I’ve recently advocated a great deal of edtech. My approach to education has always emphasized content and skills. Because of this, I see a real value in incorporating technology into coursework. There are, however, unfortunate side-effects that can emerge.
Recently, Jay Matthews wrote a Class Struggle column for the Washington Post online, called, “How computers can hurt schools,” discussing a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. He describes the case of Melvin highlighted in the lawsuit whose English class functioned “virtually” with little to no interaction from his teacher. The computer was, in his teacher’s mind, supposed to educate him. It didn’t work.
I have also in the past advocated “slow reading,” bound paper books, and handwriting. There are many advantages to technology, but it comes with its own drawbacks. In this post, I want to highlight the challenges. These are a generous sampling of issues, not a particular tirade.
Access to technology
A great teacher in my area teaches STEM classes at an elementary school that has had a surging percentage of ESL students. In her mind, technology is the equalizer. If you were to walk into her classroom and watch her students working through a Robotic Legoes project in which they measure their designed cars’ ability to drag a load, you’d agree with her immediately. The key to success has been her ability to write grants that allowed her to procure the equipment.
Few of her students have access to such technology at home, of course. And, many of her ESL students without her instruction would not gain the advantage of expanding their English vocabulary. Technology works in this case because the school owns it–the students need bring nothing but their thirsty minds–and the teacher is excellent at maximizing gains.
I advocate using technology to do a number of projects that many students simply cannot do unless the school provides the access to the technology. Incorporating smart phones or tablets only works if every student has access. Does this mean we will add such technology to our school supply lists? Perhaps it means teachers in low-income areas need to learn to write grants as part of their training.
South Korea is one of the most strongly plugged-in, high-speed technological cultures. They recently halted a plan to transition all textbooks to e-books. The reason for this was centered on studies about the dangers of excessive screen time. These include brain-patterning and chemistry that develops over time, mimicing addiction.
In general, students with higher screen time hours tend to have a host of attendant health problems. Some of these are cognitive though many are related to inactivity. There are also concerns about reduced face time with other human beings and minimized time outdoors. Besides concrete health concerns, such as a lack of sunlight and its natural provision of vitamin D, this creates a disconnect with the natural world which will, among other side-effects, challenge future conservation.
The reliance on getting information digitally impairs a slow, concentrated ability to read in depth for comprehension of complex ideas. Scanning is a useful skill for a quick upload of information–I use it all the time when I am referencing a source for a particular idea or concept to be sure of the context. But, true comprehension of complex ideas, whether in a great work of literature, a written study, political analysis of an issue or legal problem, a work of philosophy, etc., requires more than a cursory scan.
It is also an essential cognitive skill to maintain and foster. Slow reading promotes the ability to focus deeply. This is a basic skill used in decision making, destressing, and problem-solving. It is also life-enriching. Consider the difference between the experience of social media memes and contemplating a Raphael, Van Gogh or El Greco three feet from your nose. As with much of “slow” movements it comes back to experiences.
I am an advocate of using technology to recreate experiences that cannot be otherwise accomplished. You can use the web to create a virtual field trip even if the resources are not available to make the trip any other way. But, the understanding is that this is a substitute resource. Emphasis on substitute.
History instructors can use leisure activities, food, music, etc. (see the sub-categories under my Experiencing category) to recreate another era. These are also very social activities. The learning is achieved together and it uses the human senses, which in turn stimulate the brain and its learning.
Poverty limits experiences, obviously. While technology can be used to ignite curiosity and encourage experience, it can also deprive one of experience and reality. Naturally, this comes back to balance.
Studies show that practicing and learning handwriting does important things for our cognitive development with language. Many schools have already abandoned it in their curriculum. Keep in mind that part of the issue here is literacy, the other part circles back around tothe aforementioned concern about access.
On the one hand, learning to write by hand is a stronger means to learn literacy. On the other hand, anyone who cannot afford a computer can still write out a job application or send a letter to his or her politician. That same citizen should know how to type, too, because some day he or she may be able to get a computer, but until then… it’s all about access.
Some students in our area-elementary schools are extremely poor, relying on school for two to three meals out of the day (with after school programs), going to school in the winter in flip-flops because they do not have shoes, missing the afternoon of classes if they spoil themselves because they don’t have a change of underwear when they go home, and having no money for basic school supplies such as paper and pencils, let alone tablets and computers.
The final x-factor is the instructor. Technology cannot be a substitution for instruction in a classroom setting. You walk into the classroom and it’s game on, period. Teacher interaction has an incredible impact on students. Buy-in problems and student management troubles are often the result of poor teacher interactions.
I can look back on my own career and identify those moments when I created problems with my students that otherwise, with a different pattern of interaction would have shared a productive learning experience with me. They were not problem students, but I created problems. In the end, their rebellion was unproductive but justified. I can also look back at those teachers who had a lasting impact on my life for a point of comparison.
If it can make that much difference, think how much impact ignoring a student can have, telling him, like Melvin, to learn from the computer. How inspiring.