“Sometimes,” the tech director I chatted with at a recent conference shared with me, “I feel like I’m one of the adults in the Emperor’s New Clothes book (Read it online). I just found out we’re going to implement an ILS at the middle school level.” This comment brought to my attention a disturbing shift in the approaches technologists are being forced to take to prepare students for No Child Left Behind accountability measures.

As Richard Elmore points out in his article in Educational Leadership (November, 2003), “When we bear down on testing without the reciprocal supply of capacity. . .schools search for short-term solutions–test preparation–rather than longer-term, more powerful solutions, such as curriculum-focused professional development.” It is this push that drives some central office administrators in public schools to turn to a sleek, short-term success solution like integrated learning systems (ILS).

ILS Selection Process 1. Form a team comprised of the participants—teachers, community members, administrators, students (Hill, 1993). 2. Have teachers select the software and ILS. Once selected, the system should be integrated into the local curriculum by the appropriate district curriculum staff. This role should not be usurped by computer teachers or the district computer coordinator or director (Wiberg, March 1992). 3. Using your district curriculum as a baseline, look at the ILS curriculum to see how it matches your curriculum (Mageau, 1992). 4. Use the rubric available at http://www.mguhlin.net/portfolio/writings/2002/ilses.html

Many articles regarding integrated learning system alternate between praise and disdain. The fact is while integrated learning systems hold great potential for impacting test scores over the short-term—such as a year–in the long term they are not as effective. But, for central office, short-term gains in student achievement are worth the $50,000 per ILS campus implementation, not to mention the cost of a networkable computer lab with district aggregation capabilities (an estimated $20,000).
Campus administrators and teachers find themselves in an awkward situation—they know the research does not support integrated learning systems, but they are forced to implement a solution that just does not work well for most students (Becker, 1992). Some other reasons why ILSes do not prepare students for a world that requires ill-structured problem-solving:

  • The ILS won’t work if you use it for less than 3 times a week and just leave it to “get on with things on its own.” (Ian Hedley, Carter Community School, ILS Coordinator).
  • ILS successful results—often self-reported or by a subsidized researcher–relate to how they were publicized. Studies in reports from the vendor all show substantial positive effect sizes. Those from independent sources show modest or negligible effects (Bracey, 1991).
  • The ILS can teach routine skills but they cannot teacher higher order thinking skills or conceptual thinking. Students using an ILS for more than a term had become less enthusiastic about the system (White, 1993).

As a bilingual teacher who witnessed integrated learning systems and their lack of efficacy in the famous Edgewood ISD, I am alarmed at how often students in at-risk situations are forced to use integrated learning systems of some sort. It is frightening to consider a return to these methods of “improving” student achievement. As it states in the book Towards Digital Equity: Bridging the Divide in Education, economically disadvantaged students “learn to do what the computer tells them, while affluent students, learn to tell the computer what to do” (Solomon, Allen, Resta, 2003). It is clear that my children will learn to tell the computer what to do, while students in ILS-using school districts will be told what to do, perpetuating the cycle of passivity and lower-order thinking.

Despite Becker’s key research, some are still ignorant. Yet, what do you do if you are the technology director responsible for implementing an integrated learning system? Do you follow orders, remaining quiet, or resign in protest? This article does not address selection of ILSes—except as an aside—since implementation of ILSes is usually a top-down decision. Of course, you can always tell the emperor—represented by central office administration and/or school board—that his clothes are missing.

As an administrator, it is your job to do what the superintendent and school board say. ILS research does show that ideal implementation can result in short-term gains. It is important that you know what to do. So, what are best practices for ILSes? This short article will get you on the right track. The information in this article is based on interviews and an intensive review of the research regarding integrated learning systems, only some of which is shared here. You can find the references online—with research excerpts—at http://www.mguhlin.net/portfolio/writings/2002/ilses.html

Integrated learning systems are often poorly implemented. Despite the best intentions of the company, and its professional development facilitators, top-down administrators are looking for a teacher-less, “thinking adult”-free lab environment. After a district spends so much money on an ILS, it seems nonsensical to spend more money on a lab manager and professional development. We know that computers cannot teach children to apply what they learn to real life problems (NCREL, 2002). Also, most teachers need a support person who is the in-house integrated learning system expert. These persons should be teachers who are knowledgeable about the curriculum and technical aspects of the system (Sherry, 1992).

