No More Tech for Tech's Sake
One-to-one laptop programs won't fix your district's problems. Effective teaching will.
The question you are probably asking is, “Why?” Technology has had a significant impact on our lives, both personal and professional; it has changed the way we research, communicate, do business, and entertain ourselves. Yet, despite all of these examples, technology has not had anywhere near the same impact in schools. While computers have been in classrooms since the 1980s, the number of technologically based educational initiatives having a real impact in the area of student achievement has been minimal.
Why It’s Not Working
there are two primary reasons for the inconsistent success of technology integration. First, technology is changing the way students interact with information. It has revolutionized the way we obtain, gather, evaluate, and search for information, and schools that have not adapted to these changes find themselves disconnected from their students. Secondly, many technology initiatives are specifically designed to increase a student’s access to technology. Therefore, a school district can achieve its goal without actually improving student learning. The problem is that access to technology should not be the goal; improving teaching and learning should be.
Education writer Marc Prensky coined the term “digital native” to refer to a person born after the beginning of the Information Age; those who grew up prior to the Information Age are known as “digital immigrants.” Because of the impact of technology on communication and information, natives have experienced far different lives than previous generations; as stated in the 2008 Frontline program “Growing Up Online”: “It’s been said that the Internet has created the greatest generation gap since the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.” While not all digital natives are tech savvy, and not all digital immigrants are tech neophytes, each group perceives and uses technology very differently—and these differences have created an ever-widening digital divide.
Stop Teaching the Tech
if technology is having such a major impact on the lives of today’s students, why has technology integration been so inconsistent in schools? For most students, technology use comes naturally. Students do not have to force themselves to use technology—they use it in every aspect of their daily lives. Conversely, schools often must make special arrangements to include technology in a lesson. When teachers include technology in lesson plans it often means creating a technology lesson—to use the computer lab, to use the Internet, or to have students write an assignment using a computer. Unfortunately, these lessons usually focus on the technology and not on course content. Phrases like “Students will use the Internet to ...” or “Students will write an essay on the computer about ...” are not uncommon and satisfy the need to say that we have integrated technology. Consider how strange it would be to see a lesson that includes the statement “Students will use paper and a pen….”
Why do schools have such a difficult time integrating technology into the classroom? The answer is simple: Schools are in the information business and technology has revolutionized information access. Traditionally, the primary focus of instruction has been to ensure that students retain the information they learn in school. There was a time when information was only accessible at school from teachers, libraries, and textbooks. If a student didn’t learn the information before they left school, they had very limited access to these information resources. Yet now, the Internet has changed the rules: Information is available at any time to anyone with access. Information is so readily available that many educators consider a student’s ability to look up an answer on his or her cell phone or computer a form of cheating. School leaders need to decide what should be the focus of instruction: information retention, or information consumption. If they choose retention then they don’t have to worry about putting technology into their classrooms. If they choose consumption, then a new and exciting world of instruction will become available to their students and technology will be an important tool in their teacher’s bag of tricks.
For years, educators have been looking for ways to change the focus of classroom instruction from teacher centered to student centered. Constructivist learning, differentiated instruction, and inquiry-based learning have been around for many years. All of these pedagogies place less emphasis on retention of information. But in order for students to succeed, they need access to information—and that is where technology fits in. Reducing the burden of knowledge retention on students will allow more time for higher-level thinking, problem solving, and performance-based assessments.
It is not surprising that technology goals are not always aligned with improving teaching and learning, given the lack of a consistent means of measuring school success. In the business world, the goal is to increase profits, and every initiative is judged against the bottom line. In education, the goal is not consistent, and, interestingly, the goals vary from district to district. Schools find it difficult to agree on a common definition of student success, yet improvement of learning remains at the top of everyone’s lists of goals.
Hence, technology needs to support the educational goals of the district; it should not be the goal. Technology goals should serve as our action steps toward educational goals. When developing technology initiatives, a district (or school) must determine the best way that technology can help reach its goals. For example, if students are having difficulty passing proficiency tests, using learning software to provide extra practice or remediation could be the best application of technology; or, if a district is in a remote setting and has limited resources to support advanced study, then the use of online courses or video conferencing will provide access to resources that would not normally be available. Also, the use of podcasting, websites, RSS feeds, list servs, automated voice messages, and text messaging would enhance communication with all stakeholders.
Districts need to realize that one size does not fit all, and placing the same technology in each classroom in the name of equity is a recipe for disaster. Initiatives that work in another school may not have the same impact in your school. If the goals of the programs are not relevant to your district, then do not invest in that initiative. The good news is that there are initiatives that have been successful, and it is the educator’s responsibility to match these initiatives with the needs of their school, classroom, or students.
As Thomas Friedman wrote in 2005, “Some 150 years ago, 90 percent of Americans worked in agriculture and related fields, driving plows pulled by horses and harvesting crops by hand. Today, due to the industrialization of agriculture, we need less than 3 percent of the population to grow all our food and more. What if long ago the government had decided to protect and subsidize all those manual agriculture jobs and refused to embrace mechanized and eventually computerized agriculture?” To succeed in today’s connected world, we all need to understand technology, and develop habits and methodologies that utilize its strengths. In effect, we must develop methods of teaching and learning that utilizes the power of our newfound access to information and prepare our students for an information-rich and connected world.
Rick Cave is the K–12 director of technology for the West Windsor-Plainsboro (NJ) Regional School District.