Associate Professor Vincent Cho during the course he teaches on data-driven decision-making

Vincent Cho

For the past two decades, Vincent Cho has dedicated his life and career to education. Returning to his alma mater to teach in 2011, much of Cho’s recent research focuses on how technology can either enhance or impede classroom learning. His findings influence the way he approaches teaching and shape the insights he shares with the next generation of the world’s education leaders at the Lynch School.

Q:    How did you first become interested in the interplay and overlap of education and technology?

Early in my career, teachers and administrators relied on paper files to access student data, test scores, and other notes. Now, thanks to new technologies and a variety of recently captured data, we are better aware of student needs. With smartphones and tablets in the classroom, students can do more today—and so can teachers. I’ve come to believe that with technology, we can make a really positive impact on a student’s education. At the same time, technology opens ourselves up to inherent risks. From that notion came this idea of optimistic skepticism, where one approaches new technologies or ideas with an open but critical mind. This has led me to dig deeper and explore the various ways education and technology interact, remaining mindful of the potential pros and the cons.

Q:    Your most recent research focuses on the relationship between technology and education as seen through the lens of classroom management and school discipline. What are your goals here?

I’m exploring how American schools currently use data collected by behavior management apps to generate merits, demerits, and suspensions. I want to better understand if schools are using classroom data to help improve what we're doing as adults and educators, or if schools are just using behavior data to punish students. I am especially tuned in to the disproportionate punishment of students of color and will be keeping an eye on how specific groups may be punished or reprimanded more consistently than others.

Q:    When utilized properly, what kind of benefits can behavior management apps offer?

There are three primary benefits that these apps can offer. First, with good leadership and compassion, behavior management apps can pave the way for better support for individual students. They can allow a teacher or team of teachers to say, “Wow, Betty needs some more attention; not only are her grades slipping, but her behavior is slipping as well.” And before it gets to the point of requiring punishment or suspension, educators can implement an intervention, where parents are involved and the root issues of these behaviors can be uncovered.

Behavior management apps can also help observe different groups and provide answers to questions like how are we serving boys versus girls or Black boys versus Black girls? Do we need to rethink our school behavior policies? I noticed that there is a tension between what's possible technologically and what people actually do. I think the key difference, aside from having enough diversity to compare demographic groups, is having leaders who care about addressing racial inequities and creating ways for teachers to pursue those aims.

The third benefit of behavior management apps involves providing a direct connection to parents. These apps have instant notifications; parents can log in and get immediate insight into how their child is doing.

By approaching new technologies and ideas with an open but critical mind, Associate Professor Vincent Cho’s research explores the various ways education and technology interact.

Q:    From what you’ve seen, are these apps effective? Do they improve the student experience or make a school a better place to learn?

The short answer is: it depends, both on how the apps are used and who’s overseeing their use. One of the schools I’ve been observing realized that they were, in fact, disproportionately punishing students of color. Thanks to the data collected, this school has rethought its discipline policies, revised its dress code and updated other requirements. They have reworked how they give out rewards to students, and a dialogue has started where administrators regularly email teachers and talk about how often students are being punished, making sure to shine a light on the ‘who’ and the ‘why’. 

When behavior management apps fail, it’s because communications fail and a school loses sight of the goal of improving a student’s learning experience. In another school using behavior management apps, I noticed that administrators and teachers were failing to engage students’ parents in conversations about their child’s behavior. Even worse, the school did not inform students that their behavior was being tracked, which led to a disconnect between behavior and punishment. To get the most out of these apps, the staff at a school must take some responsibility for the behavior they’re witnessing. And they must not use this technology strictly as a means for doling out punishments.

Q:    How has your research about technology influenced you as a teacher?

One thing I do in my classroom at the Lynch School is encourage students to not only try new technologies but also, to be skeptical about them. This harkens back to that notion of optimistic skepticism; whether it’s a data collecting app or a new teaching methodology, educators should proceed with a positive wariness, which allows them to weigh potential advantages and drawbacks. As an education leader in the digital age, I remind my students that we must always consider what we can do to help teachers use technology better while remaining acutely aware of technology’s possible repercussions.

We must always consider what we can do to help teachers use technology better while remaining acutely aware of technology’s possible repercussions.
Vincent Cho, Associate Professor, Educational Leadership and Policy

Q:    Are there new issues that the pandemic has exposed that you’re eager to explore next?

One issue that seems more glaring than before is how teachers are using, or failing to use, praise in the remote classroom. And, related to that, I’m interested in how teachers approach ‘camera on / camera off’ rules. I've also noticed issues of equity when it comes to technology access; even though all students at a school might be given iPads, laptops, or Chromebooks, it is not the case that every student has a parent helping with tech support, for example. Then, there’s the issue of privacy: some students just don’t want their peers seeing their messy room, or the grandparent who’s in the kitchen with them. It reminds you of the need for compassion in education, one of the core values at the Lynch School.

Q:    What are the most valuable takeaways that the Lynch School offers the educators who enroll there?

Enrolling at the Lynch School is not just an academic endeavor. You’re signing up for a personal and professional growth experience that results in more than a degree. It results in a more thoughtful approach to your career and leads you to bring your values into the world in a more deliberate way. Most individuals who come to the Lynch School already have heightened senses of compassion and empathy; our programs strive to enhance those values. By attending the Lynch School, students not only become more in touch with their values and goals, but they become more competent, as educators and as people.

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