Instructional Software: Just a Cleanup Activity after Ineffective Teaching??

How instructional software is positioned in the minds of many educators and others is outdated, and misleading.

The conventional model of instructional software (I am thinking “core” subject like mathematics) began, naturally, as a digital extension of conventional teaching. So: practice problems, read onscreen, with multiple choice answers, instant grading and perhaps with some gamification of scores. But if you didn’t “need” the “extra teaching,” you didn’t “need” the instructional software. So it was optional: for some students, some of the time.

There were two logical models for deciding for whom and when to use instructional software: use it for remedial students, or periodic diagnostic tests (eventually also online) for everyone, to determine which skills the student needed more practice in; then assign instructional software just for those specific skills. The metaphor is “filling the holes in the Swiss cheese.”

Implicit in those models was that some students did not need any instructional software: those who learned sufficiently from the standard, no-software-involved, teaching. The instructional software served a role of “cleaning-up” whatever gaps were left unfilled or incomplete after the normal teaching. By observation then,  the regular teaching on its own was ineffective in achieving the learning goal for some students some of the time. (The reason it was ineffective could include many things outside of the teacher’s control, of course.)

Despite the recent emergence of “blended learning” as a desirable future model of combining digital content with teacher & chalkboard learning, at present the preponderance of students still use zero instructional software in their studies. And frequently, even in 2013’s “state-of-the-art” blended learning examples, the role of the digital content is still essentially more practice, like a digitization of homework reps, albeit with intelligent sourcing of problems and with instant scoring.

Similarly, in many 2013 RFP’s the instructional software is specified for RTI tier 2 interventions for struggling students only. This means that not only do the RTI tier 1 “OK” students not need any digital component in the normal course of their learning, it’s not even seen as a way to prevent “OK” students from slipping into tier 2.

All of the above makes sense if you see the role of instructional software as just enabling “more.” More of what teachers ideally, technically “could,” but in the real world can’t, deliver because of the constraints of scarce time, and thus the impossibility of differentiating teaching to productively engage each learner and suit the pace of each learner. So the instructional software provides more time for those students and situations who just didn’t get enough time from conventional teaching.

But consider: more time for students has been tried, and tried, and doesn’t get game-changing results. By game-changing I mean ensuring that every student understands and gains content mastery and confidence in a subject – like math. If more of the same did work for challenging situations, then the mere, but very expensive, application of additional teacher time (double-block, repeated courses, pull-outs) would be shown to “fix” the problem. Which in math, certainly, it doesn’t — not at a scale and cost which can be universal and sustained (i.e. beyond a one-on-one tutorial). So instructional software’s role to give “more of the same” is not a fix.

This pigeon-holing of instructional software as for “clean up” is too limiting. If that’s your model, you wouldn’t even think of buying — or making — instructional software that has fundamental and vital value for every student. Fundamental and vital is how we view… textbooks. Lawsuits are filed and won to ensure that every student has a textbook. When the day comes that a lawsuit is filed, fought and won to ensure that every student has effective instructional software we will know that the pigeon-holing is over.

Here’s an analogy of this positioning problem to the world of exercise and health. It’s as if instructional software is seen as physical therapy, rather than as physical conditioning. It’s as if it’s just for those who are in some way injured, or chronically weak, rather than for everyone who wants to get in shape. You get diagnosed for your injury, perhaps a shoulder tweak, you do your therapy reps with rubber bands, and one happy day you’re healthy enough to quit doing the P.T., forever.

The future, additional role of instructional software is as a vital component of the learning environment, for every student and teacher. It’s like joining and then diligently using a gym’s facilities and moreover its trainers, motivation and social aspects. Properly designed and trained and supported, it’s a gym program that gets everyone more fit. No one gets to “test out”. No one gets to work “just on their weaknesses.”

And it’s not implicit that “ineffective teaching” is the raison d’etre for instructional software. This is turned completely inside-out: instructional software, in the hands of a teacher, makes teaching and learning more powerful and effective generally, throughout the school year: differentiating to reach every student (including the strongest), engaging and motivating each student at an appropriate level and pace, and providing multiple opportunities for the teacher to assess, diagnose, and consolidate student learning.

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