Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Technology has Betrayed Education

Technology was supposed to revolutionize education. Schools went for technology in a big way. Technology, for most schools, meant computers. Apple gave a boatload of computers to schools all over the country. Administrators contracted professional development training in technology for practicing teachers. Colleges of education created technology courses for teaching candidates, first as electives, and eventually as requirements, in many certification programs. Foundations began mandating a technology component in grant proposals as a condition for receiving funding. Society expected schools to provide computers either, in stand-alone computer labs or in classrooms. Virtually every school in America has computers available for student use.


Schools have computers and they have been using them. A few schools got on the computer bandwagon early, in the 1980's, when the first widely available computers stored data on cassette tapes. By the 1990's, a whole generation of primary children grew up with DOS-based programs like Reader Rabbit and Oregon Trail. A program called Operation Frog was a great help in teaching my junior high students anatomy and allowing them to virtually not only dissect a frog, but put it back together again.

It has been over a quarter century, and now we know computers were not the panacea everyone expected. Why would we have thought they could be? Common sense tells us that people have achieved high levels of academic achievement for hundreds, even thousands, of years. There is a school, Waldorf , dedicated to the proposition that computers are not only not necessary, but also potentially detrimental.

In the late1990's, I judged a science fair that led me to agree with Waldorf. Most of the judges were mothers who may or may not have understood the judging criteria. Nearly all the projects were prepared with a computer; a number were nothing more than cut and paste jobs from Internet sources. One submission stood out. Prepared by a Waldorf student, it looked like a project from the 1960's. It was a beautifully hand-colored project about the solar system. According to the evaluations, most of the judges downrated the project because it did not possess the glitzy appearance computer graphics and typefaces gave all the other projects. The actual content, the quality of the research and written text, meant nothing.


Undoubtedly, there are teachers who have exploited the potential of computers to enhance students' educational experience and achievement. But in general, computers have been less than helpful:
1. Computers are handy for keeping disruptive students occupied and out of trouble.
2. Computers are overused for drill and kill.
3. Learning to read on computers is not the same as learning to read the printed page. Eyes scan a screen differently than they scan a printed page. Distance issues and posture problems (see photo bottom of page 10) with the neck are also evident.
4. Digital math manipulatives are unclear. The transformations seem too magical and often fail to communicate the mathematical process.
5. The focus of education has shifted from knowledge and applications of knowledge to information access. We have often heard that that the important thing is finding information, not knowing information.
a) Students no longer need to know their math facts—just pull out the calculator. However, students often fail to evaluate the reasonableness of a calculator answer. Furthermore, even at the college level, students use the calculator for trivial math. I did an experiment with a math class recently where I allowed them to freely use calculators for a test. I walked around and watched their inputs. It was surprising how many felt the necessity to input calculations like -2+1. Some of them complained that they did not have enough class time to finish the test.
b) Students often do not have enough knowledge to figure out what search terms they should use to find more information on a given topic. Worse, they frequently cannot evaluate the credibility of web sites.
c) Students fail to use the Internet to find or confirm knowledge when they need it. They frequently believe they already know enough. They take these habits into adulthood. A good example are the numbers of young people who got into predatory mortgages by relying on the representations of the loan officer. Famous last words: So and so told me....
6. For a while spelling went out the window as students whined, “Why do I need to learn to spell? the computer can spellcheck.” Email could not even spellcheck for a long time.
7. Students are not learning to create complete presentations; they merely read their PowerPoint slides.
8. Students are developing little tolerance for teachers who use “old” technology like overhead projectors, or no technology like blackboards or whiteboards, believing their education is somehow being shortchanged by the absence of current technology. Such a misplaced belief can contribute to student bad behavior.
9. More examples?

Positive Uses

Nevertheless, computers can be used positively in schools:
1. Computers can be used to teach computers. Most employers want employees to be able to use at least the Microsoft software, Word, Excel and sometimes PowerPoint. Everyone should know how to use a word processor and be able to find and evaluate information on the Internet. Some employers expect employees to use other commercially available programs like QuickBooks and/or be computer savvy enough to quickly master a proprietary program like Raintree for medical offices.
2. Computers can be used to train and enhance certain skills students are already using. In the work world, employees train with Computer Based Training (CBT) wherein they develop skills they are using everyday. The software is integrated with what students are actually doing rather than teaching them to do something they may or may not do.

Actually Nos. 1 and 2 go together. Learning to use the computer to produce a useful project and actually not only complete the project but use the skills ever after. In the early 1990's, I taught math, science, and computer to junior high students. I fully integrated all three subjects, rearranging the math and science curriculum to enhance each other and teaching students to use the computer to, for example, produce data tables and lab reports. In those days the computers in my school did not have the Internet. Anybody remember those days?

Computers are an important tool in modern life, but they are only tools. Technology can only supplement fundamentally sound education.

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