New Technology, Same Methods in Schools?

The Center for American Progress has released an outstanding and provocative report about the risks of spending a great deal of money for technology in school districts and then teaching with exactly the same methods as before.

Despite my overly elaborate class web page, I often tell people that my teaching methods would have worked just as well in the 1800s. I focus on discussion of interesting articles and passages and extensive writing and revision. While I appreciate the modern amenities of a copy machine and e-mail, I think the most effective education is still simple, direct interaction with the text, your teacher, and your classmates.

While I’m probably wrong to ignore the potential use of technology in my classroom, the CAP report highlights the dangers of devoting too many resources to technology without considering whether or not the technology will actually improve educational outcomes. The report notes:

we found that many schools were using technology in the same way that they have always used technology; students are using drill and practice programs to hone basic skills. Students are passively watching videos and DVDs. Too many students do not have access to hands-on science projects. In short, there is little indication that technology has revolutionized our nation’s school system.

None of those things help improve student achievement or even understanding of concepts. At best, they fill time, and at worst, they actually subvert the learning process by taking time from more substantive, educational tasks.

There’s also a danger that, despite all this spending, we’re not actually giving students critical technology skills for college and career readiness. Watching a DVD video projected on a screen is no no more educationally valuable than the filmstrips I was forced to endure in

To some extent, easy access to technology like this may have perversely disincentivized direct instruction from a teacher. When I was in high school, it was still an ordeal for the teacher to acquire the movie projector and prepare it for class; now that it’s an instant process, there may be less hesitation about doing so.

The same goes for using technology used for rote “skill and drill” assignments.

There’s a lot of talk in education circles about how students of this generation are “digital natives,” because they grew up in an era in which they have been surrounded by technology all their lives. While it’s true that they are incredibly adept at some aspects of technology, my experience has been that students, even gifted ones, struggle with unfamiliar online technologies and even tasks like effectively searching the web or using a word processor beyond simply typing and printing a document.

If we’re going to use technology, we need to make sure that it develops skills with those tools.

Finally, the Center for American Progress raises an important point. Their findings should not be used as a rationale for reducing funding for technology in schools, but for ensuring that those expenditures are actually useful for students. They note:

We are certainly not arguing for the nation to stop or slow funding for education technology. It is imperative that students graduate from high school knowing how to effectively use technology. At minimum, high school graduates should have the skills to create a spreadsheet and calculate simple formulas such as averages and percentages. Equally crucial is the need to increase access to technology for all students, particularly ones from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Let’s absolutely get the latest and most innovative technology in the hands of our teachers and students, but with the understanding that it be used to make sure that instruction is more effective and better preparing students for the complex tasks that work and college will require.