Education: Technology — Academic Godsend or Demon?

As I've read through education headlines this past week, two stories struck me because of their oppositional views of technology:

View #1: Isn't new technology great? Maine's initiative to provide all seventh- and eighth-graders with laptops has boosted the state's writing scores.

View #2: Actually, technology can be a giant nuisance. In classrooms, laptops and electronics easily cause distractions, as seen in colleges nationwide. Samuel Freedman of The New York Times certainly isn't a fan. And (this is my interpretation, extending the sentiment further) if technology can create such havoc at the tertiary level, imagine the disturbances in K-12 schools.

Upon consideration, however, both these viewpoints seem too simplistic. Innovation and improvement don't stem from technology itself. Both depend upon how the technology is used. The worst lecturer I ever encountered in college had a PowerPoint presentation at the ready (and a laser pen he didn't know how to use) but still induced plenty of yawns—and extracurricular Web surfing. Yet, this in-class Web surfing served instruction during one meeting. The class, "Government and Politics in Africa," happened to be in session when the results of the presidential election in Congo were called. At that point in the semester, we were studying the aftermath of Congo's civil war. Students kept track of the election developments as our instructor discussed the country's political climate.

With these nuances in mind, the following characterization of technology in Freedman's article becomes unnecessarily polarizing:

At age 55, Professor Nazemi stands on the far shore of a new sort of generational divide between teacher and student. This one separates those who want to use technology to grow smarter from those who want to use it to get dumber.

Perhaps there’s a nicer way to put it. “The baby boomers seem to see technology as information and communication,” said Prof. Michael Bugeja, director of the journalism school at Iowa State University and the author of “Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age.” “Their offspring and the emerging generation seem to see the same devices as entertainment and socializing."

So, according to Freedman, if you're not using your technology primarily and explicitly for informational (in this case, academic) means, you're using it "to get dumber." "Information and communication" and "entertainment and socializing" exist as polar opposites. But for the technology-savvy students—and workers—of younger generations, this isn't the case. Indeed, the explosion of social networks proves that both entities often go hand in hand. Facebook can be a powerful procrastination tool for students; it is also a highly effective platform for organizing existing contacts, making new connections, and sharing information. In order for instructors to be effective in teaching today's students, they must recognize this coexistence of utility and recreation and find ways to harness it in their classrooms.

And are low-tech means of disregarding instructors (sleeping, reading unrelated books, talking, passing notes, etc.) any less rude than high-tech ones? I think in this case, technology's not the problem. There are two factors at work here. One is certain students' lack of manners, about which instructors can do little. The other is engagement. Engagement should be distinguished from entertainment; an instructor shouldn't perform hokey tricks to hold students' attention. But good instructors keep their students engaged. They not only provoke interest in the subject matter but also facilitate critical examination of it. Unfortunately, vast expertise and scholarship, the primary criteria for appointment at the college/university level, don't necessarily equal high skill in instruction.

While shunning technology across the board isn't helpful, neither is touting it as an intrinsic classroom wonder. In the example of Maine, both students who used a computer and those who used pen and paper saw improvements in writing test scores. The improvements are attributed to laptop usage beforehand, which encouraged more frequent writing and revision. Although this is certainly a positive result, why can't practice in revision occur through low-tech means? According to the article, the explanation is writer's cramp. Sorry, but this explanation seems rather weak. (Were a significant number of students complaining of chronic writer's cramp? The article doesn't say, and I suspect not.)

The take-home point here should be that practicing revision helps improve writing skills, and having laptops facilitates that practice—not the simplified headline "laptops improve test scores." Many school districts can't afford to buy laptops—in some cases even desktop computers—for its students. This doesn't mean similar gains aren't attainable for them. Once again, it's the method of using the technology, not the technology itself, that matters. In this case, a low-tech equivalent is readily available.

Today's technology is easily hyped and just as easily vilified. I hope that educators will avoid going toward either extreme.

What examples have you seen of remarkably innovative or remarkably distracting technology in education?

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