October 25, 2011

Balancing Technology in Our Schools

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Over the past couple of weeks, two articles appeared in The New York Times about the use (or lack) of technology in the classroom: “Out With Textbooks, in With Laptops for an Indiana School District,” and “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute.” Both articles address the growing concern over the extent to which grade school curricula should revolve around technology, each with a very different response. The first article, “Out With Textbooks,” profiles Munster Indiana’s school district’s switch to an entirely computer based curriculum. The latter, “A Silicon Valley School,” features the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in Los Altos, California, which bans the use of computers and projection screens in favor of “a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks.” While each article presents valid arguments for both methods, each school’s version of extremism emphasizes and glorifies one type of learning while neglecting many others that are equally as valid.The Waldorf school, as explained in the Times article, is primarily attended by the children of relatively well-off parents, most of whom have jobs in technology. Lucy Wurtz, one of the founders of the Waldorf high school, acknowledges that parents at the school “have a knowledge that when they are ready to teach their children about technology they have ample access and expertise at home.”The ubiquity of various forms of technology outside of the classroom renders the elimination of screen-time in this school less revolutionary. The rhetoric used in the Times article to describe the philosophy, that “computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans,” fails to note that the students can and will learn with technology — it just won’t be in a classroom. The Times quotes a Waldorf parent’s views: “I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school … The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.”While this parent is not necessarily inaccurate in arguing that technology cannot be the basis of an education, he also generalizes from a privileged position. There is no question that Waldorf students will have access to computers and become technologically literate. For students in this circumstance, there very well may be a legitimate value in a screen-free education. However, as a general educational philosophy, it lacks 21st century practicality. Understanding how to use technology in a productive and enriching manner has become a necessary asset. To deny that importance risks putting students at a serious disadvantage. Many students in America would not have ready access to computers or the Internet without their integration into public school curricula. Educators in support of a technology-based education philosophy would not necessarily disagree with this parent’s assessment — that an iPad cannot replace a teacher. In fact, the argument that it ever could entirely misses the point. Technology-wielding educators primarily tout computers in the classroom as a tool, not as a replacement. Nevertheless, the over-implementation of technology and technology for its own sake come with problems as well. The Munster, Indiana school district recently replaced textbooks with laptops. The fee to rent a laptop for the year plus insurance remained the same as the annual textbook fee, granting all students the same access to computers as they had to textbooks. The article focuses on the improved efficacy of teachers rather than changes in the curriculum itself. The Times quotes one teacher as saying, “Last year I’d have to walk around and ask every kid how it’s going, and I’d be grading sheets, that kind of thing … [now] I can give my time to the kids who really need it. And it’s a lot more engaging for the kids. They’re actually doing their homework now.”The school incorporates multimedia sources into lessons, combining text with video to enrich traditional material and using programs from the Discovery Channel and other online sources to aid in research and investigation. Smart boards aid in math lessons, and computers allow teachers to track progress and students to have constant access to school materials.However, this school’s overwhelming substitution of computers in the place of paper occurred rapidly and leaves some gaps. The Times profile highlights the improved glossiness and visual stimulation of computer-based lessons, which in turn lead to increased student engagement. A chairwoman at one of the schools in the Munster district told The Times, “The material we’re teaching is old but everything around it is brand new.” Herein lies the problem: rather than making standard lessons prettier, the curriculum itself should engage students. A good curriculum, regardless of whether it uses technology, should call for critical thinking, problem solving and creativity. Technology should not be a solution to a problem, but a broadening addition and learning aid to an already strong curriculum.          Students should learn how to conduct reliable research on the Internet, find and cite sources, and use programs that facilitate interaction and active problem solving. But this does not mean that schools should use computers as a replacement for books, writing or discussion. Neither the Waldorf model nor the Munster, Indiana shift seem to implement a holistic enough approach to learning. While both approaches have value, a combination of the two would lead to engaging curricula with the addition of technological literacy and increased variety of material. Rather than either serving as the crux of a curriculum or disappearing from it all together, technology should be used as a tool in the classroom to enrich material and augment a strong curriculum. Ruby Perlmutter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at rperlmutter@cornellsun.com. Having Said That appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ruby Perlmutter