Schools that once saw laptop computers as the best thing to hit the classroom since the invention of paper are starting to view laptops as overpriced electronic pencils that can’t connect the educational dots. According to the New York Times (“Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops,” May 4, 2007), one school dropped its one-laptop-per-student program after finding that, when they weren’t crashing, computers didn’t raise students’ scores but instead offered them new ways to cheat, download pornography, and hack into local business sites. Other schools, finding little return on their computer investment, are logging off as well.
Supporters of computers in education are responding to this story by blaming teachers for not understanding or correctly deploying the latest technology. The computer brings the world to each student’s desktop as no library ever could, they explain. All you need is the right method and the computer will do the rest. As for the non-educational activities that laptops inspire, these apologists remind us that students cheated with chalk and pencils too, not to mention passing notes and drawing dirty pictures. Like defenders of the right to bear arms, they insist that you can’t blame the technology if people misuse it.
But skeptics scoff that hand-drawn sketches are nothing compared with gigabytes of hardcore jpegs, that pigtails dipped in inkwells and extorting lunch money pale before the large-scale theft of credit card numbers and the downloading of term papers. Computers enable perversion on a larger, more harmful scale, these critics warn. Worse still for education, computers focus us on the machine, not the task, dazzling us with bells and whistles while we fail to grasp essential truths.
Earlier gee-whiz technologies raised the same sorts of hopes and fears we see with educational computing. Radio also promised to bring the world into the classroom. In 1952, when I was in third grade, we listened to educational radio once a week in class, but children used the hour to daydream while the teacher worked at her desk. Film was going to show us the educational world that radio couldn’t, but when the lights went out and the projector flickered, students napped. Television was the next agent of classroom change that changed nothing. Of course radio, movies and TV remain vital for news and entertainment, but so far as education is concerned, chalk and pencils were just as effective, and a whole lot cheaper.
Even the now-all-but-extinct typewriter was going to boost learning. In the 1930s, two university researchers placed portable typewriters on students’ desks in selected schools around the country and discovered that typing all their schoolwork raised test scores by as much as seven percent for children from kindergarten through sixth grade. But for once the schools didn’t jump on the type-to-learn bandwagon. It was the Depression, after all, and districts couldn’t afford an expensive technology that had to be locked up at night and needed constant maintenance. Besides, while the students took to the machines eagerly, it proved too difficult to train teachers to load the paper, change the ribbons, clear jammed keys, and master touch typing.
Now computers, the technology of choice for desktops in offices and homes across the nation, promise to do what teachers and earlier technologies could not: change the face of education for the better. There's evidence to suggest that's happening, and counterevidence to indicate it's not.
But whether it’s television or typewriters or the computer, we look to technology as a remedy because we’re convinced that schools are broken. Those who warn about the evils of technology do so for the same reason: as they see it, teachers aren’t teaching, students aren’t learning.
Does technology put learners at the cutting edge or distract them from learning altogether? In practice sometimes it does both and sometimes neither. But those aren’t the key questions to ask. Instead, we should be wondering, why have schools repeatedly bought into technology when no educational machine's performance never matched its promise?
The cycle of ed tech disappointments suggests that it’s a mistake to expect computers to work differently in schools than they do at home or on the job. But it’s more of a mistake to expect that learning can be mechanized. Schools are always dependent on technologies ranging from the pencil to the pixel, but schooling is messy. Educating students is not efficient, like using robots to make cars. It's not something that can be made teacher proof or student proof.
Education will always depend a lot on the vagaries of human communication and interaction. Learning involves mistakes. it involves improvising when things go wrong. It doesn’t benefit from economies of scale.
What's more, technology is never neutral. Even pencils put a spin on writing that hadn’t been seen before, and computers are definitely changing the way we do things with words. That’s something our schools cannot ignore. It’s true, too, that there’s a lot wrong with our schools that needs attention. But the answer won’t involve taking the human element out of the learning equation. If the broken dreams of earlier educational technologies are any guide, it’s going to take much more than a chip, a screen name, and a FAQ to change how teachers teach or students learn.