Technology: Not a Silver Bullet, But Makes Learning Relevant

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"I don’t believe that cyberlearning is the silver bullet to take over schools and make us better," says Kenneth Eastwood, Superintendent of Middletown City School District in Ohio. "It is to make us more efficient and relevant to the process related to the learners of today, and once, I think, that everybody agrees upon that and comes together and says these are the outcomes for cyberlearning, I think that we can work and play better together in the sandbox.

I spoke to Eastwood at the Cyberlearning Tools for STEM Education Conference recently, where he talked about the integration of technology in education.

Here's the video, and below that is the transcript of the full interview.



I think most importantly, from the student’s perspective, it gives a sense of relevancy to their lives and how they learn, and it connects with the things in their life that keep them active and engaged.  Games, mobile devices, these types of things. One of the things that's, it's kind of taking a long time at happening, which is typical in education, is change. Change from the way we learned, and in my case, back in the '50s and '60s, to how kids are learning today in the new millennium. And we feel comfortable around how we learned and how we now teach, and we feel uncomfortable if it has to change, and we offer up criticism about those kids and their, their type of lifestyle.

So, I think all of that, the culture now, is switching around a little bit, and what we do find in cyberlearning is abilities to help teachers teach more efficiently in the classroom and then to provide very significant opportunities and experiences for kids to practice and expand upon what they learned in the classroom instructional process outside the classroom. That is what is extremely important to me, is that experience piece. Now, they learn the concepts, but now they have ways through cyberlearning to practice and expand on that knowledge base, and it's that, that experience that helps really solidify the learning process. Oftentimes, I think, in some cases, some of the researchers are looking at cyber learning as a silver bullet to take place during the school day or in the school, and I think they're missing the mark there because it, it is not…I don’t believe that cyber learning is the silver bullet to take over schools and make us better. It is to make us more efficient and relevant to the process related to the learners of today, and once, I think, that everybody agrees upon that and comes together and says these are the outcomes for cyber learning, I think that we can work and play better together in the sandbox.


I had had conversations with some people earlier and then yesterday again because I made a comment in defense of teachers yesterday because during the conversations at the cyberlearning conference, I got this sense of disdain against K-12. When we get into a crisis situation like we are nationally and by state, there's this tendency to throw rocks by everybody, and when you throw rocks, all you do is beat people up, and then nobody's left. Who's last standing is, is really who wins, and that's really not what we need right now.

The argument and the case around cyberlearning should be what can it produce and what can it add to the instructional process, not we need to do this because the system's broke and teachers don't teach well. That's not the argument, and, once you start the argument, as I think has happened, there's division that's going to be a long time coming to bring us back together again.  I think we need to develop respect for each other and an understanding and work things out, and I, I believe that's going to take a while.  I'm concerned that the crisis around education today and the loss of funding and those types of things is not going to, it's not going to bring us together.  It's going to divide us even more. But I, personally, I think that cyberlearning has some very, very valuable outcomes for schools and teachers, and teachers do have the capacity to change, when it's done properly, to take that, those tools and use them properly and strengthen the learning process.

So right now, I think it's just people who are doing the research feel that they're on the bleeding edge, and they want everybody to follow, and the teachers have gone through the cycle of, oh, this another new thing, and we know that technology in the research perspective adds very little to the outcomes of students in real terms when practiced.  So, you have all these people who have experience in different…and come from different frames of mind that we really need to take it and bring it together.  I, I have a funny story that I learned way back when, and it's about technology and how education is so far behind, and I use it when I work with teachers all the time, and I, I say to them about how when we were growing up and teachers were using overhead projectors, we felt like we were in, at the cutting edge of things, right? But bowling alleys were using overhead projectors 15 and 20 years before schools got them. So, that we always do lag behind in this progression, but understanding that, we also need to know how, given everything that sits in front of us now, making sure that all kids are learning well, how can we take this, even if it's behind the times, for a better term, and improve instruction rather than just dive into it because it's politically sexy.

I think that right now, much of it is still in the research phase, and how I interpret it is I don’t in-, I don’t look at it as the silver bullet to education.  I look at it as connecting to issues around relevancy of how kids are learning and living today, and it's that connection to relevancy that, for me, helps kids engage in, in academics.  What I do think is that cyber learning is something that these kids do on a constant basis.  We also know that our kids at risk, 10 years ago, they would go home and they would text on the PC, alright?  A network device that connects into the wall.  We find that significantly less kids now…we, we lived in an environment where around 90, 92% of our kids, even homes with poverty, 10 years ago had computers because that's how they communicated.  Today, it's probably only about 10 or 15% because they all have mobile devices.  So, if, if, if, in fact that's the case, and those mobile devices are so powerful now, we, as an educational institution, have to find ways of using that to help extend learning and communicate with our students and our parents, and we do that quite well.


