New tools, old thinking

North Carolina school districts are using $3.5 million in Race to the Top funds to “put Apple iPads in the hands of students and teachers at two low-performing schools,” reports the Raleigh News & Observer. Durham Public Schools Superintendent Eric Becoats said, “Our kids are telling us, ‘This is how we learn. This is what we want.'”

New technology rarely provides a new way to learn, writes Rick Hess, who’s unimpressed with “digital natives.” In schools with one-to-one computing, personal computers, and iPads, students typically work on “graphics, clip art, powerpoints, or adding sound and visual effects to video shorts.” Or students go to “Wikipedia for material to cut-and-paste into powerpoints or word files.”

. . . I had a chance to spend a couple days visiting acclaimed “technology-infused” high schools. Yet, most of what I saw the technology being used for was either content-lite or amounted to students using Google-cum-Wikipedia as a latter day World Book Encyclopedia. Making powerpoints and video shorts is nice, but it’s only us “digital tourists” who think it reflects impressive learning.

A “digital native” who uses an iPad to find Wikipedia’s entry on the Harlem Renaissance isn’t learning more than an encyclopedia-using student 25 years ago, Hess argues. Today’s student may learn less because it’s so easy to cut and paste text instead of copying information (or taking notes!) by hand.

I’m a huge fan of using technology to rethink schooling. But it’s the rethinking that matters, not the technology.


About Joanne


  1. No way this will work. It could work – if a ton of money was spent to convert textbooks into interactive forms and teachers were retrained and the technology was really integrated into the whole instructional model – but they’re not going to go to all that trouble and expense.

    This is just the wasteful spending of a windfall. Free beer would have been illegal for minors, so they went with pop-tech.

    > “We’ll go back to Joan of Arc because she’s kind of a paradoxical figure in history.”

    Really? Influential, legendary, or magnificent I could understand, but “paradoxical” eludes me… maybe I’m missing something.

  2. Taking notes is an excellent way to learn and reinforce learning. I speak as one who probably spent at least 15 hours a week in the library during college taking notes on journal articles and reference books, in the era before copy machines were available. I also used serial consolidation of notes as a study method.

  3. You are right, JoAnne. Teachers using technology have to be more innovative. Getting the kids to figure out how to take information and create powerful projects or presentations, incorporating that knowledge from Wikipedia or Google is what counts.

    Integrating this information into multiple web-based tools to demonstrate real learning should be the goal.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The key to learning is to allow your brain and nervous system to become a conduit for information. As information passes through you, your brain records it (imperfectly, but well enough). That’s why note-taking is so key: you see and hear something, you process it, and then you spit it back out in a slightly processed form.

    It’s that process, that through-putting of content, that allows you to learn something.

    If you’re cutting and pasting, then it’s not YOU that is being the conduit for information. You’re just being a facilitator – hitting a button here and there.

    * * * *

    And Rob – I’m totally with you on that quote. Many of my undergraduates don’t know one word from another, and they tend to just throw words in where they think they might make sense, without regard to whether it’s the best word or not. In many cases, if you sit them down and ask them (I have) they don’t even really know what the word means.

    The only thing that makes me think maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to think that this teacher is like one of my poorer students is that it’s Timothy Hall, who is no slouch. I mean, he not Marc Bloch or Norman Cantor or anything, but he’s a pretty sharp cookie.

    My guess is that he’s got something in mind about her embodying both male and female archetypes.

  5. There is a real stigma to being anti-tech. Over the summer, district workers installed four brand new student computers on one of my only large classroom tables. I needed that table for other things! So I took down two of the computers and stowed them away. Later, when I told the district tech guy what I had done, he gave me the dirtiest look, as if I were the epitome of a bad teacher for, gasp, REDUCING the amount of technology in the classroom. We worship tech in a thoroughly irrational, religious way. One feels one is doing something deeply wrong by insulting technology, as if you’re making a powerful god angry. Conversely, bringing more technology into the classroom has a talismanic effect. It propitiates the gods and spirits.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Ben F –

    You damn heretic. May you burn in the fires of a thousand handwriting lessons.

