The Costs and Benefits of Educational Technology

csm_online-education_7912c2a8ecAny consideration of what changes might be good for schools must start with a fundamental question: What is the point of school in the first place?

Is it to socialize our kids to work well with others? To prepare them to earn a living? To instill values? Maybe our schools want to train effective thinkers, create a habit of lifelong learning. Or teach knowledge about the world. Or help people discover their purpose in life.

The answer is probably: All of the above.

When we ask, then, how technology should be used in school, it makes sense to wonder whether a specific technology will fulfill a specific purpose better than the traditional methods.

I’m not privy to school conversations about whether to invest in new technology, but here is a rundown of the options currently touted:

  • 1:1 laptops or tablets. Every student gets a device to read and complete schoolwork.
  • Remote control quizzes, completed using smartphones or separate remotes. The tool provides immediate feedback and allows teachers to gauge progress.
  • MOOC’s or “massive open online courses,” where thousands of people can log in to hear lectures from top professors and submit coursework.
  • Online platforms that allow teachers to post material and moderate online discussions. These can be used for pure online classes or supplemented with a regular course.
  • Interactive websites, YouTube, streaming documentaries, online documents in databases.

Digital optimists see a world of opportunity in these new technologies. Instruction will be optimized for student growth and measurement. Learning will be equitable, as anyone with an internet connection, regardless of income, can access top-notch academic thought.

My objection is that there is nothing new under the sun. Technology critic Neil Postman writes in his book “End of Education” that the modern problem with education is not technical in nature, but metaphysical. The problem is not a lack of methods, but a lack of meaning.

We had already achieved equal access to the world’s intellectual database. It’s called a library. And if you were so inclined, you could walk in for free and become an expert on any topic.

Online learning content is no different, except we have videos in addition to text. It’s there if you are so inclined.

The only change is that now, if you pay for online courses and prove you learned new material, you can get a credential or diploma, legitimizing your learning to the rest of society.

In terms of instructional methods, I can’t think of any digital tool that’s significantly better than it’s low-tech equivalent.

Because when it comes to any of the goals of school mentioned above, there simply aren’t shortcuts. The cognitive investments required for reading, writing, math–whatever–don’t change when transmitted through a glowing screen. You can get fancy with demonstrating learning or giving feedback, but there was nothing wrong with the age-old methods for doing these. Socialization or emotional awareness can’t be taught online; more often the tech world serves as an escape mechanism.

New technology certainly doesn’t inspire thirst for knowledge. The same teenager who doodled in class and blew off his homework is not, all of a sudden thanks to the internet, inspired to watch lectures on the Enlightenment by a Harvard professor. Instead, he has at his fingertips the most advanced entertainment device the world has ever seen. Good luck competing with that.

Of course there are skills that students must learn for the tech world. For example, how to find good information online, and how to decipher credible sources from random crap. Most fields now expect their employees to learn new online systems or to be proficient in certain programs. Certain fields require computer programming skills, etc.

Schools can’t ignore a cultural phenomenon like the digital revolution. But in general, I think we would be better off implementing a strict cell phone ban in schools rather than injecting technology into the nooks and crannies of instruction. We should worry more about inspiring students with a convincing purpose for their education.


Author: Billy

High school teacher and blogger.

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