Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Room for Debate (NYT): A Misguided Use of Money

A Misguided Use of Money

Paul Thomas
Paul Thomas, a public high school English teacher for 18 years, is an associate professor of education at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. You can follow his work at Radical Scholarship and on Twitter at @plthomasEdD.
January 3, 2012

[unedited submission]

Reforming education in the U.S. often includes seeking new technology in order to improve teaching and learning. Instead of buying the latest gadgets, however, our schools should provide students with critical technological awareness, achievable at little cost and without the newest hardware.

We rarely consider the negative implications for acquiring the newest “smart” board or providing tablets for every student—chasing the next new technology without evaluating learning needs or how gadgets uniquely address those needs. Ironically, we buy into the consumerism inherent in technology (Gadget 2.0 pales against Gadget 3.0) without taking full account of the tremendous financial investments diverted to technology.

Technology is a tool to assist learning. School closets and storage facilities across the U.S., though, are filled with cables, monitors, and hardware costing millions of dollars, now useless, replaced by the newest gadget. Notably, consider one artifact now covered in dust, the Laserdisc video player (soon to be joined by interactive “smart” boards).

Chalk board, marker board, “smart” board—this sequence has not improved teaching or learning, but has created increased costs for schools and profits for manufacturers. Little research exists showing positive outcomes from technology—although we do have this caution: One “study found that most of the schools that have integrated laptops and other digital tools into learning are not maximizing the use of those devices in ways that best make use of their potential.”

Access to technology reflects and contributes to the growing income inequity plaguing society and schools. As technology blossoms, access to it expands the gap between the affluent and impoverished. Even when we introduce technology into schools, affluent students’ having more experience with it in their full lives leaves impoverished students always behind.

Viewing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian on a Kindle, on an iPad, or as a paperback proves irrelevant if children do not want to read, struggle to comprehend text, or lack the critical literacy to interact with text in complex and meaningful ways that are personal and communal.

Schools should not invest in the newest technology, or the inflated cost of cutting-edge gadgets. Students deserve, though, technological awareness and critical understanding of the role of technology in their lives and society. Empowered teachers and students will choose to use technology, or not, instead of being blinded by the newness of the next gadget release.

Today, we’d do well to heed Henry David Thoreau: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

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