[OP-ED]: Our education system won’t be fixed by dumping more devices into the classroom
Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently issued a plea for greater student access to high-tech tools.
“The persistent lack of access to world-class educational resources and technology in far too many communities is at the heart of this issue,” Duncan wrote on the Brown Center Chalkboard, a blog of the Brookings Institution. “This inequality breeds more than just subpar test scores. It snowballs to create economic immobility, stranding people without the training necessary to earn well-paying jobs.”
This sort of pie-in-the-sky belief that simply getting more computers in kids’ hands and more app-development elective courses in schools will make the future bright is an oversimplification of a complex issue.
In the last six months as a teacher of technology classes (both software applications and Chromebook repair) and as a close observer of how teachers utilize digital learning devices in classrooms, I’ve witnessed that even when the tools are in hand, neither students nor teachers quite know how to make the best use of technology.
First, a primer on how technology tends to get rolled out: A school district decides to implement a one-device-per-student policy and then spends untold hours and millions of dollars purchasing devices, setting up systems for maintaining them, and getting them into students’ hands.
Very little time, money or energy is invested in training teachers how to use these devices to create dynamic lessons that will bring a subject to life with meaningful, multimedia learning. In many cases, it is somehow assumed that teachers will just automatically know how to do this -- and be able to design and implement such new teaching seamlessly on their own.
This is unfair. Even the tech-savviest teachers may not be able to consistently draw up lessons that utilize online resources, which vary widely in quality and sometimes require hefty paid subscriptions.
In other instances, devices are paired with “learning systems” that help students work on math or language-arts skills in a video game-like environment.
But let’s be clear: Few students truly enjoy learning how to evaluate algebraic equations even when presented as not-terribly-sophisticated basketball or Space Invaders-style electronic arcade games.
In such cases, laptops, iPads or Chromebooks become 21st-century digital equivalents of old-fashioned skill-building worksheets.
Is it any wonder, then, that students are predictably bad at getting their school-issued devices to class, fully charged and ready to use for academic purposes?
Unfortunately, as with any other aspect of academic performance -- i.e., completing in-class assignments, doing required reading, studying for assessments -- only those boys and girls who are consistently organized and committed to doing their best can be counted on to do so.
Well, let’s just say that in my school where every student is given a Chromebook to use both in class and at home, I’ve struggled with lessons or assessments that depend on technology. Despite begging and cajoling, I know that, at any given time, about half the class will not have their devices with them.
In other instances, students use their devices as YouTube-enabled jukeboxes for entertainment during “boring” lessons. Or worse, when taking online assessments, students use search engines to cheat -- even when they know their internet activity is monitored by classroom management software.
This isn’t to suggest that technology tools can’t be a force for good in schools -- with the right culture and adequate training for teachers, they have the potential to take learning to new heights. But simply getting more computers into kids’ hands and making more coding classes available isn’t going to automatically yield more skilled STEM technologists and a stronger economy.
Duncan wants “policymakers to make technology education a national priority.” He wants society to take “collective responsibility to help close the technology skills gap and empower our students and professionals to become the creators and problem-solvers we need to fuel the U.S. economy in today’s technology-driven world.”
Classroom teachers want this, too.
But in addition to sleek new Chromebooks or iPads for students, teachers need schools to provide them with high-quality training, new classroom-management strategies and top-notch resources with which to revamp lessons.
Plus -- crucial to the success of any tech initiative -- they need support from parents to help students care for their devices, make sure they’re used for educational purposes at home and get into backpacks, charged for use during the school day.