I have a child starting 5th grade, and the school had an open house for parents and students to meet the teachers. When we stepped into the classroom, the teacher eagerly pointed to a large metal case. It looked like something a Bond villain would use to transport stolen nuclear warheads.
Nestled inside were 25 sleek black Chromebooks. Each child in the class would have his or her own laptop with wireless access to apps and programs.
The classroom also boasts a smartboard: a giant flat screen that can show slide presentations and videos, and has a touch interface that lets you draw on the screen as if it were a blackboard.
I’m conflicted about the expansion of technology into education. On the one hand, our children exist in a society dominated by screens, computing, and connectivity, and they need to be familiar with the tools of modern work.
And there are legitimate educational uses. For instance, there are math programs that adjust the difficulty of the problems as the child works through the program; if they show mastery at one level, the program can ramp up the difficulty.
On the back end, the teacher can assess each’s student’s progress and use analytics to spot problem areas. Ideally, the student would then be given additional (human) instruction to help them grasp concepts with which they’re struggling.
So if technology tools are actually employed to improve instruction, that’s a good outcome. The question is whether the tools are used wisely.
When I hear administrators talk about things like smartboards and laptops, it’s as if these things had magical properties: just their presence in the school makes everyone smarter and enhances achievement.
I feel like there’s an attitude that the more time kids spend on a laptop, the better it is for them. But technology by itself won’t make a bad teacher into a good one. And if you took all the technology away, good teachers would still be good.
Technology also eats budgets. I’d rather see more teachers or support staff and fewer computers.
The Tyranny Of Screens
My other concern is the amount of time kids (and adults) spend in front of screens. In our house it’s a daily battle to separate my children from games, tablets, and phones.
I don’t know how often the laptops will be employed in the classroom, but I’m not thrilled about the effects they’ll have on attention span.
I don’t expect children to sit still for hours at a time, perfectly focused on a task. But screens train us to expect constant novelty. Whether it’s the on the desk or the wall, bright lights, eye-catching colors, and moving images are candy for the brain.
And like drug users who need to up the dosage to get the same high, eventually we require even more stimuli just to catch our attention.
My son is excited about the laptops, and I admit the cool factor is high. But my hope is that the laptops will be used sparingly, and will enhance, rather than be the sole focus of, instruction.