What are students really losing without technology?

Not much, but there might be some good reasons around the corner to get it in the classroom wherever you can.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Negroponte wants a laptop on every kids' lap, especially if they're in a developing country.  But do kids really lose anything without technology in their schools?  Our accreditors think they do - they think our kids won't be competitive nationally or internationally without technological immersion.  Yet comparisons to other countries show that we're really just getting hammered on our math/science skills, which aren't really helped by tech.  More tellingly, we're getting hammered in our lowest socioeconomic groups.  The rich kids are remarkably competitive internationally.

So what's the deal?  What does the presence or absence of technology have to do with this?  Isn't it really more of a cultural and socioeconomic issue? If you can read and think critically, you can figure out a computer.  More importantly, if you are driven to succeed and are given opportunities and hope beyond what most of our inner-city kids get to experience, the computer should become a tool like any other.  Most of my generation lacked the sheer immersion in computing that today's kids have, but still manage to function quite well in our computer-centric world.  Even Bill Gates, in his pioneering work in urban schools, focuses much more on curriculum and teaching methodology than on technology.

Why my crisis of faith?  I'm in ed tech for god's sake - certainly I shouldn't be advocating for the elimination of technology from our schools, right?  I'm on the edge of advocating myself out of a job.  Yet I spend so much time watching students waste billions of dollars in Internet infrastructure updating their MySpace pages while they remain unable to solve basic arithmetic problems or write coherent paragraphs, I have to wonder if all the technology in the world can really help.  I didn't have computer labs or handhelds or Skittle-colored Negroponte-isms and I write rather nice paragraphs.  Sure, you endure my occasional run-on in this column, but I know my times tables (without a graphing calculator, thank you very much).  I don't even need the trace function on said calculator to find the roots of an equation.

So what role is there really for technology in the classroom?  Well, just the other night in one of my graduate courses (not surprisingly on math education), I caught a glimpse of what technology should be doing in the classroom.  This glimpse even gave me a reason to consider handhelds for students (like, a lot of handhelds for a lot of students, despite having disparaged this notion in the past).  Researchers at WPI are looking at using web-based systems to provide instant feedback to students and real-time data to teachers on the effectiveness of curricula.  This research also focuses on teaching teachers to use these data, not just as a ding on their record for teaching badly, but to determine where holes might exist in students' learning, where differentiated instruction might be valuable, and how to modify lessons to quickly communicate important concepts to the maximum number of students.

Better yet, students can instantly find out, through this system, if they are answering questions correctly or incorrectly, and are provided with feedback and help in real time.  Teachers can even assess the types and degree of help needed for a given subject area by student or in the aggregate.  As a teacher, it can be very difficult to provide this level of instant feedback to students (I'm lucky to grade tests, quizzes, or homework over a weekend).  Yet on a handheld or in a computer lab, students, especially those who are struggling, can actually derive a great deal of benefit from this sort of a system.  A teacher can even instantly "correct" a quiz given through the system and immediately address any identified deficiencies.

And what would the system be if it weren't a Web 2.0 application?  Teachers can use it as a framework for adding their own content so the system can grow as needed or address specific areas for which it was not originally designed.

Although it is only being piloted here in Massachusetts, the National Science Foundation is throwing quite a bit of money at this to expand the program.  If we can keep tools like this coming and really begin to exploit the power of the Web in innovative ways that can measurably help students learn better and teachers teach better, we'll be on the right track.  Talkback below and let us know of other good reasons to get kids punching away on their handhelds (or laptops, or thin clients, or whatever). 

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