The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"There are three roads to ruin; women, gambling, and technicians.  The most pleasant is with women, the quickest is with gambling, but the surest is with technicians."...  ... Georges Pompidou.

Commentary of the Day - April 8, 2005: Keeping Up With the Jetsons.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

I'm not a technology groupie.  That's not to say that I haven't made strides catching up with the times.  I've got email and an answering machine, and for a while I even kept a cell phone in my car for emergencies.  Before you know it, I'll be ready for the twentieth century.

Even before it died, my old cell phone was obsolete.  It was roughly the size of a loaf of bread, and all it could do was place phone calls.  Despite its impressive bulk, it couldn't broadcast digital images worldwide via satellite.  Of course, it's unclear why anybody outside of MI-5 would need a portable phone that can broadcast digital images worldwide via satellite.  But technology can do it, so we've got to have it.

Is it possible that maybe we could find better things to do with our time and our resources than transmit tiny videos of trivialities?

A lot of the latest technology at school is just as conspicuously nonessential and silly.  And the uses to which we put it beg the same question -- isn't there something better we could be doing with our time and resources.

It depends on who you ask.  According to a 2004 survey of 11,000 teachers, nearly nine in ten rank technology "important" or "very important."  Of course, the survey was conducted online, which means that most of the 11,000 already liked technology enough to click on an Internet survey.  It's like polling diners at a sushi restaurant to determine how popular sushi is.  If you didn't like it, you probably wouldn't be there in the first place.

When Bill Gates distributed laptops to a sample Maine high school, the preliminary report was equally glowing.  The Associated Press headline trumpeted "Laptops Raise Student Performance."  Unfortunately, when you read the report itself, you found that the "performance" consisted of subjective criteria like "improved student teacher interaction" and studentsí perceptions that "laptops improved the quality of their schoolwork."  The impact of laptops on actual achievement was "unclear."  Writing scores improved somewhat, while social studies and science figures remained unchanged.  Reading and math performance actually declined.

These lackluster findings were consistent with middle school test results obtained after Maine gave laptops to every seventh and eighth grader in the state.  Two years and thirty-four million dollars later, math scores improved slightly, while writing, reading, and science either dropped or didn't change.  A University of Chicago study of the Internet's effect on California classrooms similarly found "no evidence" that Internet access had "any measurable effect on student achievement."

Undaunted by bad news, technology boosters continue to cite their own ardor and student testimonials as evidence.  When New Hampshire experimented with its own laptop giveaway, one press release seventh grader enthused that he was "excited" because "a lot of times I forget to bring pens and pencils to class, but you won't have to use pens and pencils with the laptop."  First of all, someone needs to point out to the lad that he'll still need to remember to bring something to class, namely his laptop.  Second, I don't know about you, but I'm not thrilled with the rigor of a seventh grade program that eliminates the need for pens and pencils.

Meanwhile, in Maryland a like-minded fifth grader raved about his laptop science videos.  He testified that science was "hard" until "we got the computer to show us."  Visual aids, even filmstrips, have always come in handy, but with or without videos, science isn't "easy."  What he really meant was that watching a video is easier than reading, an endangered skill we can't afford to further neglect.  In fairness, you can't blame a ten-year-old for not realizing this, which is one reason not to put much stock in the judgment of ten-year-olds.

Or nine-year-olds.  A 2004 California report found "increasing levels of frustration" that schools don't provide enough technology for students.  In fact, half the nine to seventeen-year-olds surveyed complained that they didn't get enough online time at school.  The same study noted that more than two million American kids as young as six have their own personal web sites.

Do we really send our kids to school so they can spend time online?  And would someone please tell me why a six-year-old could possibly need his own web site.  Shouldn't you have to learn to write your name with something besides a crayon first?

The problem isn't merely that we're wasting millions on excessive heaps of technology without any detectable academic benefit.  A recent University of Munich study of 175,000 students in thirty-one countries concluded that students who use computers at school several times a week actually perform "sizably and statistically worse" as a result.  Instead of furthering learning, computers appear more often to distract students from it, while simultaneously crowding out "traditional learning methods."

Phrases like "traditional learning methods" don't go over well with the cutting edge crowd.  I don't want to mirror that bias.  After all, discarding something just because it's old is no less reckless than discounting it just because it's new.  That's why I'll concede that technology, whether it's chalk or a keyboard, can be a helpful tool.  We need to get reasonable, though, about the value of what computers actually deliver and what we're losing as they multiply in our classrooms.  I don't deny, for instance, that the Internet can provide useful information, but we are raising a generation of book-averse students who think finding and printing a web page is the same as assimilating the information it contains.

Yes, kids like computers.  That's partly because they feed our modern addiction to lightning images and ease.  But when it comes to learning, "active" and "fun" don't equal valuable.  "Smartboards," for example, are giant flat screen televisions that project a computer display on the wall where the blackboard used to be.  They cost a few thousand dollars apiece, but boosters claim they are worth it because they are "interactive."

So am I.  And I'd rather my students interact with me.

Technology apostles promise wonders, from higher graduation rates to "energized," "engaged" students who can't wait to go to the interactive "board."  But learning isn't a video game.  It's the comprehension of difficult concepts and the acquisition of complex skills; and, that kind of mastery doesn't suddenly become easy just because the picture is on an LCD screen instead of a Bell and Howell screen.

Sooner or later the thrill of the bells and whistles wears off, and kids are back to the deed of learning and all the toil and sweat it requires.

You can't blame ten-year-olds for not understanding this.

But we're not ten.

©2005 Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer question addressed to him in care of the Irascible Professor.

The IP comments: Technology in education presents something of a conundrum.  We have become dependent on technology in so many facets of daily life that we forget that it is not a substitute for intelligent thought.  Unfortunately, too many educators have jumped to the conclusion that technology takes all the hard work out of learning.  Our students need to be comfortable with technology, but they also need to understand its limits.  And, at the same time, educators need to appreciate that technology can have a negative effect on learning if used improperly.

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