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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

When Will They Ever Learn?

Did you all see this article in the Times over the weekend?
As you all know, schools have been spending billions of dollars on technology in the classroom, even as jobs and salaries for teachers — and school librarians — have been cut. And if there has been any trend as popular in education as buying computers, programs, smart boards, it has been the mantra that results in schools must judged on the basis of objective tests — that a school can no longer claim vague humanistic or social benefits from its lessons, it needs to show rising scores. Well, as the Times makes clear, the digital trend has now met its match in the testing mandate. As it turns out, scores are not rising as a result of tech spending. As Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor from Stanford put it: “There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period, period, period.”

Faced with the stark evidence of the scores the advocates of tech spending have been forced to turn to the very kinds of arguments teachers and librarians once made — which the testers treat with scorn. Karen Cantor, former Apple exec who is director of the US office of Ed Tech in the Ed Department said: “In places where we’ve had a large implementing of technology and scores are flat, I see that as great…Test scores are the same, but look at all the other things students are doing: learning to use the Internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others.”

The students are learning to work and play well with others — how similar is that to the arguments for literature, for writing, for music, for sports, for time spent on school projects? Now I like technology and I think smart boards, ipads, the whole digital panoply may have a great deal to offer schools. But, as this article makes clear, not in and of themselves. It takes teachers and librarians trained in using the hardware and software to make a difference. The problem is not technology, it is the fantasy that the machines will obviate the need for the teachers and librarians. That is applying a productivity in business model — where one employee with a laptop maybe be able to do as much work as two with desktops ten with typewrtiers. It has nothing to do with kids, schools, and learning. And yet each billion dollar wave of tech spending comes and goes, and leads us back to this same truth. It is like the stadia that cities build to keep their sports teams — which turn out never to add the expected jobs and income. As the old protest song goes: “when will they ever learn? when will they ever learn.”


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I read that NYTimes article with great interest. The very striking example of why technology will not replace teachers was that of the young boy who was supposed to “shoot” the right number to complete an addition problem…or something like that. Instead, he shot at everything. And the teacher thought that was sort of o.k. since he was being “engaged.” What kind of an educational activity is this? If I were his parent, I would be steaming mad at this purposeless waste of time.

    We need educational vision first. What are we trying to do in the classroom? Why? After that comes the “how.” This came home to me this summer when I participated in Technology Bootcamp at Queens College. The purpose was to enable me to create a hybrid course–50% online. I was given links to several “tools” for developing this new course as well as several online readings to respond to and share my thoughts on a discussion board. The problem was that many of these so-called tools I was given didn’t fit what I was trying to do in my course. Was that because I am hopelessly behind the times? Or, was it that the tools can distract from the purpose of the course?

    I think we need to seriously think about educational goals first before chasing after every new idea. Like you, I am not against technology. I am against purchasing it first and then trying to figure out what to do with it. Does every course need a blog? a Wiki? Must we always work collaboratively? Am I a better teacher if I make a podcast instead of coming to class? According to the readings, hybrid courses are more work for the instructor, not less. Is there a benefit here? If so, what?

    Student response to all this is mixed. In my first class, the students were delighted with the idea of a hybrid course–every single one. They said, “We like this. We don’t want to come to class.” However, I have spoken to other students who are not in my class. They tell me that they despise the idea because they are going to college to meet with professors! They want to be with us, not stay home and do an assignment. They are paying money to learn with us in a social setting.

    So…right now I am in the midst of this revolution in teaching and learning. Stay tuned.

  2. As I have explained, this is a company tool. It’s not really a miracle piece of equipment. It could effortlessly change into an additional expense if you don’t put the commitment into finding out how to make the most of it.