The New York Times on the Classroom of the Future

September 4th, 2011

The article is here. There’s a lot.

In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning. This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets. Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments. “The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an investor in educational technology companies. When it comes to showing results, he said, “We better put up or shut up.” And yet, in virtually the same breath, he said change of a historic magnitude is inevitably coming to classrooms this decade: “It’s one of the three or four biggest things happening in the world today.” Critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills — like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools — at the expense of math, reading and writing fundamentals. They say the technology advocates have it backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later. The spending push comes as schools face tough financial choices. In Kyrene, for example, even as technology spending has grown, the rest of the district’s budget has shrunk, leading to bigger classes and fewer periods of music, art and physical education. At the same time, the district’s use of technology has earned it widespread praise. It is upheld as a model of success by the National School Boards Association, which in 2008 organized a visit by 100 educators from 17 states who came to see how the district was innovating. And the district has banked its future and reputation on technology. Kyrene, which serves 18,000 kindergarten to eighth-grade students, mostly from the cities of Tempe, Phoenix and Chandler, uses its computer-centric classes as a way to attract children from around the region, shoring up enrollment as its local student population shrinks. More students mean more state dollars.

Update: More on what schools will look like in 10 years.

Update: More from Doug Berman:

Regular readers know I have been asserting for some time that greater use of technology in law school instruction is inevitable; I have also been troubled by what I see as the “Luddite instincts” of some professors who are quick and eager to ban laptops in the classroom.  Perhaps usefully, this article reminds me that nearly every time I see something new about technology and education, I become less sure of their proper relationship.

Update: More from Allison Myers at the Harlan Institute blog.

The article considers several possible explanations for stagnant scores in a tech-savvy school like Kyrene; many of which look to the way we assess educational progress in general. For example, while standardized tests reflect that the students at Kyrene have stagnated in past years, the tests do not show the subsequent improvement of students’ technological skills, which are arguably more important in the digital age. Proponents argues that “technology has inspired students and helped them grow, but that there is no good way to quantify those achievements.”

Further, the assessment of technology in the classroom underscores an important point: as the push for more technology increases, “computers are not intended to replace teachers.” To the districts that pour money into laptops and Smart Boards while cutting their budgets and laying off teachers, Bryan Goodwin, spokesman for Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, points out: “Good teachers can make good use of computers, while bad teachers won’t, and they and their students could wind up becoming distracted by the technology.”

The ideal educational structure, it seems, is one where a teacher can use technological tools to engage with students, as a jumping off point for further discussion or independent analysis. This idea rings true when thinking of the classrooms that use FantasySCOTUS as a teaching tool. While Harlan Institute aims to provide resources that fit into history and civics curricula in the digital age, the important part happens in the classroom as students think critically about cases and respond with blog posts or as classes collaborate to predict the outcome of a case before casting their vote on the website. This year, we have also introduced the Podcast Badge, which allows students to record their responses to certain topics, and we hope some students will experiment with this medium and enhance their oral communication skills.