New technology, same old teaching

Schools aren’t getting much bang for millions of technology bucks, concludes the Center for American Progress. Education leaders buy the latest technology — whiteboards, laptops, e-readers — without thinking through how digital devices will help meet learning goals.

Across the nation, we found that many schools were using technology in the same way that they have always used technology; students are using drill and practice programs to hone basic skills. Students are passively watching videos and DVDs. Too many students do not have access to hands-on science projects.

. . . schools are not using technology to do things differently.

Technology may be widening the digital divide, the report warns. In many schools, “students from disadvantaged backgrounds are being given the least engaging, least promising technology-facilitated learning opportunities.”

School leaders lack “the tools and incentives needed to connect spending to outcomes and reorganize programs in ways that take full advantage of school technology,” the report finds. No state is looking at technology return on investment.

 As policymakers and other stakeholders invest billions of dollars in school technology each year, we should be asking ourselves: Are these investments the best use of our limited dollars? Is technology allowing us to do things that we do not—or cannot—already do? How are we ensuring that students have the skills that they need to succeed?

In some cases, technology is improving learning and widening access to courses, CAP concludes. Technology has the potential to “kickstart the process of leveraging new reforms and learning strategies.” But, so far, it’s usually an add-on to the same old, same old.

President Obama’s ConnectED proposal would revamp the federal E-rate program to fund high-speed Internet access at 99 percent of schools within five years.

The Leading Education by Advancing Digital, or LEAD, commission has released a plan to expand digital learning, reports Education Week. Updating school wiring to support high-speed Internet is #1. In addition, LEAD recommends putting digital devices in the hands of all students by 2020, accelerating the adoption of digital curricula, investing in technology-rich schools of innovation and giving teachers training and support to use technology effectively.

The dangers of education technology

Technology is undermining math and science education, argues Konstantin Kakaes, a New America Foundation fellow, on Slate. Fancy gizmos and software shortcuts waste money and weaken learning, he writes.

When Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, Va., recently renovated its classrooms, Vern Williams, who might be the best math teacher in the country, had to fight to keep his blackboard. The school was putting in new “interactive whiteboards” in every room, part of a broader effort to increase the use of technology in education. . . . It is beginning to do to our educational system what the transformation to industrial agriculture has done to our food system over the past half century: efficiently produce a deluge of cheap, empty calories.

. . . Williams doesn’t just prefer his old chalkboard to the high-tech version. His kids learn from textbooks that are decades old—not because they can’t afford new ones, but because Williams and a handful of his like-minded colleagues know the old ones are better. The school’s parent-teacher association buys them from used bookstores because the county won’t pay for them (despite the plentiful money for technology). His preferred algebra book, he says, is “in-your-face algebra. They give amazing outstanding examples. They teach the lessons.”

The modern textbooks, he says, contain hundreds of extraneous, confusing, and often outright wrong examples, instead of presenting mathematical ideas in a coherent way.

Technology can help students learn concepts, advocates claim. In practice, that doesn’t happen, Kakaes writes. Students are even more likely to arrive in college with little understanding of math. The graphing calculator has done the work for them.

A science teacher demonstrated the superiority of her interactive whiteboard by showing him a music video featuring a Rube Goldberg machine. He wasn’t impressed. Then she showed a drawing of an electric circuit in which wires connect a light bulb to a battery. Close the circuit and the bulb lights up.

Her students like it when the bulb lights up, she says, because it reminds them of a video game. But this shortcut is dangerous. Learning how to visualize—as required when an electric circuit is drawn on a blackboard—is vital for developing the ability to think abstractly. You also have to make students manipulate real circuits with real batteries, with real wires that connect them and sometimes break. Showing them a toy circuit in computer software is an unhappy middle ground between these two useful teaching exercises: You neither learn how to trouble-shoot in the real world, nor do you think clearly about how electrons work.

Math and science require hard work, practice and perseverance, says Williams. There are no shortcuts.

Whiteboards: A smart choice?

Schools are spending for high-tech gizmos like interactive whiteboards to teach 21st-century students. But it’s not clear the expensive gadgets help teachers teach any better, reports the Washington Post.

Many academics question industry-backed studies linking improved test scores to their products. And some go further. They argue that the most ubiquitous device-of-the-future, the whiteboard — essentially a giant interactive computer screen that is usurping blackboards in classrooms across America — locks teachers into a 19th-century lecture style of instruction counter to the more collaborative small-group models that many reformers favor.

Educational technology spending will total $16 billion next year, analysts estimate.

Nancy Knowlton, the chief executive of SMART Technologies, said that schools are desperate to find ways to engage multi-tasking, tech-savvy kids, who often play video games before they can read and that some “strictly gathered research data,” along with anecdotal evidence, show that her company’s products work.

“[Students] are engaged when they’re in class, they are motivated, they are attending school, they are behaving and this is translating to student performance in the classroom,” she said. “Kids want an energized, multimedia learning experience.”

One in three classrooms will have a whiteboard by 2011.

Teachers and kids like whiteboards a lot, writes Dan Willingham on The Answer Sheet. But research shows students don’t learn more.

In many districts, the technologies have simply been plopped into teachers’ classrooms with minimal or no support. Little wonder that they are not being used as effectively as they could be.

Some teachers have learned how to use whiteboards creatively and well, he writes. They should be identified, funded and asked to teach their colleagues how to use technology to improve learning.