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Who Can You Trust About
BY RICHARD ROSE
I have good reason to love research. Thanks to a hip made of metal and plastic and a team of doctors versed in research, I once again can relish my daily walk. I never forget that research was the reason the doctors knew how fix me up. Still, there is no doubt that educational technology research is something to be approached, not with the faith of a committed believer, but with the skepticism of a judge. Here are reasons why.
MONEY-DRIVEN RESEARCH. When educational technology first arrived in K-12 schooling, there were vast amounts of money to be made by technology providers who could convince school districts that computers were effective in addressing problems, such as low test scores and lack of critical thinking. This led interested parties to fund vast amounts of research to make their respective cases. Every new wave of product has come with its own wave of marketing-oriented research. When research is funded by companies, it lines up on the side of “Go for it!” with amusing regularity.
Not all influence on research is direct. The main job of many national and international nonprofit organizations is to beat the drum for educational technology. They have strong financial links to the vendors who support their conventions and publications. The survival of these organizations depends on retaining a true believer’s mind-set that the newest technology is a sound way to spend money.
Research supported by teachers’ unions also can be undiscriminating in its embrace of the most fashionable technology. They cannot afford to be seen as obstructing progress in the interest of protecting their less-adaptable members.
LACK OF CONSENSUS. With all the money and politics swirling around the issue, it is not surprising that where one stands depends on where one sits. Because the producers of educational technology research sit in so many different places, it is not surprising that everyone can cite research to support his or her position. It is simply a matter of declaring the writers agree with one’s own viewpoint as the most insightful and best informed.
THE PUBLICATION STRAINER. Educational technology publications emphasize the commonplace in exotic packaging. Their reviewers often are untenured faculty and are not typically the most experienced of practitioners. They are drawn to what is safe and familiar, hopefully with one tiny new wrinkle of novelty. The result can be branded as “cutting edge,” while still not disturbing their personal platform of doctrines absorbed from whatever was current when they were in graduate school.
AUTHOR TIMIDITY AND PRAGMATISM. All of the above is known, either consciously or at a gut level, by contributors to both scholarly publications and popular education technology magazines. Because busy faculty members have no time to waste writing what will not be published, it is not surprising that authors provide the uncritical enthusiasm for new technologies that their publications expect.
It would overstate the case to suggest that all educational technology research is either tainted by vested interest or too insipid to bother with. But while we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater, we also must admit a lot of bathwater is getting published. If the existing mountain of educational technology research cannot be trusted to provide meaningful guidance about what technology the nation’s schools should be buying and how they should be using it, where is that guidance to be found?
The answer comes from the knowledge that, like politics, all useful educational technology knowledge is local. The best course is to place small bets on the best guesses of yourself and your colleagues, based on careful observation and experience. Then double down on what works in your own patch. The research you read might suggest avenues of exploration but should never be the primary basis of your technology decisions.
Don’t be afraid of being wrong. As the great movie producer William Goldman noted in his 1983 best-seller Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting, if he said “yes” to every project he declined in his career and “no” to every project he accepted, he would have ended up with just about the same amount of success. Trusting your local wisdom will increase your success potential because your colleagues will own your technology choices and will naturally invest more energy in making them work for your students.
Richard Rose, a former Microsoft engineer, is the program director for educational technology and instructional design at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org