  7. tim-10-ber says:

    Spelling and grammar checking, calculators in second grade and now ipads…it has already been proven computers do not help learning…


  8. I don’t believe in being knee-jerk anything, and that includes technology.

    That said, I don’t have a cell phone because, well, I don’t need it. Despite the hype and everything you can do with one and the apps and pictures and email and youtube andandand….I still don’t need it. Don’t. Freakin’. Need. It.

    So. Classroom technology? Mmmmmkaayyy….IF you can prove that it improves student educational outcomes. One really good use for the internet, for example, is for student investigation into primary sources. I can show students examples of the Bayeux tapestry, for example, or Greek pottery shards. These online images translate much better than photocopies that I’ve made from university libraries. But the pictures *by themselves* don’t mean jack. It’s what students do with those images – make inferences, compare/contrast images, describe/predict point of view, place into historical context – that matters. And it’s the doing part that worries me, because I don’t believe many teachers do the doing, because they haven’t been trained.

    Excellent instruction should always come first. Technology plays a distant and lower-ranking role, and any comprehensive technology policy will have solid, content-area-specific instruction in how to integrate new tools.

    I fear that, for most schools, that’s not the case.

  9. I used to have four computers in my classroom which communicated with students via email before there was the internet.

    And then I got 32 computers for my classroom and wrote some decent learning software for them. (and pirated the rest.)

    The technology helped learning. It was a lot more than just the novelty factor at work.

    But then the administrators got into the act. And then the district office. And their ignorance interfered to the point where I removed all the computers from my classroom, even the one I’m supposed to take roll on. My classroom has no computers and I have chalkboards instead of white boards. Screw them.

    I still believe technology can be a wonderful learning tool.

    How and why it actually came to do more harm than good, I don’t know. How sad.

    One of these days, I really hope, it can get a second chance.

    If technology hadn’t moved beyond the Apple II and if administrators had kept their hands off, teachers would still be writing programs in BASIC and some of the severely slow kids would be learning long division and some of the average kids wouldn’t confuse lay with lie.

  10. A relative of mine teaches at one of the high schools where they gave everyone a laptop and expect them to be in use all day.

    HOWEVER, they didn’t upgrade the infrastructure to support the technology.. So everyone has a laptop, but there’s no place to recharge them or plug them in!

    I have mixed feelings about computers as learning tools. As a writer, I need my computer, and I love the easy access to information online.

    But as a homeschooling mom, I severely limit screen-time. And the Apple IIe I picked up at a rummage sale seems to have better teaching tools for small children than the internet does. Less flash and bang and “good job!” and more oppurtunities to practice what they’ve learned.

    I think the key is that kids need to learn basic skills to use computers well. If they’re illiterate, a computer isn’t going to suddenly make them able to read about history– unless you make them put in some serious time on phonics programs!

  11. Robert: Well, Bedford St. Martin’s has a nice site for grammar drills that I use — I can send the kids off to practice and email me the exercises for the concepts that showed up in the last essay. Lie/Lay, Who/Whom, and the subjunctive are sort of novelty lessons. I teach them, but since one rarely hears them used correctly, that’s about all they are.

    I don’t have computers in my classroom unless I sign up for the cart, which I share with my department of 15 teachers. I’ve grown fairly attached to my SmartBoard. It took me a year or so to really figure out how to best use it, but now it really is far more than a glorified overhead for me. Edmodo is a cool tool — and I often have the kids just turn in drafts to a folder for me to comment electronically and save the paper. Tech can be used well in the classroom — I just think it depends on your goals. Mandates from on high never work well. I’m glad my district isn’t into them.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    In the ninth grade, our French teacher said we would learn ten vocab words every week. My father said the easiest way to ace those was to write the ten words out ten times French-to-English and then the reverse. I was reluctant, thinking that just staring at the list was less work.
    But I did it and had a semester of small-quiz 100 scores which helped with the overall average and gave me some solid vocab. The chem prof the next year did the same thing with quantum numbers. Same result for me. Been a good help for decades in various circumstances.
    No technology.
    But I can just hear folks saying that was practically fascist. And not technologically impressive.