Education Technology

I sometimes joke that I am a Luddite, but the truth is that I am an enthusiastic user of technology; I am simply not an early adopter.  I use GPS navigation in my car, carry a cellphone, and haven’t used a typewriter since 1990.  I don’t miss film cameras and while I am occasionally nostalgic about mixtapes, I wouldn’t trade iTunes for my old Sony Walkman.  I appreciate blogs, online shopping, and checking library catalogs without leaving home.  I appreciate being able to listen in on the Iowa House and the relative ease with which legislative bills, government documents, and journal articles can be found online.

Still I remain skeptical about the value of technology in education.

Sometimes the technology seems to be just a more expensive way to perform a task that less expensive technology can perform.  Like interactive whiteboards being used to perform tasks that ordinary whiteboards, overhead projectors, or DVD players can perform.

Sometimes technology causes us to overlook the fact that the lesson or the work produced is otherwise unimpressive.  For example, an Iowa district posted links to student created websites to promote a special academic program.  Upon inspection, one of the websites amounted to several tenth graders working together to write a few paragraphs citing two wikipedia articles and pasting in a few images.  Surely no one would boast about having tenth graders working as a group to write five paragraphs citing a few World Book Encyclopedia articles, which is all this project ultimately amounted to with the technology stripped away.

Worse, sometimes the technology becomes an obstacle for effective or efficient instruction.  For example, the Iowa Core considers effective use of technology an essential characteristic of a world-class curriculum in mathematics, which is in direct conflict with the expectation of the University of Iowa that entering students will be proficient in arithmetic with integers and fractions without the use of calculators and the observation that “[students] need to develop a good number sense and the kind of familiarity with numbers that comes from use of paper and pencil techniques for acquiring skills in arithmetic.”

As another example, the Model Iowa Core endorses the use of technology to engage and motivate students, apparently based on the work of Professor Chris Dede of Harvard University, who suggests that “[o]lder students could participate in a Star Trek [multi-user virtual environment](Dede and Palombo 2004) that integrates mathematics as they navigate the Starship Enterprise, engineering as they maintain the warp engines, and anthropology as they learn to communicate with alien species.”  (See this blog post for further details and citations.)  This might be fun for a few students, but it is surely a grossly inefficient way to learn content and puts the focus on the technology rather than on serious study of the subject matter disciplines.

In Republic of Noise, Diana Senechal highlights some other potential pitfalls of the use of technology in education.  Chapters 3 and 8, in particular, are worth reading on this issue.

Certainly, I am giddy at the prospect that before too long, technology could put an entire reference library and collection of classic literature in every child’s pocket.  It isn’t hard to see that technology could streamline administrative tasks and improve transparency of school district operations.  But I just can’t work up any enthusiasm for classrooms transformed by technology into video arcades or telemarketing cubicles.  To me, that feels like spending a lot of money to eat off trays in the living room while we watch HDTV and send texts to other people instead of making the effort to sit around the table together for a meal and conversation without distraction or outside interruption.