Sanity Check: Does Technology Have a Role in Our Classrooms?

Quite recently there has been a surge in articles about schools keeping computers and technology out of their classrooms.  A recent New York Times article, “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute,” focuses on the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, an independent school in the American technology heartland, which does not use computers.  In fact, “the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud.” In particular the article emphasized the apparent disconnect between the day-to-day work of the parents, many in technology fields, and their children’s school experience.

In a spin-off article on the Huffington Post, Meryl Ain, Ed.D. asks “Are Schools Getting Too Carried Away With Technology?” While the article is mostly a shotgun blast, casting pellets at many hot-button topics around technology in schools, there is at least one worthy conversation starter.  Referencing the NYTimes article, the author summarizes the perspective of the Waldorf parents:

They [the parents] think it’s easy enough to pick up computer skills, and that what’s really important is great teaching that actively engages kids in learning. Engagement is really the issue. Does technology foster engagement or inhibit it?

Because I have no desire to go through each of these articles (and the many others) point by point, I will take this summary and provide my thoughts on the topic of “Does Technology Have a Role in Our Classrooms?”

Environment: Aside from the common tasks of gaming, surfing, texting, and networking, for many kids, the only opportunity to explore the potential of technology is in schools.  The digital divide is real.  Without this experience they will never understand how technology can be used to enrich their lives and power their futures. While the parents mentioned in the article are confident that their children will be able to gain the necessary technology skills in the future, we must recognize that these families are implicitly teaching their kids a great deal of technology by the conversations that likely happen in the car and around the dinner table as they discuss their days’ activities.  The vast majority of kids do not have this opportunity.

Engagement:  Here is a case where I side a bit more with the nay-sayers.  I think it is a copout when educators play the “engagement card.”  While I do not deny that kids seem to be more engaged, I am not sure that all engagement is equal.  Educators must ensure that when students are using technology that the students are connecting with the educational content/outcomes, not just the tool or medium.  However just as an example, in mathematics powerful tools such as Excel and JMP can enable students to explore the material more fully. 

21st Century Resources: While technology and levels of engagement can be debated, I certainly believe that we can do no worse for engagement than the current dominant educational resource: textbooks.  I am staggered at the static and stale nature of most texts.  Districts continue to pour more money into a 19th century learning tool, when they could be focusing more on developing or harnessing meaningful content and resources appropriate for  21st century classrooms and beyond.

Test Scores:  Depending on where you look, the research indicates standardized test scores can improve or remain stagnant after implementation of ubiquitous computing.  Frankly, this is not terribly surprising to me, as these tests tend not to be good measures of the learning that is most influenced by technology.  However, we should also consider other data that might be more meaningful: attendance rates, drop-out rates, and interest in STEM related fields to name a few. (In a recent study exploring student attitudes and interests regarding science/STEM-related careers, 60% of students aged 14 -22 cited the internet and computers as the technologies most influential in their desires and attitudes.)

Technology as a Tool:  There are so many use cases for technology in classrooms.  Thankfully there are plenty of places where others have listed them.  One site even aligned them to the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy.   In addition, we sell technology short if we simply see it as a tool replacing paper, pencil and books.  Computers in the classroom can be a transformative tool that enables so much more.  For me, if I never see another 3-panel poster, I’d be OK.

Responsibility: In another article, a father mentioned the challenges created by the “forbidden fruit” syndrome.  In this light, I think it is important to consider the role of education in introducing technology and the challenges that come with it.  While parents certainly share the responsibility, if they do not have access to technology or have the necessary knowledge base, it can be a daunting task.  I have always thought that schools which turn a blind-eye to social media and simply block it are abdicating a responsibility they have to educate kids.  I’d much rather have kids learn these lessons during their K-12 experience than when they move on to college where the challenges are even greater.

Balance: Ultimately though what really drives me crazy is why does this need to be such a polar, one or the other conversation for so many.  At my former school, I had a colleague, Todd Shy, who taught 7th grade History.  In one unit, the students recreate a Y1K bazaar as it would have existed in the year 1000.  While students may have used technology in the research, the Y1K experience is one that brings out the best in experiential project-based learning. Later in the year, without a recipe, the students use common household supplies to attempt to recreate the 12th century mortar used in St. George’s Cathedral in Russia.  Another project for the students includes creating a documentary video that details the life of a great medieval traveler.  Technology can enhance otherwise great learning experiences, and it can also enable experiences which are otherwise impossible.

Does Technology Have a Role in Our Classrooms?  For me the answer to the question is simple, YES, technology does have a vital role in education, but it’s not a panacea and opportunity for teachers/administrators/parents/schools to abdicate their responsibilities.  I do not believe that it is a one-size fits all solution to the challenges that our teachers and students face in classrooms around the world.  My experience suggests that technology can be a transformative tool that enables teachers and students to reach incredible outcomes, but I also believe without the proper support and leadership technology will fail to improve the classroom experience.  As a result we need to be clear about the purpose and outcomes we hope to achieve, and most importantly we need to ensure “that what’s really important is great [environments] that actively engage kids in learning.”