May 23, 2013
A Technology Backlash? It's Time for a Mid-Course Review
by Laurence Peters
A recent report titled Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood, authored by the College Park, Marylandbased Alliance for Childhood, calls for a nationwide halt to the introduction of computers in elementary classrooms and in early childhood programswith the exception of computers to aid children with learning disabilities. Endorsed by 82 education experts, including Larry Cuban of Stanford University and Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education, the report should give the educational technology advocates pause. It comes at a time when others are questioning the escalating costs of educational technology and wondering out loud what difference it is making to student achievement.
It is unclear whether this means that a backlash against further spending on technology will occur once people realize that the new faster networks that schools are purchasing with the help of the $2.5 billion dollar E-Rate program will continue to draw resources to support and maintain. Today’s mix of technology skepticsincluding the early childhood specialists who feel that sensitive brain and social development may be inhibited by an over-reliance on the use of computerswho signed onto the Fool’s Gold report are likely to be joined in future years by taxpayers who understand that the appetite for more sophisticated hardware and software may be outrunning the schools’ capacity to manage it effectively. They, like others, are reading the reports about the relative neglect of professional development for teachers and are perplexed as to why educational experts are decrying the availability of high-quality electronic curricula.
Technology boosters will need to keep in mind at least three critical factors that prevent an increasingly skeptical group of academics and education experts from fully embracing their optimistic visions for school improvement. First, much educational software is poor to mediocre, particularly as you go up the grade levels. Second, schools are still not investing anywhere near the recommended 30 percent of their budgets in professional development. A third troubling issue concerns the fact that so much equipment is broken at any one time and there is so little capacity (unlike in the business sector) to repair the equipment in a timely fashion, without resorting to student help or donated teacher time.
It may well be time for the industry vendors to leave the cocoons of their trade shows where the bright, shiny visions of the 21st-Century classroom are on display and visit some of the less glamorous 20th-Century classroom realities. These are the classrooms where teachers are daily faced with uncomfortable choices: Who is allowed to spend time on the four computers in the room? When a computer breaks down, as it invariably does, am I going to continue to moan and groan to my principal? or will I take time away from preparing for my next class to troubleshoot it?
We never seem to arrive at a time in educational technology where we can take a look at where we are and assess what we need to do. As each year new budgets are prepared and new compromises made between purchasing the latest state-of-the-art equipment and making sure what we have worksthere seems less opportunity to become proactive. The voices raised in the Fool’s Gold report require something different than our normal laissez-faire set of attitudes. We cannot afford to let the market sort out the problem in this instance. To break the treadmill thinking, I suggest we need a national conversation that goes on in at least three distinct but inter-related levels: national, state, and community.
Make It Work
The most likely way such a set of conversations might begin is if a particular state initiates the discussion, perhaps developing some incentives for its school districts to think of a bold new way that they can make these costly technology investments really work for all students. Or maybe the pretext is the call for action around the digital divide, an issue that goes to the heart of the difference between our laissez-faire philosophy and a more planful approach.
In the last analysis, those who talk about Fool’s Gold require more of an answer than the typical onethat technology represents the future we all will have to live and that the other side represents a Luddite response. We have to admit that the future is still very much up for grabs and that our schools cannot invent that future by themselves. They need a supportive and informed public to help themand an urgent set of new conversations is needed before a wider backlash sets in.
Illustration by Dan Cooper for TECHNOS.
Click here to access Bridging the New Digital Divide: Lessons from Across the Atlantic by Laurence Peters from TECHNOS Quarterly Vol. 9, No. 2.