In an interview with a campus administrator and lab manager where an ILS had been successfully implemented—that is, raised test scores for the first two years–the lab manager states that his responsibilities include the following on a daily basis. Note the percent of time spent each day on the responsibilities identified below:
÷ Technical Support and system administration (70%)
÷ Assisting teachers with implementation of the program (20%)
÷ Documenting and reporting progress (5%)
÷ Teaching students to use the ILS (5%)

According to the lab manager for this large school district campus, “The lab manager is critical to the implementation of the ILS. Teachers would not be able to do what I do. There is a little bit of technical background on how to manage the system. I can see a problem and trouble-shoot the issues.” He goes on to state that teachers’ first assumption. Common problems encountered include the following: 1) Computer might lock-up; 2) Computer will have problems with network settings; and 3) Lose icon/shortcut to the ILS and it has to be recreated. While professional development could be done for all teachers in an ILS implementation, a lab manager provides on the spot access to a technical problem-solver. Indeed, one might ask whether the lab manager was the student refining his/her higher order thinking skills.The lab manager also works to print out the reports and worksheets as requested by staff. S/he is able to provide necessary in-house support for teachers (Smith, 2002).

Hill (1993) states that it is important to provide comprehensive training for teachers and administrators on the ILS. This training should begin prior to its arrival and be done by the ILS consultants. In this way, Hill writes, the district can avoid the problem resulting from the lack of teacher support. This point in the research was supported by the interview with the campus administrator. He stated that “Prior to the implementation, we identified a focus population to be targeted based on interim testing and TAKS results. Teachers of those populations, the instructional coordinator and lab manager, were given one full day of training prior to the start of the program. Other staff were given a half day informational training.”

Key components of the training should include time for teachers to preview lessons. Teachers should be given additional in-school time specifically for previewing ILS lessons. The curriculum in an ILS is extensive and they cannot be taken home like other materials. A final suggestion is that teachers should have access to the ILS lab during after-school or weekend hours (Sherry, 1992).

The benefits of having a teacher in the lab while students work on the ILS cannot be emphasized enough. Teachers are able to take advantage of “teachable moments,” relate how they are doing in the ILS curriculum to classroom learning. As the campus administrator shares, “Teachers can see where the students are at and try to evaluate what is going on.” This is supported by NCREL (1996) research that states that “Efforts must be made to facilitate students’ transfer of knowledge to other domains of experience.” Even though students may learn isolated skills and tools, it will be difficult for them to see how the various skills fit together to solve problems.

No matter how wonderful the ILS curriculum, if the hardware is not in place, the $50,000 software investment is wasted. It is important that the hardware and network be able to support the ILS implementation. Hardware can be anything from routers/switches to the requisite headphones with microphone included. Without the former, connectivity is an impossibility. Without the latter, students cannot take advantage of the ILS’s multimedia capabilities.

While there are many issues to consider when selecting and implementing an Integrated Learning System—not the least of which is “Why abandon technology applications and problem-based learning for such a poor approach?”—these 4 points are critical to successful implementation. There are profound financial implications for each of these steps that should be considered PRIOR to undertaking an ILS implementation.

As Becker (1992) writes in his review of 100 ILS studies, there is little evidence of ILS impact on student achievement. Where differences were found between the achievement of ILS users and comparable non-users, Becker concluded they were too small to have any educational significance.

In this time of economic hardship, sticking to the principles we hold dear can be difficult. Perhaps, rather than remaining quiet, we can share the research with superintendents and principals that drill-n-kill has little place in the technology applications:TEKS classroom. Maybe then, the grown-ups will be unafraid to proclaim the emperor’s lack of clothing on behalf of the children we serve.

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