Thursday, July 1, 2010

Does school technology even matter?

In a little town, not so long ago, but certainly far far away, concerned citizens openly wondered whether technology mattered much in their schools.  In this town, after a good deal of money had been spent to purchase computers about five years ago, kids were being sent down the hallway for 45 minutes, once per week, to the computer lab, thereby allowing the regular classroom teacher to have a prep period.  In the computer lab, there was a "computer teacher," who introduced keyboarding skills and demonstrated the proper procedures for setting the margins in a popular word processing application, using a version of that software that was no longer being sold or supported by the manufacturer.  The activities used for word processing practice had little to do with any topics being discussed in the regular classroom (such as, say, how to properly address a business letter to be printed on paper and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service).  A few months later, informal analysis of recent standardized test scores revealed that those classrooms visiting the computer lab once per week for three months did, in fact, score slightly higher than those that did not; but the difference was not statistically significant.  Since funding for the town's schools had dwindled, year after year, and other programs such as sports, music, and art were facing budget cuts, this disappointing data was cited by several outspoken taxpayers during a heated School Board discussion.  The meeting concluded by cutting the budget line items, not only for the upgraded word processing software, but also the salary for the computer teacher.  The technology program wasn't improving test scores much, anyway.  So, reducing funding for it really shouldn't matter.  Right?

Like those taxpayers, my parents never were very excited about computers, perhaps partly because of early assumptions about what benefits might or might not derive from using them.  So many things -- such as the emergence of commercial air travel -- changed in their lifetimes.  (To this day, more than a few people from my parents' generation actually take pride in their inability to use those silly, time-wasting contraptions; some are still employed as teachers.)  Their son, however, was born into that first generation of students fortunate enough to so much as lay hands on a computer before graduating from high school.  Even to do that much, I first had to be selected for a special summer program at a nearby University.  Touching that first computer changed my life.  From that moment forward, the potential of technology to change how I learned anything -- how people could learn anything -- became my life obsession.  Several years later, when I heard Seymour Papert at MIT talk about how every school -- indeed every child -- should have a computer, as their own personal power tool for learning -- while more sensible folks were laughing at the economic infeasibility of this notion -- I did not laugh; I was captivated.    When Alan Kay envisioned the Dynabook, in Scientific American -- the conceptual forerunner to Apple's new iPad -- folks more worldly-wise than I will ever be explained that such a thing could never be made sufficiently cost-effective for public education; but I remained transfixed.

The children who come into our schools today -- the first generation for whom computers have always been part of their lives -- part of their furniture and a permanent attachment to their ears -- often carry more computer power in their back pockets than the million dollar computers I was allowed to use in grad school.  Possibly they are learning more on the school bus, using these devices, than they learn in class during an entire school day.  Even parents are surprised and sometimes shocked to find that all such devices must be powered down at the school entrance, on penalty of confiscation.  For our children, going to school is a lot like boarding a commercial airliner: after clearing security, we are strapped in our seats, the pilot decides where we are going, how we will get there, and when we will arrive; and -- even though most of us may have difficulty believing it --  we are told that the tiny signals from our small devices might somehow interfere with much more important communications and cause the airplane of public education to fall right out of the sky.

For a very long time, educational technologists, myself included, have been utterly convinced that there is something almost magical about these tools for helping people learn.  Technology in schools is no longer a "yes or no?" question, but more of a "how much?" and "of what kind?" question.  Yet the reality of what happens in schools almost universally falls far short of the tremendous potential we envision.  Why is that?  Why aren't these incredible devices being used in more empowering ways?  Why does school technology so often look like that little town, far, far away, where "computer" is a "subject" you spend 45 minutes a week learning about?  What are the barriers preventing a more enlightened approach from taking hold and changing everything?  Obviously cost has historically been a major obstacle; but Moore's Law has dramatically altered the math here; and if money were the only problem, then why is it that even economically disadvantaged children, nowadays, seem to have better technology at home than at school?  What are the barriers preventing powerful networks of knowledge devices from utterly transforming our schools? The answers to these questions matter a great deal for our children and for their future.  Through anecdotes and years of hard knocks, I hope I might make a small contribution here toward understanding how we can make technology matter more in our schools.

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