Maybe Technology in Schools Isn't the Answer

Packing classrooms full of the latest technology has become one of the hottest trends in education across the country. It seems that new stories about schools getting iPad libraries or touch-screen Smart Boards pop up all the time. But perhaps too few are asking the question of whether or not that technology really helps students in the first place.

By Eric Garneau

education technology

Troubling Tests

Given the fervor with which many school administrators embrace the latest high-tech toys, a massive September 2011 piece in The New York Times has become something of a sensation for critically analyzing the value of those toys in the first place. Titled 'In the Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores,' Matt Richtel's article looks carefully at the notion that having the newest gear makes for the best learning. As its primary case, the article cites the technology-friendly Kyrene School District in Arizona, where standardized test scores have been stagnant since 2005, coinciding with the start of their major technological implementation.

Richtel's clear that this data doesn't condemn classroom technology as ineffective, it merely casts aspersions on the idea - usually taken as a given - that the more money a school district spends on technology, the better its students will do. Richtel offers up several other explanations for the arrested test scores, including the fact that Kyrene's students already tested a good deal higher than the average Arizona pupil. That being the case, it may be more difficult for them to raise their test scores to begin with, and less realistic to expect them to do so.

Or Maybe Not

Certainly counterexamples to Richtel's piece exist; many educators would argue that technology does help test scores. The case has been made successfully, for instance, in the technology-embracing Canby School District in Oregon, where technology coordinator Joseph Morelock positively connects such investments to test scores to inspire purchases of the latest gadgetry. In recent years, his district has bought iPod Touches for every third, fourth and fifth grader, as well as a cache of 30 iPads for one of its schools.

Proponents of classroom technology argue that it increases student engagement with material and helps them learn on devices with which they're already familiar. Opponents take the position that laptops, iPads and the like can be just as distracting as they are informative, and that no real substitutes exist for good teaching. And of course, there's the test score issue.

No Clear Solution

Studies attempting to better pinpoint the effects of stocking classrooms with the latest gear are few in number and contradictory in nature. Realistically, as with most teaching tools, effects will vary based on the teacher wielding said tool. As education author Dana Goldstein notes in her response to the above-cited Times piece, 'the what of learning matters just as much, if not more than, the how' - in other words, no amount of technology can make up for deficient lesson plans, but it seems just as unlikely that it would ruin excellent ones. It's always possible there was a backlash against using projection screens in classrooms decades ago, after all; but it seems that whether a teacher preferred an electronic screen or a chalkboard, the content of the lesson would be essentially the same, and that's what matters.

Goldstein makes another important point in her response, and it's one that several of Richtel's interview subjects touch on as well: the issue of media literacy. Regardless of educators' feelings on technological teaching tools, they have to recognize that most kids will already be familiar with many of their trappings. Doesn't it make sense, therefore, to teach their students to use those tools well? Goldstein herself cites a class she observed where the teacher tasked her students with finding out more accurate information on Adolph Hitler than their history textbook provided. The students were given laptops but told to be careful about Wikipedia and random Google search results; with the teacher's guidance, they would have to determine which sources were reputable and which were not. Skills like that seem crucial to have in the 21st century. Whether or not teachers want to base their whole curriculum in technology, students will eventually come to a point where they can't get by without knowing how to use it.

At least one education professional thinks technology might hold the key to sustaining education's future.

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