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Student Centered Instructional Technology: New Opportunities (draft)

January 28, 2013


Kentaro Toyama is a researcher in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.  In  “There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education” , Toyama drew on the work of Larry Cuban and Todd Oppenheimer to draw attention to a “repetitive cycle of technology in education that goes through hype, investment, poor integration, and lack of educational outcomes.”

To escape the cycle, we must subject ourselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompts reinvention of the methods by which we endeavor to achieve our goals. This relentless self-awareness is discussed in forthcoming book “The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well” by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield. By engaging in this practice we can ascertain the limits of our current methodology and allow ourselves the opportunity to change course. Thusly, can we create space for iterative feedback necessary for effecting positive innovation in schools.

At the middle school where I work in East Palo Alto, we’ve created a student oriented cycle for the procurement, development and integration of instructional technology. Here’s the first of many lab reports to come out of McNair Middle School where we’re taking on mission of being an incubator of best practices for teaching with educational technology. The reports will put forth our objectives, assumptions, trials and lessons learned.

Report 1:

Objective: Reach the “reluctant learners”

Reluctant Learners: 5% of students who are not making progress with online reading and math programs that were adopted by the school.

Goal: adjust programs that the school currently subscribes to, or find new programs that would engage these students in learning.


1. The assessments used by programs that the school currently subscribes to provide inaccurate measurements of the students’ abilities.

2. The assessments used by programs that the school currently subscribes to provide correctly measured student’s abilities but prescribed curriculum that was “hella bootsy” (too slow in its presentation and progression).

3. The units or lessons were too lengthy and left students feeling frustrated that they’d put in so much effort but not been able to complete the lesson during class period. This frustration often carried over to the next day and made them reticent to re-engage with the program.

4. The “hints” or “lessons” provided were entirely text or altogether missing. Either way, the students were not able to learn what they needed to complete the assignment/level and left feeling “stupid”.

Lessons Learned:

We need to try other programs!

Criteria for new programs we would pilot:

+ Must be fast paced units that were less than eight minutes in length.

+ Preferably, these programs would come with paper-based activities to complete by hand using information from online program. (While paper handouts are often criticized as being passe at worst and environmentally unfriendly at best, students felt more accomplished when they could hand in a piece of paper with completed work. Additionally, many of these students had difficultly sitting still for long periods of time and completing the handouts with pen or pencil provided opportunity for movement.)

+ Program can’t make these students feel like they are dumb or using something that is used by students in lower grades. No student should look at it and say “this thing’s for babies!” / “Do you think I’m dumb?!”

+ Gamification – I don’t care how you define “gamify” but the more it looks like a video game the less likely they were to hate it.


The result of the work was tremendously positive. By piloting different programs with these students we were able to find two that were tailored to their specific needs and capable of delivering lessons that enabled them to develop deep understanding of new content and skills. The information was passed along (bottom -> up) and informed district level decision makers of the need and importance of investing in programs that were working  for these students. We were able to invite teachers into our classroom setting to observe how we introduced and used these programs with these students. In this setting, teachers were actively engaged in learning and able to see the positive value of adopting and introducing these programs.






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