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Ed Tech: Promises & Glitches


Q. A huge reason school spending has increased so much over the past generation is educational technology. Are we getting a good-sized bang for our buck?


In many ways, yes. It's hard to imagine going back to mimeographs and photocopies, calculus without a calculator, and even teacher record-keeping by handwritten journal entry.


On the other hand, you're right - the spending is enormous for ed tech, and it's no coincidence that the leaders of huge computer companies are the ones banging the drums the loudest for the "need" for more ed tech in schools, and "serving" on prominent committees whose conclusions are - imagine that? - that more money for more ed tech for schools will pave the way for success for kids.


Meanwhile, is there anybody in the country who thinks that kids are better at the 3 R's than they were in the centuries BEFORE ed tech? Not really.


To be fair, there's lots of evidence of ways that computers, online learning, multimedia communications, and much more in the ed tech area have improve student learning. But there also have been many examples in which teachers, principals, school-board members and the public all agree that expensive ed tech projects have been disappointing, or even debacles.


Example: New York City's $80 million computer "super system," put in place to track student performance and ostensibly make the district more efficient, was plagued by problems and delays, frustrating the city's 80,000 teachers and casting a cloud over the credibility of school leaders. The ARIS - Achievement Reporting and Innovation System - has been criticized as working too slowly, being skimpy on important information, and failing to help educators pinpoint and address student weaknesses, as advertised.


There are scholars on both sides: those who say that technology is helping reach more students in better ways than ever before, and "saving" kids who might otherwise have checked out mentally or even dropped out physically. But there are others who say that ed tech has pushed out quality, time-tested traditional teaching, and dumbed down the curriculum to the point where students are using the expensive computer systems that taxpayers provide to simply download cool photos of sports stars, or follow the latest hijinx of their favourite media celebrity.


There are difficult ethical considerations, such as the fact that a lot of the new media that school systems are purchasing are being sold by for-profit companies. That implies that trendy gadgets and the status of having "the latest" educational toys may be wasting taxpayer money and detracting from practical learning, rather than augmenting it.


Then there's the whole thorny problem of plagiarism, loss of privacy, addictions, loss of face-to-face communication experiences, and also the loss of documentation and footnoting, since so much of the information found online is devoid of scholarly referencing.


On the other hand, ed tech is certainly here to stay. So what's the answer?


Adopt this mantra: "assessment before investment." Make sure any ed tech your district is buying is going to do what it's designed to do, and help the learning curve without busting the budget.


Homework: A truly prophetic book on the impact of technology on education and communication, and the dangers of being dazzled by gizmos and consumerism rather than seriously using ed tech as a learning tool, is Neil Postman's 1996 book, The End of Education.


By Susan Darst Williams Technology 02 2008


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