In Defense of Technology

“Critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills – like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools – at the expense of math, reading and writing fundamentals. They say the technology advocates have it backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later.” (from a recent piece in the New York Times)

The recent piece in the New York Times entitled “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores” presents a picture of classrooms in the Kyrene School District in Chandler, Arizona, a district that has spent $33 million dollars to outfit its classrooms with laptops, wireless internet, smart boards, and instructional software. And the article does not present a rosy picture of how technology has played out in Kyrene:

“There are times in Kyrene when the technology seems to allow students to disengage from learning: They are left at computers to perform a task but wind up playing around, suggesting, as some researchers have found, that computers can distract and not instruct.”

But I find this article horribly troubling. The above, for example,  argues that students might get distracted at a computer sitting before them. This is not the fault of the technology. Do you think that students working on paper don’t doodle sometimes in the margins? Don’t daydream? Student distraction is part of the classroom. It’s exactly why I try to put some compelling thoughts on my classroom walls so that as students’ minds are wandering, their eyes might find something thought-provoking to ponder. And it’s also why I work to present my students with maximally engaging and relevant tasks, to minimize their distraction as much as possible.

Let’s be clear: computers DO NOT instruct. They are tools. TEACHERS instruct. And if teachers do not present students with engaging activities, students will not be engaged, no matter the medium/tool.

But the crux of the opposition to technology presented in the article seems to center on one main issue:

“Other parents feel conflicted. Eduarda Schroder, 48, whose daughter Julia was in Ms. Furman’s English class, worked on the political action committee last November to push through an extension of the technology tax. Computers, she says, can make learning more appealing. But she’s also concerned that test scores haven’t gone up.

She says she is starting to ask a basic question. ‘Do we really need technology to learn?’ she said. ‘It’s a very valid time to ask the question, right before this goes on the ballot.’”

So the conundrum is this: all the money already spent on technology in this school district isn’t bringing test scores up, so should the district continue to spend the money?

Test scores? Why is the final measure ALWAYS “academic achievement”? The tests that have plagued us for the last several years have not yet gotten it right, and more testing is coming. Our state (Colorado) is ramping up the testing requirements, and Colorado is not alone in this. Being added to the reasons to test students now (in our state with Senate Bill 191 and nationally with Obama’s recent pronouncements on NCLB) is to evaluate “teacher effectiveness,” yet another difficult-to-quantify and elusive entity. And now the jobs of hard-working professionals will hinge on it.

The mere practicalities of testing so many students (and scoring these tests quickly) make for tests that cannot even begin to capture the kinds of skills our students need to succeed in the future or capture the “effect” a single teacher has on student achievement. Our society is so bent on numbers, on quantifying everything. If the numbers don’t support it, it must not be real, right?

If this isn’t an indication that something is wrong with our current push toward raising test scores, then I must be crazy.

Okay, so the article included quotes from a lot of people who are wondering about whether it’s worth it to spend the money on technology if there isn’t a clear correlation to test scores. I’ve made my argument above about why I think this line of thinking is problematic, but what is missing from this article is far more problematic.

What I don’t see in this article is a discussion of the world our students need to be ready to enter. Preparing students for this world–NOT whether or not test scores improve–should be THE reason for technology in the classroom. Part of the problem is that we cannot see this future world clearly yet, so an accurate description of it is not totally possible. But we do know this: internet and communication technologies are connecting us globally in unprecedented ways. It will not be uncommon for our students in their future careers to be expected to work effectively with colleagues on the other side of the globe. As we connect more with each other across physical space that previously separated us, our world becomes increasingly complex. And our students’ future world will be complex in ways we cannot imagine now. Despite our inability to see that future clearly, our students deserve our very best efforts to challenge them to develop the skills they will need anyhow: collaboration, innovation, critical thinking, research, reading complexity, data management, writing to communicate for all kinds of purposes, and facility with emerging internet and communication technologies (just to name a few). Sure, many of these things can be taught without technology, but these skills can be taught far more effectively with it.

And essentially, the issue here is literacy. As Ernest Morrell reminded me in a key note address at the Colorado Language Arts Society conference this past weekend, literacies have always evolved along with changes in communication technologies. The skills needed to be literate in our world now are far far beyond mere reading and writing. Students must be able to manage the deluge of information that our world throws at them from everywhere. They need to know not only how to wade through it but determine which information is most credible. When dealing with text on the internet, this requires not just reading the text itself, but reading the URL to understand where the article is being posted, and reading to find out who the author is to determine the person’s credibility, and reading the whole website to understand the ultimate purpose for the website’s existence to begin with. Basic literacy now includes looking for bias and determining credibility of each of the individual web sources that make up the tsunami of information confronting us in our world. Yes students can (and should) do this with sources on actual paper, but more and more of that paper is moving to the web anyhow. If we don’t teach our students how to do all this well, we fail them. We send them out into a future world that we cannot yet see clearly, totally unprepared. My students can use Facebook to make plans for Friday night, but can they use a wiki or other web 2.0 space to complete a shared project with colleagues on the other side of the globe? That’s the kind of technology literacy I’m interested in teaching.

I’m not talking about all kinds of technology here. Though I’m certain there are some excellent examples of instructional software out there, that is not what I’m talking about, and that kind of software is expensive. I can get all the software I need for free from Google, and this free software enables me to do some pretty awesome things with my students. Technology does not instruct. The teacher does. Technology is the tool now, my paper and pencil (which is not to say that my students are not still using paper and pencil–they are, every single day). The technology is not the end goal but the tool to get the students to an important end goal not possible without it.

I have never been a proponent of technology for technology’s sake. Some argue that technology is important because it grabs students’ attention. Though that may be true, it is a weak argument for the necessity of technology in the classroom. Technology is only necessary when it allows us to achieve something critical that we cannot achieve without it.

I’ll say that again: technology is only necessary when it allows us to achieve something critical that we cannot achieve without it.

And what we cannot achieve without technology right now is preparing our students for a future world, complex in ways we cannot yet imagine.

This preparation is not something we can accurately measure with test scores, so let’s stop talking about test scores as the ultimate measure of the importance of anything in education.

That which we cannot quantify is far more important.

(21st century moment here in the office: as I was writing this, Mister S was involved in a hashtag conversation on Twitter with Diane Ravitch and others: #cantbemeasured)

(now I need to get some grading done)

 

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