Technology and Education

January 2012

Rumours are floating around that Apple will shortly announce plans to shake up the textbook industry. Whether or not this eventuates as rumoured, Apple devices are showing up in an increasing number of classrooms.

I’m deeply ambivalent about the relationship between technology and the education system. I think Steve Jobs summed up my feelings nicely in 1995 when he said:

… I’ve helped with more computers in more schools than anybody else in the world and I absolutely convinced that is by no means the most important thing. The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can. The elements of discovery are all around you. You don’t need a computer.

This is what makes me skeptical of Russ Maschmeyer’s manifesto for a new education system. Russ’ piece is well worth a read, and his argument that the education system is fundamentally broken is spot on, but his proposed solution is to open source the curriculum to create a “coursework of the commons” and to allow teachers to live-stream their lectures to hundreds of students online.

I can see these solutions working at the tertiary/college level, but at the primary and high school level, I firmly believe that schools and teachers should integrate technology into classes as necessary, and only when it is clear that there are net gains to be made. There is a prevalent belief that, because we live in a technologically-mediated society, every facet of our education system must “go digital” or fall out of the loop. If your child’s school provides every student with an iPad, teachers must attempt to integrate the device into their lesson plan, even if it isn’t really clear that using the iPad will lead to clear gains.

I’m speaking as a now-twentysomething who participated in a very early “laptops in schools” program just over a decade ago. Perhaps things have changed since 2001, but my experience was that teachers used the fact that students had their own “learning devices” as a crutch – instead of standing up the front of the class and engaging us in the subject matter, my seventh grade teacher would ask us to load up a maths/English/science application on our iBook laptops, and sit back for the next forty-five minutes as we either muddled our way through the prescribed work on the device, or (more likely) switched to a game or file sharing program or instant messenger client. In English class that year, one term-long assignment was to “analyse” (I use the term very loosely) the computer game of our choosing (for the record, the game I chose was American McGee’s Alice).

During the year in which I participated in the laptop program, I learnt virtually nothing in class. Because it was difficult to find suitable maths applications for thirteen year-olds, my teacher taught us how to create spreadsheets on Microsoft Excel and neglected to teach us algebra. The device, in short, dictated the curriculum. (Unsurprisingly, my parents pulled me out of this school).

Teachers who care about connecting with students are rightfully worried about bringing devices into the classroom. I don’t believe this makes those teachers Luddites. In fact, I despise the fact that we seem to automatically vilify those who are opposed to new technologies as fearful or lazy conservatives.

Kyle Baxter, in responding to a teacher lamenting the fact that bringing computers into the classroom will force her to change her teaching method, says, “The problem she’s facing has nothing to do with technology.” I think, up to a point, he’s right. Good teachers will continue to exist in classrooms with gadgets. And the role of the good teacher will remain the same: to motivate, to keep students engaged, and to tailor the curriculum to meet the specific needs of students.

The problem, from my perspective, is that the place of the gadget within the classroom is extremely poorly defined. Some teachers, at least, view the iPad or laptop as a crutch. They don’t see the device as existing to improve their ability to teach, but as cutting down on their workload. After all, it is easier to get away with being a bad teacher in a classroom in which the device has centre stage. How do you measure engagement in a classroom in which thirty students are uniformly gazing quietly into their own glowing screen?