The 2011 K-12 Horizon Report: Too optimistic?

I asked fellow BigThink blogger Kirsten Winkler if she would join me in writing about the recently-released 2011 K-12 Horizon Report. She’s done a nice job of summarizing the six trends highlighted in this year’s report and I encourage you to perhaps read her post before you read this one. I confess that she’s more positive than I am about the state of K-12 educational technology, perhaps because of her start-up perspective.


Although the postsecondary series of Horizon Reports started back in 2004, there only have been three annual reports so far aimed at elementary and secondary educators. Like those aimed at higher (tertiary) education, the K-12 reports attempt to identify “six emerging technologies or practices that are likely to enter mainstream use in the educational community within three adoption horizons over the next one to five years” (2011, p. 3, emphasis added). Here’s what the reports have identified so far for elementary and secondary schools:

According to the three reports, your average educator today should now “be work[ing] across geographic and cultural boundaries more and more frequently, … recogniz[ing] the importance of collaborative work [environments,] and … finding that online tools … provide [her and her] students with opportunities to work creatively, develop teamwork skills, and tap into the perspectives of people around the world with a wide range of experiences and skills that differ from their own” (2009, p. 5). She also should now be using instant messaging, desktop video conferencing, and other online communication tools to open up “a new world of experiences” for students (2009, p. 5). Additionally, mobile computing devices and cloud computing should be on the verge of mainstream educator usage, with augmented reality right around the corner.

I don’t see it happening. Are some teachers doing this? Absolutely. Are more educators doing these things than before? Yes, thank goodness. Are these tools now in the mainstream of K-12 educational practice? Not a chance, except in isolated schools of excellence. We still have too many teachers who have no clue what Google Docs or Twitter are, for example. We still have too many administrators who are blocking mobile learning devices and are fearful of online learning spaces. And so on…

Here’s what I think we have seen instead: mainstream adoption and growth of replicative technologies (i.e., those that allow teachers to mirror traditional educational practices only with more bells and whistles). These are what Hughes, Thomas, & Scharber (2006) would call technology as replacement or, perhaps, technology as amplification. Replicative technologies include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • interactive whiteboards (which replicate chalkboards or dry erase boards);
  • student response systems, aka “clickers” (which replicate multiple choice worksheets or student lap boards);
  • use of digital projectors to show students teacher-created PowerPoint slides (which replicates overhead projectors);
  • showing of teacher-selected online videos (which replicates DVD/VHS players);
  • student use of pre-selected or filtered web sites to do ‘research’ (which replicates encyclopedias and pre-selected sets of learning materials from libraries);
  • content management systems such as Blackboard or Moodle (which, again, the teachers create and the students mostly consume);
  • and so on…
  • Each of these replicative technologies introduces affordances beyond its analog counterpart. The bottom line, however, is that even when digital technologies are used in classrooms or online, we still primarily see learning environments where teachers push out information to student recipients and then assess students’ factual recall and low-level procedural skills (i.e., the stuff you can find on Google in 3 seconds). When the technologies are used, it’s primarily the teacher using them, not the students. They’re teacher-centric tools, not student-centric tools.

    Foreseeing the future is admittedly difficult work. In a world that’s changing as quickly as ours, predicting even a few years out is extremely challenging. While commendable, the vision of the Horizon Reports toward more divergent, student-centered uses of technology runs into the realities of school practice and educator belief systems. To the extent that school traditions and desires for control are going down, they’re doing so kicking and screaming all along the way.

    Replicative technologies are the easiest for teachers to adopt because they’re the shortest path between current practice and new tool usage. They’re also the easiest for school leaders to stomach because they look fairly familiar and cause less angst regarding perceived issues of pedagogical control and disruption. We would expect replicative technologies to be a natural step along the journey of educators’ technology adoption. The question is whether educator adoption of replicative technologies eventually will lead to more transformative, student-centered uses of digital learning tools or whether the current wave of educator tool usage simply will be replaced by whatever is the next generation of replicative technologies (just as the chalkboard was replaced by the overhead projector, which then was replaced by the interactive whiteboard). I think that question is still open for consideration. Until it gets resolved toward the former rather than the latter, the Horizon Reports will continue to be overly optimistic regarding the pace of adoption in our schools of more disruptive digital learning tools such as game-based learning or personal learning environments.

    Big Think
    Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

    Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

    As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

    Keep reading Show less

    Scientists discover how to trap mysterious dark matter

    A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.

    Surprising Science
    • Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
    • Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
    • The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
    Keep reading Show less

    Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

    Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

    Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
    Surprising Science
    • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
    • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
    • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

    The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

    But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

    What's dead may never die, it seems

    The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

    BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

    The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

    As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

    The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

    "This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

    An ethical gray matter

    Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

    The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

    Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

    Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

    "This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

    One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

    The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

    "There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

    It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

    Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

    The dilemma is unprecedented.

    Setting new boundaries

    Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

    She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

    Videos
    • As a stand-up comedian, Pete Holmes knows how words can manipulate audiences — for good and bad.
    • Words aren't just words. They stich together our social fabric, helping establish and maintain relationships.
    • Holmes has a clever linguistic exercise meant to bring you closer to the people around you.