Education and Technology, cntd…

The NYtimes ran an article on the technologically advanced Kyrene School District in Arizona, that in many ways confirmed some the fears and skepticism mentioned in this post. And here is how it begins:

Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here, roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way. In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters.

Perhaps Zuckerberg himself would have been proud, as his own great insights into the classics attest, but the rest of us I hope have just noticed a funny aftertaste as if last night was a long one. You can just imagine the emptiness behind Ms. Furman’s eyes, or whomever’s it was that came up with this bestial cocktail, as she attempted to construe the lesson plan. What is the next? – oh yes, now children what would Jaques tweet from the Forest of Arden? There are a number of other examples of such pedagogical prowess within the article, each worthy of the one above.

What needs to be addressed first is quality of education on a basic level, before moving to more elaborate or advanced methods. The technology itself is becoming a screen that masks the basic problems at hand.

The Times is good to present the abundance of skepticism and lack of evidence that technological tools as they are used today have any positive influence on general education. However much of this, I think, misses the point.

Many studies have found that technology has helped individual classrooms, schools or districts. For instance, researchers found that writing scores improved for eighth-graders in Maine after they were all issued laptops in 2002. The same researchers, from the University of Southern Maine, found that math performance picked up among seventh- and eighth-graders after teachers in the state were trained in using the laptops to teach.

Could anyone tell me what laptops have to do with learning math? anyone?  Many of the studies mentioned and individuals quoted seems to focus on whether a given tool is helping students learn, but no one seems to be asking the fundamental question of how or why these gadgets are even supposed to aid the education process. What do interactive boards have to do with learning history, laptops with mathematics, the social web with the classics? Perhaps instead of giving kids bigger and bigger hammers to strike with, we should look at the subject of the blows.

The Times  makes it clear that so many have already drunk the “kool-aid. ”  The new mantra of those pushing for the technology revolution is that teachers should go from being “a sage on the stage to a guide on the side.”  What does that even mean? and does anyone actually believe the future of education is passive presence on the side of the educators? The arguments put worth in support of further blind investment are amazingly dubious:

Mark Share, the district’s 64-year-old director of technology… “If we know something works, why wait?” Mr. Share told The Arizona Republic the month before the vote. The district’s pitch was based not on the idea that test scores would rise, but that technology represented the future.

Or this other bit of fool-proof logic:

Karen Cator, director of the office of educational technology in the United States Department of Education, said standardized test scores were an inadequate measure of the value of technology in schools. … “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.”

Oh yes and Ms. Cator just happens to be a former executive at Apple – I wonder if she has any stake in promoting these views. By the way, Kyrene School District has spent $33mil on such advances and is balloting to spend $46mil more.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think that the use of technology in education has potential, but with the heavy-handed approach seen so far even the possibility of positive outcome through intelligent application is being obscured.

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