Technology in the Classroom: How To Do It Right

Matt Ritchell raises a series of crucial questions regarding technology in the classroom in his NY Times piece this weekend, “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores.” More precisely, Ritchell raises questions regarding the seemingly uncritical push to deploy technology in the classroom regardless of costs and ambivalent results. In fact, he hits almost every topic of concern I would think to mention if I were writing a similar article, including the influence of those who do stand to unambiguously prosper from the implementation of technology in the classroom, those who make and sell the technology.

If you’re interested in technology and education, I encourage you to read the article. Here are a few excerpts. You’ll notice, I think, that even the endorsements come off as rather suspect:

“This is such a dynamic class,” Ms. Furman says of her 21st-century classroom. “I really hope it works.” Hope and enthusiasm are soaring here. But not test scores.

“The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an investor in educational technology companies. When it comes to showing results, he said, “We better put up or shut up.”

Critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills — like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools — at the expense of math, reading and writing fundamentals. They say the technology advocates have it backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later.

“My gut is telling me we’ve had growth,” said David K. Schauer, the superintendent here. “But we have to have some measure that is valid, and we don’t have that.” It gives him pause. “We’ve jumped on bandwagons for different eras without knowing fully what we’re doing. This might just be the new bandwagon,” he said. “I hope not.”

“Rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet, one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what’s already occurring — for better or worse,” wrote Bryan Goodwin … Good teachers, he said, can make good use of computers, while bad teachers won’t, and they and their students could wind up becoming distracted by the technology.

“In places where we’ve had a large implementing of technology and scores are flat, I see that as great,” she said. “Test scores are the same, but look at all the other things students are doing: learning to use the Internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others.”

“Even if he doesn’t get it right, it’s getting him to think quicker,” says the teacher, Ms. Asta. She leans down next to him: “Six plus one is seven. Click here.”

Clearly, the push for technology is to the benefit of one group: technology companies.

I’m not suggesting technology in the classroom is useless, although it can sometimes be worse than useless. What we ought to take issue with is the blind embrace of technology for technology’s sake. Technologies such as laptops and Smartboards are deployed as if their mere presence in the classroom augmented the educational value of what goes on inside. This is not education, it is superstition; the tool becomes a talisman. Or, worse yet, under the assumption that the medium is essentially neutral, old task are assigned on new technologies to little, or possibly counterproductive, effect. This is naive at best.

What students need to learn with regard to technology is not how to use countless (often inane) tools like Powerpoint. Rather technology in education should be introduced in order to teach the students how to engage with technology critically and intelligently, and, ultimately, toward human ends.

Teach the history of technology, teach the sociology of new media, teach media theory, teach philosophy and ethics of technology, teach students how to program and code.

Help students become meta-critically savvy about their tools.

Teach students to become critics of texts and applications — Twelfth Night and Twitter.

Use technology to transcend the curricular divide between the sciences and the humanities.

Teach them not only the possibilities opened up by new technologies, but also their limitations.

Do not parade new technologies before students like so many idols sent to deliver us from our darkness who must be unfailingly acquiesced and mollified.

Don’t merely teach students to do what a new tool enables them to do, help them to question whether we ought do what the tool enables or whether we ought to do with the tool other than its makers considered.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that we must first teach the teachers and administrators.

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