This Sunday’s front page New York Times article by technology reporter Matt Richtel was ostensibly an examination of why, in classrooms outfitted with lots of digital gear, test scores were stagnant. In search of the answer Richtel quoted experts pro-and-con, summarized a few research studies and hammered away at the idea that from the dawn of the digital age computers have been touted as aids to learning, though research has never found a strong link.
But Richtel—perhaps unwittingly, perhaps intentionally—supplied the answer to his central question: dumb uses of technology won’t produce smart kids. In the article’s first scene, middle schoolers studying Shakespeare create a blog expressing the viewpoint of one of the play’s characters. It’s not at all unusual or innovative for a teacher to ask students to write a journal or diary from the perspective of a fictional or real person. The only difference here is that students were using computers. Why would we expect students to learn more because what they type appears on a screen?
In another vignette a teacher projects a true or false question onto a large screen: “Jefferson Davis was the commander of the Union Army.” Students used clickers to give their answers and, just like on a game show set, a computer instantly compiled the results. It was an electronic show of hands. This is the kind of right-or-wrong question that only calls on students to regurgitate what they know. Whatever the response methodology, the question wouldn’t lead to a rich discussion in which students had to defend their answers with historical evidence. A better question would be to ask students to discuss why Davis, who was trained at West Point, fought bravely in the Mexican American War, was a U.S. Senator and served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, was loyal to the Confederacy. They could research the answer on line—on their own or as a class.
A third example in the story has a 6-year-old sitting at a computer shooting alien spaceships to learn simple math facts. The kindergartner doesn’t know the right answers but he’s engaged nonetheless: shooting space ships is fun! Such a program might be fine for practice, optimally with an older student or a teacher standing by to help. But is the mental task posed here any different from filling out a worksheet? (Asked about it, the put-on-the-spot teacher says the child is learning to “think faster.”)
There’s more. Sorting out a letter scramble to spell a word is the same on paper or on a large interactive touch screen. But the point is clear. Digital media is only a tool. To justify its use, technology must make it possible for students, teachers and schools to do something with it that they can’t do without it.
So, the next time the Times wants to examine the use of technology in classrooms, the editors should assign someone to the story who knows a lot more about education than about technology. And here are some of the questions that would be more interesting to try to answer:
Q. How does it change the role of the teacher? (The “guide on the side” metaphor Richtel cites has been around for decades. We need to come up with something more illustrative in light of new technologies and online learning environments.)
Q. Does the technology make it easier for teachers to understand students’ thinking? Where they need extra help?
Q. Does it make it easier for students to learn from one another, perhaps using social media?
Q. Does it help students learn basic material more quickly so that more class time can be devoted to in-depth discussions and applications of knowledge to solve problems?
Q. Does it extend learning effectively beyond the classroom?
Q. Does it allow students to access high quality instruction from a distance (which is especially important in rural areas)?
If students are going to learn more from using digital technology these are some of the questions that its advocates have to be able to answer. And journalists and the rest of us should push them to do so. Regardless of what high-tech gadgets are at hand, what matters more is the low technology of good teaching.