that is still not suitable for a course, because it needs to be linked to a particular learning goal or objective. Once a knowledge object is linked to a learning goal, then you have a learning object. Now you have something that is a building block of a course, but it is still not sufficient because surrounding that learning object, there should be learning activities and ongoing formative assessment as well as summative assessment at the end of the course. So you need to have learning objects with formative feedback, with learning activities and assessments; then you have an instructional object. Most MOOCs don’t have all of those characteristics, so that’s why I think they are not courses; they are communities. Yeah, so we are not there yet, and that was the point of that editorial and that article.
Summary: MOOCs offer an excellent opportunity for these learners, who do not have the chance to learn the courses. But, just offering learning opportunities is not enough, we should also offer learning supports for them. The current MOOCs have a very low rate of completion. What was missing in first of all that there was no instructional design to provide coherence and meaningful selection and sequencing of activities and resources. The second mistake that happened was that there is no meaningful formative feedback; this was in part due to a MOOC being used to support a complex course topic, such as artificial intelligence. What’s more, getting meaningful feedback during complex and ill-structured problem-solving activities to ten thousand people is impossible. Now, MOOCs have begun to involve instructional designers. In addition, highly structured, well-defined topics are being selected for support with a MOOC in order to ensure timely, and effective feedback. Still, due to the lack of timely and informative feedback and assessments, most MOOCs should not be regarded as courses – they provide resources and may comprise communities.
3.2 Do we make too Much Promises to Learning Analytics Technology?
Interviewer: There is no doubt that the learning analytics technology (LAT) is the hot topic in the past few years. LAT appears especially promising for prediction, intervention, personalization, and adaptation to teaching and learning (Siemens, 2013). What is your opinion about this? How could we do to avoid losing the hope?
J. Michael Spector: Yeah, this is another myth. We believe that what works for Amazon with regard to buying products, is going to work in the world of learning and instruction. Well, people who go to Amazon are voluntarily giving up some of the information about their buying habits and that sort of thing. So that’s creating large sets of data that can be used to influence other buyers. The situation in education is different. In China, this actually may work because things are mandated top-down, so you can actually collect large sets of data and you don’t have to get parents’ permission, and you can use students’ performance. Maybe you do it already, I don’t know. (No) You don’t. But not so in the USA, where there are parental concerns about privacy, educational companies that do want to share data, and school districts with very difference curricula and circumstances.
But for learning analytics to work, you need to have large data sets of learners, with learning objects that can be used and reused with data on how those objects performed with regard to various learners and specific learning goals and objectives; we need to know, what worked for those learners who are very must like this struggling learner. So, now I look at the struggling learners and what worked for these other guys who are similar and see if there is something that can be generated automatically that is likely to help this learner. That’s how learning analytics and personalization can work. I think that can happen in China. I don’t think it’s happening, yet, but the potential is there.
In the USA, it is very unlikely that it’s going to happen for a couple reasons. First of all, the parents don’t want that information about their kid being released. The second obstacle is the companies that are collecting the data do not want to share unless they are paid to do so. There are competing companies involved, and they don’t want to share their information with other schools that may be using a different product. So, those are two big barriers to overcome. And I think there will be quite some time before we get past those barriers. There are limited opportunities in the USA for learning analytics in support of personalized learning, but there may be other uses.
Interviewer: MOE in China has made some projects about that. But it really doesn’t work.
J. Michael Spector: Not yet, because you need to have all the data collected. Things have to be structured in a certain way. So you have learning objects, learner profiles, dynamic learner profiles, and then you have to have algorithms. I think at least there is a couple places in Beijing and Shanghai where people are working on the algorithms. So, it’s going in that direction, but you are probably closer than we are in the USA.
Summary: Learning analytics are very simple, because we can easily get massive data in the era of Big Data. While, as we all known, every coin has two sides. We have to face three challenges. Firstly, it is very expensive to collect the data, so the task is always controlled by large corporations, they don’t want to share their information with schools. Secondly, we cannot match data with specific users because of the virtual and anonymous nature of network. What we can do is only describing the traits of populations or some groups. Lastly, people are increasing the awareness of protecting privacy. In American, learning analytics are difficult to achieve, because the parents don’t want that information about their kid being released. In addition, the companies that are collecting data, are not the government-run, or government own, which will have a risk of information disclosure. In China, the education management is top-down, so there will be a booming in the practice of learning analytics.
3.3 Evolution of term
Interviewer: In our fields, we have never stopped introducing new terms, definitions or the discrimination of terms. For example, Educational Technology, Instructional Technology, Learning Technology is one set of these terms to differentiate and analyze. On the other hand, grid computing, distributed computing, and cloud computing is another set of these terms to differentiate and analyze. What is your opinion about it? Could you give us more explanation about this?
