Students went back to school in September with a controversy over Technology in Schools swirling in the halls and inside the 21st century classroom. Canada’s largest public school board, the Toronto District Board, accepted the ever-present reality of students armed with smartphones and relaxed its ban on most hand-held technology devices. That move signaled the beginning of a profound shift, opening the door to the digital classroom.
Most junior and senior school students in Canada and the United States are already sneaking their phones and iPods into class in backpacks, so the move was likely inevitable. “Teachers just can’t sit at the front with the chalkboard anymore,” IT consultant Todd Sniezek conceded,” because that won’t engage them and we have to engage them using their tools.” http://m.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/primary-to-secondary/back-to-school-for-smartphones-toronto-loosens-ban-on-devices/article2156008/?service=mobile
Allowing more open access to IT in the classroom came amidst fresh controversy over the questionable impact of hi-tech on student learning and performance. A New York Times series “Grading the Digital School” led off with IT reporter Matt Richtel’s September 3, 2011 feature story reporting on stagnating test scores in schools championing the technology-centric classroom. After analyzing the Kyrene School District, reputed to be a model high-tech school district, Richtel came to a startling conclusion: student test scores were still languishing.
Across the United States, where nearly $2 billion is now being poured into IT software alone, Richtel sounded an alarm bell. “Schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay-off teachers,” he declared, “with little proof that this approach is improving learning.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/technology/technology-in-schools-faces-questions-on-value.html?pagewanted=all
Promoters of the headlong rush to digitize our schools got a jolt. There was, Larry Cuban told Richtel, “insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period, period, period.” Cuban also “pooh-poohed” the “student engagement” argument for computers. “There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,” he contended.
Brave critiques of 21st century digital orthodoxy, such as Richtel’s feature article and Nicholas G. Carr’s 2010 book, The Shallows, perform a vital role in alerting us to the spell cast by the Net and to the perils of giving it free rein in our schools.
What should we make of the recent revelation? A Senior Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Peter Meyer, provided the best and most insightful answer. While Richtel covers most of the essential bases, he simply doesn’t grasp the significance of good, sound curriculum. In Educaton Gadfly, Meyer pointed out that Richtel – like the IT zealots–is slow to recognize the most critical element in education — the importance of knowledge.
The central question, What should kids know?, still eludes education technologists and far too many education reporters.
Meyer offers these words of wisdom: “It can be done. When Ron Packard was starting his pioneering internet school, K12 Inc., in the late 1990s*, one of the first things he did was to convince Bill Bennett, the education “czar” under Ronald Reagan and co-author (with Checker Finn) of The Educated Child, to join him. This was 1999 and a major coup, in no small part because Bennett and Finn had written that there was “no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning.” …. Equally important – though less publicized – was Packard’s next move: hiring John Holdren, who had overseen E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge K-8 Curriculum Sequence, to design K12’s curriculum. What Packard appreciated, and too many education technologists still don’t get, is that content counts.” http://www.educationgadfly.net/flypaper/2011/09/wakeup-call-for-the-digital-revolution/
Computers are here to stay and so is IT in schools. Simply providing the latest IT gadgets and providing open access to the Web is, and never will be, enough to fully engage students in guided learning. That master “Word Processor” Nicholas G. Carr describes well how increasing numbers of “digital citizens” now report that “the Web has scattered their attention, parched their memory, and turned them into compulsive nibblers of info-snacks.” (The Shallows(2011), p. 226)
Will recent Wake-up Calls for the Digital Revolution in education register where it counts, in Departments of Education and among education policy-makers? With all the high-tech gadgets in our hands, are Tony Wagner’s “21st century skills” apostles leading us astray? Why do we tend to ignore the essential fact that knowledge and good teaching still matter most? Will the low technology of good teaching and sound curriculum eventually win the day?