A closed loop instruction system?

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has just released a report titled Unleashing the Potential of Technology in Education, which examines the role of technology in the post-No Child Left Behind era, identifying lessons learned in both K-12 and higher education. I couldn't help when I skimmed through that it seems we keep going in circles with much of this stuff in education – seems I've been reading these same sorts of statements for more than 20 years now. Take this piece from the introduction:

The simple fact that these new educational tools exist and have advanced so significantly does not guarantee a revolution in student outcomes—neither does it mean that schools will adopt these novel technologies in a meaningful way. To truly reap the full benefits that tech- nology has to offer, the stakeholders in education must overcome a full range of barriers—from the lack of an ap- propriate information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure to the much more human challenge of changing entrenched practices in education.

Where have we heard that before? (At almost every ICT conference I can recall). So what does this report suggest that may be different? Well, the key finding appears to be that a closed-loop instructional system is the most effective way to maximize technology's potential to improve learning and overall student outcomes. I had to check that my understanding of this was correct, as the notion of closed-loop instruction isn't really something in common usage in New Zealand, but I am familiar with it from an engineering perspective, where it can be summarised simply as a system involving feedback. An open-loop system is one where there is no feedback system to check whether intended responses have been achieved, while closed-loop systems are very powerful and accurate because they are capable of monitoring operating conditions through feedback subsystems and automatically compensating for any variations in real-time.

Well, that's hardly news to educators – this has been a fundamental plank of effective teaching for years, reinforced by the more recent work of John Hattie who  identified teacher feedback as having the greatest influence on student learning with an effect size of 1.3, based on his synthesis of over 500 meta-analyses. (He does warn that this feedback can have both positive and negative impact!).

The conclusion made by the BCG is that we'd do better with ICTs in education if we used them to provide this feedback, or at least, if the provision of feedback was inherent in the way we interact with them. Seems to me that, while this perspective has merit in certain circumstances, it does limit the view of the contribution of ICTs to learning to being 'instructional devices'. What about the use of ICTs to support creativity – working with images, making movies, composing music? One could argue there that these are already, in one sense, closed loop systems, because the success or otherwise of what you are trying to achieve is evident in what you produce – and this in turn can prompt even greater engagment with the medium in order to refine and experience further. What it doesn't do is provide an instant 'right'/'wrong' judgement on what you've done, or send you immediately to a remedial page where you can discover what you should be doing to improve.

The writers of the BCG report do acknowledge this issue, suggesting that it is schools that have failed to make effective use of ICTs by limiting the expectations of what they can be used for:

An even more critical factor hindering the impact of technology is the way in which it has been used in education. Computers and related offerings have typically been seen as machines that can automate and support existing prac- tices rather than as tools to transform learning, teaching, and even schools themselves. As Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen and his coauthors observed in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, “[T]he way schools have employed computers has been perfectly predictable, perfectly logical—and perfectly wrong.”

The report does contain a reasonably useful overview of key forces driving change (mobiles, accelerating technology change, economics etc.), but inevitably it seems to lead back to an 'instructional device' approach, promoting the use of ICTs to provide a "Customized, Adaptive Learning Experience." This is where they then promote the concept of a closed-loop instructional system, illustrated in the education context in the diagram on page 14 of the report. I'd have to say that the more I read through the report (including reference to the example of the Victorian Ultranet implementation in Australia), the more I could see what they are driving at, and find myself in agreement in principle. I guess it's the concept of the term 'instruction'; used this way that I find a distraction, paticularly in a document promoting 21st century skills and ways of teaching and learning. At the end of the day it's difficult not to agree in principle with the specific recommendations for policymakers and education leaders in the report:

  • Embrace a holistic closed-loop strategy to meet clear educational goals.

  • Enable teachers to use and leverage technology in the classroom.

  • Create an engaging student experience.

  • Promote the development of high-quality digital assessments that enable continuous feedback.

  • Develop a critical mass of research that confirms—or refutes—technology’s benefits.

  • Enact policies that encourage and facilitate the proliferation of digital learning.

  • Build an ICT infrastructure that enables the closed loop.

2 thoughts on “A closed loop instruction system?

  1. Thanks so much for writing this post–I didn't know what  "closed loop instruction" was.  The word "closed" has always made me think of a dead end, so I was surprised to find out that this "closed loop instruction" concept seems to be one that means coming full circle from start to finish with feedback along the way or perhaps it's perhaps better imagined as a spiral than a loop–evolving in a circular direction moving forward with the feedback as one element of push or force.  What metaphor is best?  An image would really help here.
    Must say I took offense to the quote, “[T]he way schools have employed computers has been perfectly predictable, perfectly logical—and perfectly wrong," probably because it hit a nerve–the nerve that reacts to the fact that so many in so many fields outside of education like to see us as "predictable" and "wrong" rather than reflective and innovative.  Plus the quote doesn't take into account all the tech ideas, creativity and innovation I read about each day on ed blogs, Twitter, books and other articles, yet there is truth that implementation of tech will not work well without school restructure and change. 
    I look forward to what others have to say about this important post, and like you, I agree with the recommendations and especially look forward to "the critical mass of research that confirms–or refutes–technology's benefits," but would restate that recommendation as "a critical mass of research that defines technological venues and processes that benefit education, and those that do not" as we all know tech overall benefits, but specific technologies and related processes may benefit or not  dependent on targets and use.


  2. I share your frustration that research seems to be repeated in cycles  but little changes. Maybe it's an age thing but I would say over thirty years!
    Autonomous, reflective, 'action research' tuned teachers, recognising the importance of feedback to learners are the foundation of a vibrant education system.
    BUT it will not happen while we insist on a 19th century summative assessment system which insists on everyone sitting the same examination at the same time and handwriting on paper. Summative examinations 'drive' everything else. We need to treat the disease not the symptoms.
    Two words rule assessment in the UK. Valid and Reliable. Valid = appropriate assessment given the nature and demands of the topic. Is a written examination valid for all topics and knowledge? Reliable, in brief = everyone's answers everywhere can be compared against the same task.
    Is it valid not to use ICT as a communication tool in a world dependent on ICT?
    Must everyone learn the same thing once competencies are established? How does that assess the key ingredient for a competive world – creativity?
    Disentangle the rigid examination system and encourage teachers to innovate.  That's how innovative comapanies drive success and lead the world.


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