Nothing is as attractive or as marketable for schools as digital technology. My neighboring local district is spending more than $2 million to provide each student in 6th-12th grade with Windows based tablets. The adoption accompanied by a flashy new acronym, the Blended Learning to Advance Student Thinking(BLAST). Most schools are increasingly investing in technology as a key improvement strategy. One to one is coming.
One to one is the educational jargon meaning that each student has his or her own computer. School divisions, and thus public taxpayers, are pouring funds into equipping students with the latest and greatest digital resources. Smartboards, Promethean Boards, LCD projectors, laptops, Ipads, Computer Labs, Instant Poll Clickers, Software Applications and Information Management Systems and the dizzying amount of unseen infrastructure needed to make them function are sucking up cash like a vacuum. But as decision makers barely pause to reflect on these investments it might be prudent to consider them a bit more.
I think having access to such tools is great for both kids and teachers. Where would I be if in the 1980's Apple IIe hadn't appeared and allowed me to learn LOGO? (Probably in the same place) Technology is a great asset in education. I love computers and what they allow schools to do. What they are not is a guarantee that learning and education will improve. Soldiers in the military can be more effective with the best weapons. Teachers too can multiply their impact with new tools. But both must know how to integrate them to do their job. Another way of thinking about it is you don't just pass out bazookas. (OK a bit of a stretch but I liked the phrasing) Schools should both pilot technology and also prepare the majority of teachers to utilize such tools. If they don't then they are eye candy and do little to substantively improve what's already happening.
Technology adoption is more complex that it appears. Worth remembering is that these tools don't stay "new" for very long and as an example that little Apple IIe far outlasted its usefulness. Equal access across divisions with disparities in funding might expand gaps in resources. The big business side of the adoption process shows when company salespeople court officials and saturate them with information like a DC lobbyist.
Contracts have become big money, and often cut out of the loop are the ground level educators. We (in our division) experienced this firsthand last year with a little disaster called Gradespeed. Another complicating factor important to remember is that in addition to large up front costs there are also a continuing expenses as long as the school supports a product. Wear and tear, maintenance, infrastructure upgrades, required support personnel all can be unseen costs. What happens 3 years down the road when kids complain that computers are too slow because they take .3 seconds longer to connect?
Technology constantly changes how we operate. It can motivate some kids in ways other approaches seemingly cannot. Many are pushing hard for state of the art technology to completely transform our classroom. As it does we might be wise to remember we can pay in other ways for this blind faith in technology. A recent NY Times article stated "Even as students are getting more access to computers here, they are getting less access to teachers." Not a good thing.
There is a reason we still drive our own cars instead of using onboard computers. There are social consequences since these things that are meant to connect us can isolate us as well. Within the classroom, I know once a kid has a computer on their desk nothing you say matters. With the young sometimes technology contributes to a decline in civility. Many wonderful teachers in the classroom struggle to keep pace with the changes and I pride myself on integrating the newest technology into my instruction, sometimes not pausing to consider the unintended consequences.
- Am I spending more time on the computer and less time interacting face to face with students?
- Are kids disconnecting from each other?
- Are we blurring the line between real engagement and entertainment?
- Does the outcome justify the expense?
With this in mind it might be interesting to watch this story unfold and think a little more deeply about all that it affects.