On The Use of Technology in the Classroom & State Mandates

January 04, 2012

The New York Times today has an article about the use of technology in the classroom. It discusses requirements in Idaho for the use of technology in the classrooms:

Last year, the state legislature overwhelmingly passed a law that requires all high school students to take some online classes to graduate, and that the students and their teachers be given laptops or tablets. The idea was to establish Idaho’s schools as a high-tech vanguard. To help pay for these programs, the state may have to shift tens of millions of dollars away from salaries for teachers and administrators. And the plan envisions a fundamental change in the role of teachers, making them less a lecturer at the front of the room and more of a guide helping students through lessons delivered on computers.

via Idaho Teachers Fight a Reliance on Computers - NYTimes.com.

I think that this shows what happens when you pit the policy makers against teachers and administrators. There is no question that to get most jobs or to succeed students must be literate with technology. However, students cannot become literate with the technology if their teachers are not. This means the teachers must be trained. Meanwhile, while the technology changes, people are still trying to figure out the most effective way to use it in a learning environment. By mandating the technology the policy makers seem to be creating problems and confusion instead of advancement.

I think that the worst part of technology in the classroom is the use of it as a glorified whiteboard. Typically a regular whiteboard will do. The money spent on most fancy setups is a waste when a portable projector and iPad or laptop is all a teacher needs to show a YouTube video to their class. The money is better spent on individual workstations for students to use on research or tools for their own independent learning.

Finally the independent learning component of technology is the part that the teacher in the story does not seem to understand. The content on the web can be used to learn and for many people it is effective. Companies like RosettaStone sell software that teaches individuals foreign languages with great success. Chris Anderson at TED gave a great talk about how video on the web is fueling innovation:

Yet students without access to broadband and powerful computers at home cannot harness this innovation. This is why we need schools and libraries to fill the gap. Computers might not make sense in a classroom setting but schools should be making sure that students are able to access them during free periods and after school. Otherwise the students without computers or broadband are at a disadvantage compared to those that have it.

Finally schools should be teaching students how to use these tools as part of their curriculum. It’s not enough to just put someone in front of a computer and have them search YouTube. They need to know how to do things like format their reports in Microsoft Word or calculate formulas in Excel. They need to be shown where they can find open courseware or how to more effectively use Google. If they do not know the answer to something they should know where to go to find it.

It is unfortunate that policy makers have resorted to a mandate to solve their problem. The mandate will not make their students smarter nor will it make teachers happy. Instead they should have worked with these technology companies to start pilot programs in the districts to bring in the technology and train the teachers. They should have worked to identify the needs of the teachers and students and find ways for the companies to fill the gap. After working with a few districts they could have learned from the successes and failures and adopted those to a larger state-wide program. That would have been a win-win for the state, the technology companies, teachers, and especially the students.

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.