December 28, 2003
Making Tech Connect
THE CHALKBOARD / LAURA PAPPANO
There's a definite coolness factor: There are no books, no papers,
no pencils in Tom Daccord's World History class at the Noble and
Greenough School in Dedham. Every student has an iBook and Daccord
has a laptop. Web pages projected on a screen fueled a class discussion
recently about women's role in Islam.
There was the Frontline documentary clip from Iran. There were
video interviews about the ban on headscarves at Istanbul University
in Turkey. There was the lyrical, ancient chanting of the Koran
coming over the Real Time player.
And, of course, there was Daccord, prodding: "What is the
relationship between women and the family? What is the connection?"
In some respects, the technology doesn't matter. Daccord does
what good teachers have always done: Offer students evidence and
provoke them to think. But in other ways, the technology is everything.
It is why, for example, Daccord could halt the documentary mid-sentence
with a mouse click - and right as the narrator broached it - ask
students about the relationship between Islamic law and civil
law. It is why students could tap out notes and not worry they'll
ever get lost.
As computer technology moves from frontier to educational mainstream,
it's no longer enough to use computers for the sake of using computers.
They must do something. And yet, many schools and districts still
measure technological savvy by the student-to-computer ratio and
not by how well they fit into classroom learning. According to
the National Center for Education Statistics, the percent of public
school classrooms with Internet access has risen steadily from
3 percent in 1994 to 77 percent in 2000 and 92 percent in 2002.
The ratio of students to computers with Internet access has increased
from 12.1 to 1 in 1998 to 4.8 to 1 in 2002. But more hardware
doesn't necessarily mean better learning.
"Most people just do not know how to integrate technology
into instruction," said Greg Palmer, director of technology
for the Canton Public Schools and a consultant who has assessed
school computer use in more than two dozen districts nationwide.
Even many wealthy districts are not wired for Internet use - or
wired properly - and districts in general underestimate the human
support required, Palmer said. "Most districts that are failing
are failing because they have invested a ton of money in hardware
and software and little in the people to integrate it into the
educational platform," he said.
In the corporate world, one network administrator oversees operation
of 50 computers, Palmer said. In Canton, where he has a staff
of six, three manage 1,500 PC's and three help teachers integrate
technology into lessons.
The two issues - the upkeep of hardware and helping make technology
work for teachers - represent new personnel needs some schools
are still grappling with.
Ray Tode, director of educational technology and information systems
for Andover Public Schools, said the district helped parents buy
Toshiba laptops for 75 students in three fifth-grade classes to
use at school and take home while other classes use school laptops.
The experience has been wonderful educationally, but requires
a huge effort to train teachers and maintain laptops, including
those bought by parents, Tode said.
It's not unusual, he said, for a student to bring a laptop into
school and complain it's not working. "The biggest problem
is with parents," said Tode, who said adults download software
for their own use. Students, he said, also gum up computers.
"We had one little girl download 20 gigabytes of Britney
Spears videos," he said. "She came in and she couldn't
Even as students' writing skills improve because they're more
willing to revise, Tode notes - a common result cited in research
- budget cuts this year have forced technology specialists to
stop working with teachers on curriculum. "Now they have
been pulled back into the computer lab and are teaching classes,"
The people who train teachers and make computers run are like
the shoemaker's elves whose work is essential, but rarely seen.
Too often, Palmer said, the focus is on hardware and software.
Like many parents, I've written checks for technology fund-raisers
so my daughter's elementary school can buy more stuff.
The connection feels hard-wired because we embrace the equation:
Computer = Better Education. But it's fair to ask: What's the
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan made the apt and oft-quoted point that
"the medium is the message." But when it comes to education,
the message must outshine the medium. Todd Oppenheimer, author
of "The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology
in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved," said computer
technology "is over-rated" and subverts the real mission
of schools: teaching children.
Oppenheimer argues that the drive to bring technology into classrooms
is happening with little thought as to how it is changing schools.
Saying students need computers because employers will expect them
to be computer literate misses the point: Learning to use computers
is easy, Oppenheimer said.
"What [employers] really want from their new hires are basic
work skills, people skills, communication skills, writing abilities,
to think critically, to be reliable and conscientious, to be able
to use their imagination," he said. Oppenheimer worries that
glitzy computer presentations leave students "more entertained
"Err on the side of less [technology] and reserve the school
as a sanctuary for personal interaction and hands-on creativity,"
We certainly don't want to forget the value of messy, imperfect,
human experiences, but we must realize that while computers may
be a big deal for adults, for kids they are just the way you work.
"Students talk about technology in verbs, not in nouns. They
talk about actions," said Don Knezek, CEO of the nonprofit
International Society for Technology for Education in Eugene,
Oregon. "When adults talk about technology, they talk about
laptops and PDA's [personal digital assistants] and routers."
Knezek said the most powerful gap between education and technology
is that schools have failed to acknowledge the changed content,
nature, and structure of various disciplines. Science as taught
in schools, he said, is not what science is anymore. "The
greatest problem is what we teach," he said. "There
is an absolute disconnect between what's real, what the disciplines
are, and what we teach in school."
For now, though, the challenge remains to simply make technology
less of a toy and more of a tool.
At Noble & Greenough, Upper School Head Ben Snyder said the
school is forming a study group to consider requiring all students
to buy laptops. But he is firm that computers won't take over
the school. "Even if we became a laptop school, there would
be classes where kids wouldn't even pull them out of backpacks,"
On the other hand, Snyder said, the debate around the extent and
use of technology in schools is not new.
"I remember when videotape came in, people said, `You're
going to show television in the classroom?' " he said. "The
question for a lot of us is: When does technology become a commodity
like a notebook or the piece of slate kids would carry around
hundreds of years ago?"
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Email Todd Oppenheimer at firstname.lastname@example.org