Output focussed policies and education technology

I read an old article today that got me thinking yet again of the problem with output focussed policy frameworks. Then just as I was about to move on to the ‘next article’ I noticed a tweet from @edutweetoz (this week Jarvis Ryan) about the very topic used as an example in the old article – use of ICT and equity. This one is for you Jarvis.

In the article by Valerie  Bockstette she writes that a colleague had relayed to her that he’d seen a study that says that the good news is that these days low income children have more “screen time”….The bad news is that these days low income children have more “screen time” than their more affluent peers.

He argued that research shows that, in general, kids across all groups are spending too much time in front of screens, and that low income kids now spend more time than their more affluent peers. Yes, the good news is the bad news in this case.

Bockstette goes on to say that:

“If we articulate the problem only as “bridging the digital divide” – aka ensuring “access to information technology” we’ve done ourselves a favor as access is somewhat easy to count …and… for a long time, there was a problem with the digital divide with low income households and students of color unable to participate in the digital age, and the problem was ensuring access. So at that time, measuring access was actually okay. But of course, once you ensure access, you have to ensure that use is of quality.”

In other words, as you get closer to the finish line, you better move the goal post again. If we stick to the original measures of success around access or usage (screen time) as a proxy for success, we’ve gone down a dangerous path.

More screen time is not necessarily good.  More access to iPads wont of itself deliver better learning outcomes.  They can be used to foster curiosity, research skills, critical literacy and collaboration or they can hamper creativity, interpersonal interaction and self-directed exploration. The problem should have been articulated differently: “low income children aren’t able to experience the personal and academic benefits that can come from access to information technology.” Then the measurement would not have been number of children reached, but the actual personal and academic benefits. These benefits could include improved educational achievement, ability to lead healthier lives, increased economic opportunity, and participation in their communities. Harder to measure of course, but avoids the trap of declaring success just by posting high usage numbers.

This is a good example of the danger of outputs or the trouble with wrongly defining the problem.

Measuring results is hard. For this reason we often settle for proxies that are more pragmatic. Things we can count. However, more and more I see this as a dangerous method in the long-run.