Educational Technology – Revisited Again

I was recently listening to a very seasoned, very articulate head of an independent school discuss the role of educational technology. He said, “If someone can show me one study that demonstrates that technology improves student achievement, I’d like to see it.” And while it’s a little hyperbolic, he points out something we all know but rarely say: as with most areas of education, we do what we do (in this case, spend billions of dollars on educational technology), not because we know it has an impact, but simply because it seems like a good idea.

The following was written by Paul Thomas, former high school English teacher-turned professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. It is as negative as one could get on the potential of educational technology to improve instruction, but I find myself not disagreeing with it. Sure, it’s a little overreaching. And yes, the one study he points to does not really address his main thesis (if educational technology has been used imperfectly, the solution might be better training, not less technology). But if I think of the truly important lessons I learned in school, none involved technology. They usually involved feedback, my own investment, and what Barzun refers to as student and teacher grafting their minds to one another. Can technology improve the chances this will occur? I’m agnostic. (The value of SmartBoards would deserve a posting all on it’s own…)

People will often say, “It’s not the technology that’s important – technology is just a tool to use to make learning come alive -” or some such. Perhaps. And you can find lots and lots of interesting schools with passionate teachers doing interesting things with technology. But we have to ask: if we resources for education are scarce, and they are, why bother with technology? Are there simpler ways to achieve the same ends? And given that all adults learned contemporary technology (iPhones, new operating systems) as adults and not in school, I see little reason to teach explicitly technology for its own sake (save for computer courses which require specialized knowledge like programming).

We need a reason to use technology. Too often, in the language of a cherished colleague of mine, it is a solution in search of a problem.

Paul Thomas:

Reforming education in the U.S. often includes seeking new technology to improve teaching and learning. Instead of buying the latest gadgets, however, our schools would do better to provide students with critical technological awareness, achievable at little cost.

We rarely consider the negative implications for acquiring the newest “smart” board or providing tablets for every student. We tend to chase the next new technology without evaluating learning needs or how gadgets uniquely address those needs. Ironically, we buy into the consumerism inherent in technology (Gadget 2.0 pales against Gadget 3.0) without taking full account of the tremendous financial investments diverted to technology.

Technology is a tool to assist learning. School closets and storage facilities across the U.S., though, are filled with cables, monitors and hardware costing millions of dollars that are now useless. Notably, consider one artifact that’s covered in dust — the Laserdisc video player (soon to be joined by interactive “smart” boards).

Chalk board, marker board and now “smart” board have not improved teaching or learning, but have created increased costs for schools and profits for manufacturers. There is little existing research that shows positive outcomes from technology. One study found that “most of the schools that have integrated laptops and other digital tools into learning are not maximizing the use of those devices in ways that best make use of their potential.”

Reading a young adult novel on a Kindle or an iPad, or in paperback form, proves irrelevant if children do not want to read or struggle to comprehend the text. Good teachers, however, can make the text come alive for the children whether it’s on a glowing screen or a piece of paper.

Schools should not be blinded by the latest trends and the inflated costs of new technologies. Rather, we should empower teachers and divert resources into their classrooms in more meaningful ways.

We’d do well to heed Henry David Thoreau: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

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