Research Roundup

May 21, 2010
J-C Couture, ATA Government staff

The culture of things: technology in our schools

“The culture of things—invention and technology—is ever changing under the tide of words and routines whose role is to imagine fixity and agreement when, in reality, none exists.”
—Timothy Taylor[1]

A highlight of the Association’s research activities this year is a collaborative study entitled Using Emerging Technologies to Support Real Learning First in Alberta Schools. Spurred by the concern that Alberta Education historically has failed to consider that curriculum and instruction should drive decisions related to technology, the ATA engaged Stephen Murgatroyd, an expert on technology and innovation, and ATA Executive Staff Officer J-C Couture, to undertake the study.

The study begins with the premise that all material things, including technologies, are political in nature and attract different social, economic and political interests that contest their appropriate uses and place in society. Therefore, we must be mindful, that social and political forces are always at work when it comes to technology in schools. As the study asks, for example, why school district technology leaders are almost always male when Alberta’s teaching force is three-quarters female? What are the social and economic interests of proponents of online report cards and student records databases (a booming software industry currently in Canada)?

Since the early 1980s, the government of Alberta, school districts and schools have invested more than $1.5 billion in information and communications technology (ICT). The preponderance of this funding has been used to acquire hardware and software and to keep it up to date. Investment in PD and collaborative inquiry to help educators take advantage of these technologies has been paltry by comparison, and little effort has been spent on making the kind of cultural changes at the jurisdictional and school levels that are necessary to implement technology in a way that truly enhances student learning. Aside from small-scale projects that have been used as showcases, there has been a limited rethinking curriculum design and instructional practice. For example, with approximately 1,250 distinct learner outcomes in Grade 7, how can we possibly adapt pedagogy to capitalize on emerging technologies?

The study raises important questions about changes anticipated in Inspiring Education: A Dialogue with Albertans, the minister of education’s recent public consultation on the future of education. What is the legacy of previous ministry policy changes and how effective have they transformed teaching and learning? Do schools have the necessary ICT to equip today’s students with the skills they will need to fulfill their career ambitions? How can we best invest in ICT and develop a strategy for infusing it into Alberta schools in the years ahead?

During the last three decades, Alberta Education has employed four rationales to justify its investment in ICT in Alberta schools:

  1. ICT makes education more efficient.
  2. ICT helps students build a sense of community and connect to the world.
  3. ICT is needed to engage the interest of the so-called digital generation.
  4. ICT is essential to equip students to function in the knowledge age of the 21st century.

Each rationale is based on a different set of values. Therefore, the kind of change that would result by pursuing any one approach to its logical conclusion is quite distinct. Also, each has its own highly politicized ideology that is not necessarily consistent with the others. Alberta Education has tended to embrace a combination of these ideologies at the same time and, as a result, its IT strategies lack coherence. For example, promoting problem-based deep learning in schools while subjecting such learning to the bureaucratic accountability requirements of standardized testing sends contradictory messages to educators and the general public. The situation is compounded by the fact that the government has never developed a long-term approach to education planning and funding, and instead has relied on the vagaries of oil and gas revenues. To complicate matters even further, there is a lack of coherent direction in the education ministry: its various branches work at odds with each other, and consultations with education partners achieve mixed results.

Society needs to look at the ethical, physiological and social costs associated with digital connectivity. These costs vary with the age, gender and socioeconomic status of the young people involved. For example, an emerging body of research suggests that looking at a computer screen for long periods of time may not be healthy for children. Indeed, the Canadian Paediatric Society has recently revised its screen-time guidelines to recommend that children under the age of two not be exposed to computer screens at all.

Inspiring Albertans focused on the mode of delivery rather than the content of learning, and Alberta Education’s attempt in the last couple of years to launch a distributed learning strategy has floundered because the government has failed to consider both the relationship between the various branches of the education ministry and the diverse needs of Alberta’s 1,850 schools. What is needed instead is an open and thoughtful discussion of the purposes of school and the kinds of students we want to develop. Rather than uttering government catch phrases such as “meeting the needs of 21st century learners,” Using Emerging Technologies to Support Real Learning First in Alberta Schools shows how the current industrial model of schooling needs to be a starting point for the work ahead.

The study concludes with seven key directions for the future. Threaded through all of them is the notion that before investing time and money in technology, education partners must examine the ideologies that have driven initiatives to infuse digital technologies in schools and revisit the fundamental question: what do we want and expect from our schools?

Dr. J.C. Couture is an executive staff officer with the Government program area of the ATA. 


[1] Taylor is an archaeologist and social theorist who has written extensively on the relationship of technology and culture (http://www.edge.org/q2009/q09_1.html).