The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"If we are on a path of getting nowhere fast, technology is allowing us to get nowhere faster and faster."...  ...John Renesch.

Commentary of the Day - December 19, 2007: Stuck on the Cutting Edge.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

I've never been a disciple of technology.  For me cell phones are multifunctional, multicolor devices that empower millions of us with little worth saying to interrupt other millions of us who ought to have something better to do.  I don't want my car to talk to me, I don't want General Motors to know my latitude and longitude, and I don't need a pocket-size liquid crystal New York Times or instant access to thirty-second videos of skateboarding dogs.

On the other hand, I'm currently typing this on an IBM product that's running software designed by Bill Gates.  That’s why I'm not claiming any higher moral ground.  I'm questioning whether some of our current technological marvels are worth the time, resources, and money we sink into them, and whether they really deliver the benefits their boosters claim they do.

Many American students aren't doing all that well academically, and almost as many experts are peddling cures.  Many prescribe computers as the miracle that will rescue our kids from scholastic mediocrity.  That's why states like Michigan and Pennsylvania distributed laptops to thousands of students.  Maine led the parade by handing out laptops to every seventh and eighth grader.  Sponsors of the giveaways promised "higher student performance."

Unfortunately, the results have been disappointing.  When the test results of Maine students showed no improvement, boosters explained that it would "take more time for the impact of laptops to show up."  Inconveniently, Maine's lackluster outcome only confirmed a rigorous international study of student computer use in thirty-one countries, which found that students who use computers at school "perform sizably and statistically worse" than students who don't.  Analysts warned that when computer use replaces "traditional learning methods," it "actually harms the student."  A review of California schools determined that Internet access had "no measurable impact on student achievement."  A 2007 federal study concluded that classroom use of reading and math software likewise yielded "no significant differences" in student performance.

Despite this damning evidence, the rave reviews from boosters just keep on coming.  Podcasts, for example, are recordings you can download from the Internet, everything from songs to radio features.  Students can also record their own reports, poems, interviews, or skits, which is pretty much what we could do in my third grade class when Mrs. Evans brought her cutting-edge 1958 Wollensak tape recorder to school.

Not so, insists the founder of the Educational Podcast Network.  He maintains that putting things in "digital form" transforms schoolwork from "just a writing assignment" into an exalted "manner of communicating."  Sounds grand, doesn't it.  But what does it really mean, beyond the counterproductive reality that students commonly wind up producing less actual writing.  Does posting kids' work on the Internet really mean they're  "engaged in a global discussion," or does it just over-inflate their sense of self-importance?  Even if the silicon bells and whistles don't unduly distract them, which they often do, is what they've produced better written and reasoned than it would've been if they'd put it on twentieth century paper?

The silly claims of technology advocates aren't limited to podcasting.  When raters couldn't reliably score student writing on standardized tests, officials promised that "digitizing" student essays would improve scoring accuracy.  In other words, scorers who were wrong when compositions were written on paper would grade them correctly once the essays were scanned and displayed on a video screen.

NEAToday recently touted "wireless studies" where students discard their "static" history books in favor of websites that offer photos of battlefield sites.  Looking at the pictures allegedly provides "a real a-ha moment" for "tech savvy kids."  Except how is a website photo of an empty hill any more enlightening than a textbook photo, a movie, or even an obsolete filmstrip?

When Newsweek spotlighted classes where students visit chat rooms and "check in with teachers by email," proponents trumpeted that technology is "changing the fundamental way that teachers and students interact."  Except learning doesn't require online chats.  Face-to-face chats are even better.  The quality of what my students say is the point, not how far away from me they are.

In a final assault on common sense, schools are establishing websites where parents can track their child's daily school experience, from homework assignments and grades to attendance and lesson plans.  Software consultants, otherwise known as salesmen, claim this innovation "will lead to good achievement" and "connect the parent to the student."  One enthusiast gushes about a parent who discovered via website that her son was reading To Kill a Mockingbird.  This newsflash "gave them something to talk about at dinner."

Excuse me, but how about looking across the table and asking your kid what he’s reading?  If you're trying to foster parent-child communication, checking a website instead of talking with your child doesn't make sense.  If you want to know his grades, ask him how he's doing.  If he's lying to you, you’ve got problems a website can't solve.

I'm happy to answer parents' questions about their child's progress or what we're studying in class.  But no parent needs to know on a daily basis that I’m planning to cover adjective clauses next Thursday.  Regarding homework, it's a student’s responsibility to write his assignment down in class, not wait until he's home so his mother can check for him.  As for grades, you can't compute a student's average by adding a list of numbers, and you can't predict his final grade until major tests and projects come due.  In fact, in many cases raw numbers only mislead concerned parents, especially when those numbers come clothed in the website illusion of high-tech precision.  If you want numbers and conversation, have your kid bring his papers home.

Webster defines technology as the practical application of science.  By that definition much of what schools do with computers doesn't qualify.

Someday maybe we'll learn that being technically able to do something doesn't always mean it’s worth doing.  Someday maybe we'll see beyond the silicon hype.

Someday maybe we'll recognize that the problem at school can't be solved with something you plug in.

2007 Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP comments: The IP agrees with Poor Elijah that technology in K-12 education has been oversold in the extreme.  Nevertheless, the IP recognizes that technology is an important part of modern life, and that students will use technology whether or not their teachers do.  Thus, it does no harm and may even do some good for teachers to provide some direction in the use of technology that may have some educational benefit.  The IP also feels that there may be some value to that piece of software that allows parents to track what their students should be studying, though it might not need to be a detailed as described.

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© 2007 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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