Technology and Schools

Amy Hetzner:

“We don’t have a lot of proof that this works,” said Neah Lohr, the former director of the informational media and technology team for the state Department of Public Instruction. “Certainly students like the technology. That’s not the question.”
Research results are mixed. But most studies conclude that for computers and other technology to have much effect on student performance, a number of conditions are necessary: Teachers have to be technologically adept; classroom assignments have to allow for exploration; and curricula have to abandon breadth for depth.
Although schools have made changes in some of those areas, particularly increasing teachers’ technical proficiency, the predominant uses of computers remain word processing, heavily filtered Internet searches and the occasional PowerPoint presentation. In addition, with pressure rising to improve test scores, more schools have embraced skill-drilling software that contributes little to long-term student learning, observers say.

My view is that technology is simply another tool that may be part of a successful learning process. Critical thinking, rigor and general inquisitiveness are far more important than learning Word 2003 (which will be obsolete by the time our students reach the workforce). Successful technologists are capable of learning and using any tool. I was reminded of our priorities yesterday while visiting Sun Prairie’s CornFest: a teen could not make change (1.50 change was given for a 2.50 purchase from a $5.00 bill). More posts on this subject.

4 thoughts on “Technology and Schools”

  1. One of the challenges in discussing school technology is that the term encompasses so much. We really need to unpack the term before deciding what works best and what doesn’t.
    Students do need to be competent in certain skills (keyboarding, basic word processing, file storage) to effectively utilize the resources, but in general teaching technology as a topic in itself is not a path with great returns. Now, there are exceptions to this. High school vocational and career education programs should be introducing students to CAD, accounting packages, etc. Just as a student is taught to work in clay, paint, mosaic, and other media, it’s consistent to teach them how to realize their creativity in 2D and 3D media. The same can be said for music and other content areas too.
    The more significant returns, in my view, are in those that improve the productivity of the instructional environment itself. These would include full-fledged course management systems like Moodle or Blackboard, collaboration platforms like SharePoint, and online homework services like WebAssign. Anything that moves the formal learning environment more toward an anywhere, anytime model (blogging, virtual office hours, out of class structured discussion threads, online learning object repositories) will provide more opportunities to learn and allow schools to compete more effectively vs. the entertainment culture for the attention of students outside the school day.
    Many smaller, rural schools find BadgerNet videoconferencing essential to maintain comprehensive high school programs as enrollments decline. Here in south-central Wisconsin (see, The BadgerNet has been used more to extend offerings (Japanese, Latin, Medical Terminology) than to maintain existing curricular offerings.
    As in the private sector, it is the case that large investments in IT have been made in K-12 education with inconsistent results. Just as the private sector as a whole has trended to more consistency and better returns in the last 10-15 years, I believe K-12 is entering the stage where more obvious benefits will become apparent. Investment in technology is not enough, however. Complementary factors like institutional culture and professional development play a large role in how well extensively innovations are adopted and how well they are implemented. Studies of firm level evidence from the private sector support the critical role of complementary factors.
    We go wrong when we mistake technology for the learning objective instead of a set of tools that can help us promote student learning. I would just contend that the tools now available are more useful than reading the article might suggest. As the article noted, it does matter whether teachers embrace technology in the classroom and how much professional discretion they have in how it is used. This is not an easy state to achieve, since some technologies require large central investments or collaboration with other partner institutions. The criteria for effectively using technology to support instruction (teacher proficiency, curriculum focused on deep understanding, opportunities to actively engage students) are present in effectively teaching reading, math or any content area.

  2. In working for both textbook publishers and technology-based learning companies over the past 13 years, there are many differences that have made the transition to technology an interesting one. Many publishers have taken their text and re-formatted it to software–providing the “practice” tools to do the same tasks as the text would have. Others (and only a very few), have created totally new programming that could not have been used in a textbook-only environment, and those are the types of technology that are proving to be the most functional in many schools.
    As educators begin to understand the implications of research into how children learn–beyond the theories which were embedded in our undergrad and graduate programs for years, they are finding that real scientific evidence–using formal scientific method of researching how children learn–are showing that the brain is “plastic”, that we can “rewire” the areas of the brain that had previously not performed adequately, and that those new technologies that work best are not the ones that most schools tend to purchase. Whether because the new technologies are a major paradigm shift away from what the typical educator understands–or whether they remain skeptics of the numerous research studies that have confirmed that technology can make major impacts on struggling learners, change in schools is very, very slow to happen. Education, like many other “industries” needs to change to remain viable, as evidenced by the growth in charter schools and choice schools in WI and many other states. When parents begin to sense that what their children are getting is less than what they could get elsewhere, they tend to seek those alternatives–making virtual learning, alternative learning centers, and many other methods the growth areas in education for the past decade.

  3. There are problems in promoting IT as solutions or aids to learning.
    Recent studies have shown that kids are not enamored with computers and technology. Video games, access to computers at home or elsewhere have allowed the kids to be far more realistic about what technology offers. Their parents, and policy makers however, are far more naive.
    It is the adults who are enamored and buy into the promises that vendors make, and who are willing to fund increasing technology and research and applications of technology in the classroom, always at the expense of traditional technology, such as books, blackboards, and are willing to give up precious classroom space to such devices.
    I’ve been in the IT business since I was 15 years old — over 40 years. As tools, technology is great — very useful. But it’s only truly useful in the hands of those of sufficient education and expertise.

  4. While slightly off topic, I just wanted to share a link to a program that I have used in my classroom to meet some of the geography standards. It is called google earth. Check it out.

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