New Classroom Technology Is A Tool—Not A Cure

It seems like a no-brainer.  Invest in laptops, iPads, and other “smart” classroom technologies, sit back, and watch the learning take off.  Districts around the nation are ramping up their investments in classroom technology, and even seeking grants and property tax increases to fund the goal of “one student-one computer” in their schools, and this is presumed to be the magic beans that will make our primary and secondary school students excel in comparison to their higher-achieving peers worldwide.

There is, however, one problem that no one is quite sure how to address: There is, to date, virtually no empirical evidence that demonstrates computers in the classroom will, in and of themselves, improve learning.

Nonetheless, I am not arguing against an national investment in continuing to integrate computers into the fabric of daily instruction in our primary and secondary schools; I am instead suggesting that we remember computers are simply very powerful tools.  They are, unless combined with classroom and school policies that recognize the need for high learning standards, not the cure to all that ails our public schools, particularly in regard to preparing high school graduates for the increasingly competitive worlds of work and higher education.

As it stands now, according to a recent ACT study, only 1 of 4 students graduates from high school ready for higher education and, consequently, will likely struggle to master the higher order skills that many well-paid 21st century jobs will require.  This is, if you stop for even an instant to consider its impact on the future of our nation, a truly disturbing statistic.

Given that our world is daily becoming both more interdependent and more competitive, it is frightening that we are spending so much of our nation’s treasure on primary and secondary education to generate so little in the way of real results.  As much as we should applaud the accomplishments of the successful 25 percent, we need to focus on the at-risk majority who are, in fact, going to determine the actual future of our nation as both an economic power and a democratic society.

Why is it that classroom technology is not yet producing learning?  I believe the problem is similar to one experienced by untold numbers of desperately hopeful parents who cannot understand why their child keeps striking out with the new baseball bat they purchased—the harsh reality is that new equipment does not an All-Star make.  By the same token, the coolest new computer can make learning possible only if effective instruction is taking place.

A struggling student writer will produce a mix of fused sentences, comma splices, and sentence fragments clumped into one large incoherent paragraph—with or without a computer.  Although the word processing program can, like the umpire at that child’s Little League game calling a third strike, point out problems with a student’s writing, it is likely that little sustained improvement will take place unless proper technique is taught.

Unfortunately, it is still all too common that instruction in proper technique, at least when it comes to writing, will be only intermittently provided.  I once made the mistake of asking a middle school teacher in a district where I taught what punctuation and grammar topics were covered in their English classes, my intention being to avoid boring my high school students by re-teaching material they had already covered.

The answer stunned me: none.  Apparently, this teacher firmly believed that pointing out errors would teach children to “hate” writing; I suppose that the underlying notion was that her students would “enjoy” flunking out of Freshman Composition in college five years later.  If we expect our investments in classroom technology to improve student learning in our primary and secondary schools, we need to change our mindset about instruction.  Doing something correctly, whether it is writing an essay or solving an equation, is important.  To insist otherwise is to harm our young adults by tossing them, unprepared and unaware, into a world that is infrequently going to pass out rewards for “a good try”.

We can reap the full benefit of using computers in the classroom only if we remember that the fanciest machine is only as good as the mind using it.  Computers can build bridges to an infinite number of learning experiences that were impossible to imagine only a few years ago.  Thanks to classroom computing technology, the world is literally right at the fingertips of every student.

However, just as my iPad did not write this commentary for me, we need to keep in mind that the best technology is nothing but an especially bright mirror that can only reflect the learning that has taken place.  Regardless of the classroom tools our schoolchildren use today and tomorrow, our best hope for improving our high school outcomes will still be an insistence on rigorous academic standards.  If we fail to understand the benefits—and clear limitations of classroom technology—it may be “strike three” for yet another generation of American students.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( October 30, 2011

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