Technology is not the miracle that will lead to an improved educational system. Instead, it is merely one part in a larger machine with many interdependent parts. Simply putting a tablet in the hands of middle school students won’t help them learn math or science more efficiently, and video instruction that relies fully on a student’s self-motivation will not create a deeper understanding of history. In fact, relying solely on technology for educating students could have the opposite effect than was intended. Malfunctioning technology can take up valuable class time, and untrained teachers may not know how to use the technology to its full potential.
That being said, if technology is used properly with a healthy balance of teacher interaction, group activities, and feedback, students stand to benefit greatly. The future of technology in education is really dependent on getting that balance down.
Will Tech Be There To Stay?
Part of that also comes from our school systems as well. This is how things usually play out in our least-resourced schools. Even when a school gets a grant for technology, local governments have a hard time figuring out how we can fund these programs in the long term, well after the money dries up from these grants.
Thus, tech programs often come in like a flash flood, washing teachers, administrators, and students away with flashy PowerPoint presentations and giveaway stickers. They’ll get new laptops, iPads, USBs, or other connected devices. In a few weeks, the school finds out that its Wi-Fi connection can’t handle more than 15 computers using a Flash-based program at a time. A few months into the program, things break and get replaced only once. A couple of months after that, teachers struggle with telling their colleagues that they need the devices in their room to move with the students.
A year afterwards, the cut-rate devices slow down to half their original speed. Load up takes 10-15 minutes, truncating the teacher’s beautifully laid-out lesson, if not completely botching it. Worse still is when the laptop doesn’t sync to the interactive whiteboard because, no matter how often you calibrate it, the marker trails off or does something that consistently distracts from the lesson. The interactive whiteboard is generally great for projecting things from the laptop, but standard markers and chalk feel like a more reliable technology, especially in subjects where the software hasn’t kept up with the non-linear note-taking of math and science classes.
Indeed, the computer person told the staff that the devices were installed with software that could handle everything, but by the time the staff remembers anything from the mundane professional development session from the first year of implementation, the device sounds like it’s coughing up its motherboard whenever the teacher presses the “on” button. When the principal asks for replacement software, the district tells the principal to pay for replacements from their own budget because the grant was temporary. The school leader has to choose between personnel and technology–and wisely chooses the former to the detriment to the latter.
Schools with better funding usually go through similar issues with technology. True equity, however, occurs when when teachers can look at their schools and be assured that tech is there to stay and that they can rely on it. Teachers need to feel comfortable with the technology to better integrate it into their class instruction. Principals need to create pathways for educators to get hands-on experience with vetted tools and to assign in-house experts to be evangelists for these tools.
People Need People
Of course, this means I am advocating for tech as tool, not tech as teacher. A common misconception, especially for many education reformers, is that we can put a set of YouTube videos in front of a student and they will learn all the material they need better than if they had an experienced in-person educator in front of them. This sort of structure, commonly known as the “flipped classroom,” assumes students will use their devices at home to get all the lecturing they need and come to school to get their activities. In theory, this sounds great for the self-motivated student and looks to “free up” teachers to innovate with the time they got back from having someone else teaching.
In practice, however, our students tend to need someone in front of them, working with them. Even online teachers need to develop relationships with their students. Most adults I speak to don’t remember exactly what a teacher taught them but they remember the teachers they had based on how they felt about them. Plus, videos can’t adjust themselves to the students’ needs and don’t align themselves to the way the teacher or the school approaches the material. Pretty colors and 3D animations may attract students’ eyes but it doesn’t automatically lead students to create ideas or delve deeply into the curriculum. If anything, the ed-tech landscape as of now suggests badges, gradients, and glossy commercials make students learn, to the detriment of students whose parents buy into it imprudently.
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