The MIT Review is one of my favorite sources of STEM information. This IAE Blog entry is based on an MIT Review article that discusses some of the difficulties encountered by Kentaro Toyama, a computer scientist and educator, as he attempted to use computer technology to improve India’s educational system (Bergstein, 4/15/2015). You can learn more about Toyama and his Microsoft-funded research in educational uses of technology by viewing his TEDx-Tokyo Talks (Toyama, 5/15/2010).

Since his 2010 presentation, Toyama has joined the world of academia and devoted his research and teaching efforts to help inspire more research on effective educational uses of computer technology. Toyama is now an associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan.

While working for Microsoft in India, he supervised and/or was deeply involved in about 50 different projects designed to improve education and reduce poverty. Quoting from the interview of Kentaro Toyama in the Bergstein article (4/15/2015):

Kentaro Toyama calls himself “a recovering technoholic”—someone who once was “addicted to a technological way of solving problems.” Five years in India changed him. After getting his PhD in computer science and working on machine vision technologies at Microsoft, Toyama moved to Bangalore in 2004 to help lead the company’s [Microsoft’s] new research center there. He and his colleagues launched dozens of projects that sought to use computers and Internet connectivity to improve education and reduce poverty. But early successes in pilot projects often couldn’t be replicated; in some schools, computers made things worse.

This is an important idea, applicable throughout the world as people attempt to make use of computer technology to improve education. Toyama’s main point is that the many “obviously proper and good” attempts to make use of computer technology prove to be ineffective. What works well in one environment (schools, teachers, level of poverty, etc) might be ineffective or even fail miserably in another. Quoting Toyama:

I ultimately took stock of 50-odd projects that I had either been directly involved with or supervised. Very few were the kind where we felt, “This is working so well that we should really expand it.” Very often, it was because there were just limits to the human and institutional capacity on the ground that could take advantage of the technology. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Here is an example of what worked with rural, poverty-stricken farmers. The educational goals were to help these farmers improve their farming methods, standard of living, and quality of life.

Quoting again from the Toyama interview (Bergstein, 4/15/2015):

We do these sessions in villages where somebody who is in touch with an agriculture extension person will call together the villagers and then do a screening using small projectors. On the one hand, it’s just basically a video screening. [But] the mediators are trained in a way so that they’re asked to provoke discussion, which is a critical part of the learning process. If you don’t do the mediation, it’s just like watching TV. And the farmers, many of them have TVs in their homes. They see agricultural programs, but that information does not register. They don’t end up implementing it for various reasons. Whereas when they have discussions together, or when they see farmers that are just like them, then they’re much more likely to believe the content of the videos and adopt the farming practice. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Success of such an intervention needs to be measured in terms of appropriate, useful changes in farmers’ practices. Research has shown time and time again how difficult it is to change the established practices of an adult—whether it be a farmer in India or a teacher in the United States. Continuing to quote Toyama:

Multiple times in my lab, we’d run trials where you compare a control situation with a treatment situation. The treatment situation gets some kind of technology. If you measure some positive benefit in the technology case, your conclusion is that technology helped. But it was always the people that we worked with, the partners that we chose and the people on the ground who interacted with the people that we wanted to support. All of those human factors were required for the technology itself to have an impact; whether the technology helped or not was really up to people. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Final Remarks

Toyama argues that education is a human endeavor. Technology can be of help, but it must be appropriate to the people and their environment. In addition, it must be mediated by knowledgeable, concerned, empathetic helpers.

Personally, I have had many years of experience providing staff development in the field of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in education. My level of long-term success in these endeavors has been modest at best.

In recent years, I have read a number of articles that argue that the type of staff development being used in our schools today is both expensive and often ineffective. Toyama’s story helps to explain why. The staff development is not designed to fit the environment in which the teachers and their students are teaching and learning. What the teachers learn is not sufficient to successfully improve curriculum content, teaching processes, and student assessment.

My conclusion is that we can benefit by viewing each teacher’s implementation of what was presented/learned in the staff development as experiment—a type of action research. Often the experiment fails to produce the desired results, but the action research process can help the teacher to gain in knowledge and skills that may make the next implementation more successful.

What You Can Do

In my experience, one of the most effective types of inservice education is one-on-one interaction between a teacher who is effectively implementing an educational process, and another teacher who would like to learn to implement the process. The prospective learner is intrinsically motivated and wants to make effective use of the learning. A modest and timely amount of this one-on-one type of staff development can do wonders.

This approach applies both to teachers working with their fellow teachers, and to all adults who are helping children and other adults. Try it!

References and Resources

Bergstein, B. (4/15/2015). Putting technology in its place. MIT Review.

Moursund, D. (2015). Brain science. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/16/2015 from http://iae-pedia.org/Brain_Science.

Moursund, D. (2015) Brain science for educators and parents. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Available for free downloads: Microsoft Word file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/270-brain-science-for-educators-and-parents.html. PDF file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/271-brain-science-for-educators-and-parents.html.

Moursund, D. (2014). Empowering learners and teachers. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/16/2015 from http://iae-pedia.org/Empowering_Learners_and_Teachers.

Moursund, D. (5/17/2013). Free online math education staff development course. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/16/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/component/easyblog/entry/free-online-math-education-staff-development-course.html?Itemid=58.

Moursund, D. (12/23/2012). What can you do and what will you do? IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/16/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/component/easyblog/entry/what-can-you-do-and-what-will-you-do.html?Itemid=58.

Moursund, D. (10/13/2012). Personal professional development for educators. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/16/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/component/easyblog/entry/personal-professional-development-for-educators.html?Itemid=58.

Moursund, D. (1/24/2012). Staff development to improve education. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/16/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/component/easyblog/entry/staff-development-to-improve-education.html?Itemid=58.

Moursund, D. (8/3/2010). Staff development via distance education. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/16/2015 from http://iae-pedia.org/Staff_Development_via_Distance_Education.

Toyama, K. (5/15/2010). Kentaro Toyama. (Video, 9:27.) TEDx-Tokyo Talks. Retrieved 9/16/2015 from http://www.kentarotoyama.org/profile/default.htm.