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.

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  • Good post. I have found new technology most useful in grabbing things from YouTube. When I had composition students read Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” for instance, most didn’t know what to make of the book’s discussion of Eisenstein. But I took a few minutes to show them the famous Odessa steps scene from “Battleship Potemkin,” effortlessly recovered on YouTube. When they read “Slaughterhouse-5,” I was able to show them a brief clip of Vonnegut talking about plot. When we discuss lede writing in journalism class, I like to show the “Who the hell reads the second paragraph?” scene from “The Front Page.”
    It’s easy to turn this stuff into a crutch, but finding and using these sorts of clips used to be mindnumbingly complicated. Now it’s a breeze.
    Other than that, I’m not sure that technology has helped much, except to make students believe that once they have made a quick Google check and run spell check, their papers must be perfect.
    Like you, I also have found that even college students, while no doubt more technologically adept in general than fossils like me, aren’t nearly as comfortable with computers as we tend to think.

    • Those are excellent examples of how integrating technology can enhance what happens in the classroom, David. Thanks for sharing them. I think including brief illustrative examples like those is something I should definitely be doing more of.

  • Good points. Technology must be the slave of the subject matter, but my sense is that often the subject matter becomes the slave of the technology. In my days at school, we were condemned to watching filmstrips, and subjected to crude visuals dimly beamed on a screen by an overhead projector that surprisingly never caught fire. My most advanced device, a Pickett slide rule my mother gave me for Christmas, was high technology for an eighth grader in 1960 (unfair technology, argued my classmates without slide rules). Almost as leading edge was having my own typewriter, a Smith Corona portable that served me through college graduation (I still remember how many college classmates did not own typewriters, yet owned automobiles).

    Much has changed since then, and I welcome computers and electronic calculators. Computers especially are useful in the sciences and for working with statistics in a way that wasn’t possible when I was in school. But I cringe at the thought of students using computer in class, especially to drill and do work that should be done at home (students who aren’t assigned enough homework to occupy all their dinner to bed hours aren’t being assigned enough homework).

    Classtime with an instructor and one’s fellow students is too valuable to be spent peering at a screen and clicking a mouse. Class is for instruction and discussion, and educators should not let electrons and silicon get between themselves and their students.

    One other old fogey observation. I think publishing textbooks on iPads is nuts. There’s still no substitute for a book printed on paper, pages marked with Post-It notes, that never goes blank when a battery dies or a $500 iPad get dropped. Textbooks are insanely overpriced, but that’s an argument for, figuratively speaking, shooting textbook publishers, not an argument for condemning students to electronic textbooks. I still have my college textbooks. Some are dated, but my calculus and other math texts are just as up to date today as they were 50 years ago. Who will keep an iPad that long? In fact, will an iPad even last longer than 5–7 years?

    • Related to your observation about electronic textbooks, James, is the fact that they will likely cost more than traditional texts. We currently use textbooks for English in my school that have been in use for 12 year. I suspect they cost around $80 each, but will certainly last another 4-5 years.

      Publishers aren’t planning to reduce costs with digital textbooks. The model is premised on licensing the books to students for a year at a cost that will, over the long run, be far more expensive than the textbooks we can use for years, patched together as they may be.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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