J. Michael Spector: I encountered someone in Hong Kong when I was giving a talk. They said that things are changing so fast that we don’t have the language to talk about these things. I don’t believe that, so my response was: “Give me an example.” This person didn’t realize that I was asking for her to talk about something that she just said that she can’t talk about because there is no proper language. We can talk about these new technologies, so that’s the first thing. We don’t really need new language. I mean, if we have a new device, I mean if we have discovered new element, of course, we need a new word. When we had microprocessors and integrated circuits, we needed new words for those devices – those new words were built upon existing words, though.
But for the learning part, I don’t think we need new words. So my definition of learning has not changed in 2000 or 4000 years. Learning is characterized by a stable and persisting change in what a person or group of people know and can do. How we support learning does change, so the support changes, but not learning. And then, this distinction between learning and instruction is overdone, especially in the USA, and it’s happening for all the wrong reasons. Instruction is simply that which supports intentional learning. Instruction is whatever you design, devise or use to support learning. So, the two were tightly linked together and the kind of learning we care about is intentional learning – learning with a goal or purpose. Structured sequences and activities help learners to achieve the goal. So, those two things are closely intermixed. In the USA, though, we have this fight; it’s an artificial fight, and it’s a stupid fight between people who want to talk about instructional technology and people who want to talk about learning technology. The reality is that the two are interlinked. On the instructional technology side, people see this, but some of the people on the learning technology side, or the learning science side, don’t see the tight coupling of learning and instruction.
A major journal in Europe is called Learning and Instruction. This artificial divide doesn’t exist in Europe. In my mind, the term ‘educational technology’ is the broader term that covers both instructional and learning technology. So, I like the term educational technology. Of course, we have the advanced learning technology conference, and that group had developed a curriculum for advanced learning technologies, and of course, instruction is included in that curriculum.
I don’t know if I have answered your question. I didn’t talk about grid computing, cloud computing, and so forth. To me those involve implementation issues while I think that pedagogical issues should be the focus. It’s not going to go to technology that is a reason for deficient learning – it is the pedagogy and use of technology that are responsible. Between grid and cloud computing, I don’t know which of those is better. The trend seems to be towards cloud computing. 2011 at the ICALT conference that I hosted at the University of Georgia, the theme was around cloud-based resources with the motto — Cloudy with a slight chance of gain. So, the movement to cloud-based technology by itself was not likely to have a big effect on learning; it may make things more efficient or more convenient, but that’s not going to improve learning’ we need something more.
Summary: The debate on instructional technology and learning technology has never stopped. Meanwhile, if we review the nature of instruction and learning, we can find that the definition of learning has not changed for thousands of years, while, how we support learning does change. Learning includes goal-directed, intentional learning and incidental or non-intentional learning. The aim of education is to help the learners achieve their learning objectives in goal-directed learning activities. So, instructional technology and learning technology are tightly linked. As for cloud computing, distributed computing, grid computing, and so forth, the issues involving implementation are trivial when compared to the pedagogical issues. So, what we need focus on is how to use these technologies to support instruction and learning.
4. Research Trends and Suggestions
4.1 Research Trends: Replication Studies, Meta-Analysis, and Large-Scale Study
Interviewer: The Journal of Educational Technology & Society has launched a special issue on “Large Scale Implementations of Academic Research and Academia-Industry Collaboration in Technology-Supported Education.” One of the keywords, in our opinion, is ‘large scale’. In your article entitled as “An editorial on replication studies and scaling up efforts” (Spector, Johnson, & Young, 2015), the keywords are large-scale impact studies, replication studies, and meta-analysis, which are the three initiative discussed there. Could you please explain about the starting point and the significance of these three initiatives?
J. Michael Spector: There are two parts to this answer. One part is because I am an old guy, I look back and I wonder what’s happened in the last 50 years. Of course, technology has changed dramatically. We have made all these promises that learning was going to improve dramatically and it hasn’t happened. So, part of me wonders “Why is that the case?” and in spite of all these powerful technologies, things are pretty much the same and in some cases, worse. I wonder about that. Then, I wonder about the scientific nature of educational technology. So, if we think of ourselves as a scientific enterprise, or an engineering enterprises, knowledge should be cumulative.
We should be learning lessons from the past, and building on that. As educational technology researchers, there is a tendency not to do that. Every researcher wants to create new instruments, do a new study, and it is typically a small-scale study in one school or one district or with regard to one specific technology. We do not learn what can be scaled up to other schools or situations from such studies. The idea of replication studies is to, first of all, share instruments, share validated instruments that we know are reliable. So, we should be sharing the instruments and research protocols. So that we can build up knowledge over a series of studies and have confidence that what was learned from one research effort can be replicated by others and represents a potentially scalable finding that may generalize to other settings. That’s why we need replication studies.
