Cramming Computers: It’s Still the Same Old Story



By 09/09/2011

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The New York Times woke many with a start over the weekend when it reported in its Sunday edition on a school in Arizona investing lots of money in technology but seemingly getting few results from the investment, as student test scores remained stagnant.

The article, “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores,” indeed shows that bolting technology solutions on today’s existing education system is a bad strategy for improving student learning. As my coauthors and I wrote in Disrupting Class, this has been true for some time. The United States has wasted well over $60 billion “cramming” technology in schools in this way to little effect over the past couple decades—and predictably so, according to our research. That some schools continue to do this is unfortunate—particularly in tough budget times—and is worth reporting.

But to generalize beyond this case study that all technology in education is not worth the investment makes no sense and asks the wrong question, as Jonathan Schorr argues persuasively. As Tom Vander Ark points out, this storyline is both an old and outdated one.

Simply put, people should not take from this article that technology will not be a significant part of the answer for the struggles of the country’s education system. It will likely be the very platform for it.

Technology has the potential to transform the education system—not by using technology for technology’s sake through PowerPoint or multimedia at the expense of math and reading or something like that—but instead as a vehicle to individualize learning for students working to master such things as math and reading, thereby creating a student-centric system as opposed to today’s lockstep and monolithic one.

According to the article (and with a full caveat that the article of course may not capture the true intent of the school officials profiled), a goal here was to create a computer-centric classroom. If this is true, it dramatically misses the point. As others have noted, a critical problem with the notion of creating the “classroom of the future” is just that phrase—“the classroom of the future”—for the ways in which that language locks in our imagination around the current paradigm of schooling and even sometimes implies that creating this should be the goal in and of itself.

Instead we need to be doing what an increasing number of schools like another Arizona-based school, the Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School, are doing and disrupting that flawed paradigm by implementing online learning to create a student-centric system—not to increase costs for the community through bond measures or otherwise, as the article reports—but to use existing resources to prioritize student learning and achieve great results.

Those cited in the article who criticize those in favor of upgrading technology first and asking questions later about how it will impact student achievement are exactly right, as Bror Saxberg—one of the leading thinkers in understanding how to use technology to bolster learning—argues here.

Nor does this rule only apply to technology. Spending on virtually any K-12 educational initiative without having increased student learning as the ultimate priority makes no sense.

-Michael B. Horn




Comment on this article
  • Tom Nixon says:

    Best quote:

    “Technology has the potential to transform the education system…as a vehicle to individualize learning for students working to master such things as math and reading, thereby creating a student-centric system as opposed to today’s lockstep and monolithic one.”

    You get this exactly right. One need only look at your example of Carpe Diem to see that technology, used as a tool, does reap good rewards.

    Tom Nixon
    http://BestOnlineHighSchools.com

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