The Promise and Perils of Technology in Education

Technology in schools is a neutral resource. It does not harm or help student learning when put into classrooms. Only when technology is employed by the teacher to serve as part of the learning experience does it have any impact, positive or otherwise. It’s like saying pencils and textbooks can hinder a math lesson. These are tools and little more.

I bring this up because the debate about the promise and perils of technology in schools continues to float around online. In a recent post, Diane Ravitch highlights the commentary from OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, director of the international standardized test PISA. Schleicher agrees with a retiring principal in Australia who stated that mobile technology should not be in classrooms because it is a distraction.

The reality is that technology is doing more harm than good in our schools today. John Vallance, the principal of one of Sydney’s most expensive private schools, Sydney Grammar, said that laptops were not necessary in class and that more traditional teaching methods were more effective.

In response, technologists argue their positions with gusto. The point: How can students take advantage of the vast knowledge available at their fingertips without each of them having access to the connectivity that wireless and mobile devices can bring? Blended learning, flipped learning, and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) are a few of the pedagogical approaches that are often referenced as powerful practices which rely on technology to facilitate learning.

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My belief is they are both right, and probably both wrong. This happens when we take an extreme view with this very complex issue. Technology can be a distraction and hinder student learning if used mindlessly, such as allowing students to use their mobile devices at any time during the school day. At the same time, there are certain learning accommodations that only technology can provide.

Below are two examples from our own school that aptly make this point, within the discipline of writing. We are not a 1:1 school, and probably won’t be for time unseen. We primarily use iPads at the K-2 level and Chromebooks at grades 3-5, although the purpose for a lesson might demand a different device.

  1. A 1st grade student hates to write, specifically putting words down on paper physically. The teacher and special education aide use the voice dictation software on an iPad and allow her to speak her words. The application transcribed her language. She wrote an informative paragraph about a topic of her interest.
  2. A 5th grade student, who also receives special education services, was writing a fictional story on a Chromebook. I asked him if he prefers typing or handwriting his narratives. “Typing – if I make a mistake, I can go back and change it.” He also utilizes the research, definition, and grammar check tools with Google Docs.

Given these specific examples, would Schleicher still argue that technology hinders learning? Our 1st and 5th grader would not be the writers they are without it. Can educational technology maximalists make the claim that every students needs access to mobile devices at any time? Classrooms in our school probably utilize these mobile devices around 25% of the time, to allow for classroom dialogue and group work. Studies have shown that the physical presence of a mobile device can erode the depth of conversations.

And it is in our conversations about the role of technology in education where we will find consensus about better use of these tools for learning. Black and white thinking only serves to widen the gap of our collective understanding about this issue. Where are you on this topic? Please share in the comments and continue this conversation.