Meta-analysis is another way to get there, so you look at the empirical studies that report effect sizes. With regard to a particular research topic, such as the impact of collaborative learning, say on eight grade science learning. So, you will find all these studies, and then you look at the series of effect sizes to gain an idea of what the likely impact will be when go to another setting. So, meta-analysis is important. We typically are not doing meta-analysis in educational technology research.
Large-scale studies are rarely done because they tend to be longitudinal and are very expensive. In America, the longest project typically supported by a funding agencies is five years, and those are few in number. That is typically not enough. There are some examples of things that have worked but they have been primarily support efforts. Years ago, there was a center for research on educational testing — CRESST — that was set up at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Eva Baker is the head of that and they now are still in existence long after the funding left so this is a place where people can put their assessments studies, their studies on standards, their studies on testing and you can go there and gain some information. But, that’s the exception; that is not the rule. So, we are not building a body of knowledge that accumulates over time, we are not being scientific. Or, we are not being good engineers, we are not learning, you know, when a building collapses, engineers ask “Why did it collapse?” Engineers actively seek an answer. That use of educational technology – LOGO – did not work in that school, “Why didn’t it work?” We don’t answer that question. The engineers will want to know why the building collapsed, because they don’t want to build another one that will collapse. But, we rarely go and look at our failures and try to learn from them.
Summary: The reason for proposing replication studies, meta-analyses, and large-scale impact studies is not only to develop cumulative research and knowledge, but also to support a sense of professional responsibility to systematically contribute to improving learning and instruction. Educational technology has become a subject for more than half a century, while, researchers are high on developing new technologies and applying them in education. However, educational technology advocates have been continuously promising too much – that learning would improve significantly if only this technology or that approach were adopted. Why is it that such powerful technologies have not changed education in the ways that were predicted? The aims of science and research are to accumulate knowledge and advance understanding of the world; this is also an important mission for educational technology researchers. For educational technology researchers, after deciding on questions and approaches and an intervention, the next thing to consider is whether there are credible and reliable instruments that can be used. The aim in meta-analysis s to use statistics to derive a pooled estimate closest to the unknown truth about a particular approach or intervention. We need large-scale studies because ultimately the goal is to develop scalable methods and approaches that can be sustained over a period of years and across various school and state boundaries.
Note: CRESST is the abbreviation of National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, & Student Testing, website: http://www.cse.ucla.edu/)
4.2 Suggestions: Research, Management and Practice
Interviewer: You are an expert in educational technology. So, when facing emerging technologies in education, is there anything you’d like to address to the researchers in the field of ICT in K-12 education?
J. Michael Spector: Educational technology researchers tend to have too much faith that the solution to an educational problem is a particular technology. Along comes a new technology, and a researcher will fall in love with that technology, and claim that it will solve everything. It could be mobile technology; it could be wearable technology. The truth is that it is extremely unlikely that one technology is going to be the solution to everything. So, in general, a lot of researchers and technology advocates have what I call wrong-headed confidence in their beliefs about that technology or a particular approach. They believe too strongly that this is the solution and the only solution for just problem and most or all learning problems. That is not the way the world is. So, we keep promising too much. That is no wonder that people are reluctant to give us money, because we have been lying to them for 50 years. The technology is not the solution; it is a tool that we can use to arrive at the solution. So that what I want to say to researchers: “Let’s not be as arrogant as we have been”. And I have been guilty of this myself.
Interviewer: Is there anything you’d like to address to the policy-makers and administrators related to K-12 education?
J. Michael Spector: Policy-makers and administrators? I mentioned this earlier; they listen to a select few researchers and hardly any practitioners. Typically, they listened to the loudest researchers, the ones who make big claims that are just not likely to be true. They don’t talk to teachers; they don’t look at learners; so they are incline to make polices that just are not likely to work; they need to come down to earth and walk into schools, living in a school for a week with the elementary school kids and see what happens.
Interviewer: Is there anything you’d like to address to K-12 teachers?
J. Michael Spector: The teachers themselves? I have lot of respect for teachers. Initially, I didn’t, when I started that project with the poorly performing rural schools. I thought the teachers would be not very good, and they would not be very smart, and that they would not be dedicated. And it was just the opposite. They were really better than most other teachers. They were dedicated. They wanted those disadvantaged kids to do well. Keep doing what you are doing – that is what I want to say to those teachers. Keep demanding more support. So, I have a lot of respect for teachers who are asked to do so much and are paid too low, at least in my country.
Summary: Educational technology researchers should not blindly pursue new technologies and consider they can solve all educational problems with a certain technology or approach. They should realize that technology is just a tool for seeking answers to educational problems. Policy makers do need to listen less to the loudest researchers; they need get into the classroom and communicate with front-line teachers, parents, and students. The front-line teachers are very dedicated and well-intentioned; they want to do the right thing. They really want to support students and their learning. They wanted that those disadvantaged students to do well. They are asked to do so much and are paid too low, so we should not do that anymore.
Interviewer: Thank you so much. That’s all our questions.
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