One of the things that I think that's, that's going on now, there's a lot of conversation around the title of games, and what I'm seeing in the concept of games here is really nothing more than what we've been doing for 10 or 15 years, which is instructional resources.  It's not really a game to me, and, in a sense, they say well, we're using a different type of presentation that looks like a game, but it's not a game.  A game in real sense is a device or a way of students getting experiences at something, and they do it over an extended period of time because the reinforcement schedules inside that game keep them going further and further and in more advanced ways and also helps them to learn.  In other words, they're learning about the game, but the reinforcement schedules are so tight and so well designed that it pushes them and pushes them and pushes them because it, it doesn't give them so much negative that they give up.  It gives them a little bit of negative to challenge them and understand that they have to keep working, but then, when they start to break, it brings them back to a success, so now they're back to the cycle again.

From my perspective, I came here because I thought that that's what the games were all about, not instructional resources because in real games I want to learn more about the reinforcement schedules and how can I transfer that knowledge and practice into the educational classroom, the instructional program. Because if our teachers can learn how to set up instructional schedules better so kids are, in fact, engaged more and they'll do that over a longer period of time like they do in an actual game, that produces wonderful results inside the classroom. So, that's what I was hoping for, but I think that in cyber learning right now, they're really looking at instructional resources more than true games that have these strong, extended time frames of engagement with, with absolutely wonderful reinforcement schedules. So, I think we have a little, a little bit of knowledge to go there.  I had looked at some of the Microsoft new products that are coming out.  We are intrigued by some of those things, and Montage is also out there, which we actually had a conversation with them last night, and they're going to come into our district and take a look at how they can help us develop our, or improve our technological capacity inside the classroom in the buildings. So, there, there is some products out there that we're going to be taking a deeper look at and possibly bringing inside.

Reinforcement schedules, it's like the old Skinnerian theory.  If I want you to do something, I'll give you an M&M.  So, oh, I have an M&M, so now I'm going to…what, what else would you like?  Well, the interesting thing about reinforcement schedules are if I just kept giving you an M&M, your behavior would change because now you know you could anything to get an M&M.  Well, that's not real learning.  It stops at a point, and now the kids are just playing with your head, right? So, in a real reinforcement schedules, there's also going to be some times where you're unsuccessful. So now it's indiscriminate.  So now you don’t know if you're going to get one or not, so you're going to keep trying to make sure you get one.  So in those indiscriminate reinforcement schedules, which I call really tight, then what happens is you never know what the outcome is going to be,  and you have to keep pushing to be successful, to get, get that success.

And in games, it's, I play on mine with my daughter all the time, Angry Birds, and we have this game. Some people look at it and say, "You're 60 years old and you play Angry Birds?"  Well, it's fun, and the reinforcement schedules inside that are wonderful.  I fail probably five out of six times.  The sixth time I'm successful, and I'll move on, right?  But I'll try five times to be successful like the sixth time.  But inside that…and then it's a social network where I'm now playing with my daughter as well because she's 25, physical therapist, and she, she wants to make sure she beats Dad.  So I mean, all those things. You have both the inside reinforcement schedules, which allow failure, but not so much failure you give up, that then the re-, the success does come.  And then, once you get that success, then you keep playing again, and your skill level keeps going up, and you learn more.

Now, the interesting thing about Angry Birds is, if you really look at that game, it's also a lot about engineering because you have to look at the design, right?  Or the, the…where the pigs are and figure out what is the design of that in such a way that I could create the most damage to bring it down.  So, there's a lot of really creative thinking and advanced thinking inside a simplistic game like that, but, at the same time, the rein-…as I refer to it as the reinforcement schedules are, I will play that as a 60-year-old because it keeps me, the reinforcement schedule, keeps allowing me to fail, but also, eventually to be successful to the point where I'll keep playing. It is those reinforcement schedules that we know some kids, especially the at risk kids, they're going to have more opportunities at failure than most kids, but they also need the times when they're successful, so once they are successful, they can say, "I have been successful. I worked through the failure, and now, I can move to the next step and keep working harder."


That reinforcement, or that type of reinforcement is very important inside the classroom, especially for the type of kids that I work with, which are most at risk kids because it's the per-…the issue around persistence, meaning I'm going to keep working harder, that we have to make sure that we find reinforcement schedules inside our instructional programs even though they do fail, that they persist to the successful stage.  And, of course, the end product is graduation rings. They will stay, they will stick with it.  They will have some failure.  They work through that, but not so much that they give up, and it's those reinforcement schedules that we need to understand and make sure that our kids get so the, the graduation rates for these at most, at risk kids, they, they persist through the system, and they actually graduate.