Long an interested observer in the role of technology in the classroom, I must admit some dissapointment in skimming the results of several recently completed studies indicating that classrooms full of computers and technology don’t actually generate any observable benefit in academic performance on the part of students.
First, I do think it’s important to remember that as long as consumer technology and computers remain one of America’s startlingly-few vibrant and thriving sectors, it’s important that we capitalize on our unique abilities to fuse science and creative thinking. China and India may be producing more human engineers than Americans are producing humans these days, there still seem few challenges to the assertion that Americans have a unique knack for creatively innovating within highly-structued and constrained scientific and technical environments. Having computers in classrooms, in my opinion, regardless of improving SAT scores, does help children by introducing and reinforcing concepts that we simply don’t test for at all, but that are arguably going to be some of the most critical skills in the decades to come – for example, an intuitive ability to navigate complex data hierarchies and structures, or to cognitively assemble concepts that are more loosely associated (i.e., via tag-clouds as opposed to tables-of-contents) than they traditionally have been.
The Economist is running a fascinating article suggesting that while we haven’t yet seen a tremendous boost in academic performance following heavy investment in technology-equipped classrooms, this may simply be the result of our approach: Essentially, we’ve augmented our existing classrooms with computers, but we’ve failed to realize the benefits technology can offer by refusing to reconsider our underlying approach. It’s a classic square-peg-in-round-hole dilemma: Until the educational model fits the computer, the computer is of little benefit, because it doesn’t really add anything beyond a few conveniences for the teacher and the ability to appeal to some students by virtue of making academic challenges more like computer games. There may be some value in those things, but if we look at the gains in productivity and efficiency that computers have brought to broad swaths of business and industry, the question is begged: Why aren’t computers making directly observable contributions to our educational system?
The answer suggested by this article and progressed by primary schools such as the KhanAcademy in Silicon Valley, is that there is a simple but significant “flip” in mindset that must be applied in order to start reaping the benefits of computers in classrooms. Put simply, much of what teachers spend most of their time doing with students is lecturing. This should stop. Students can observe lectures on laptops at home – not only are they likely to retain just as much of the content presented, but they’re also empowered to move to new content as soon as they’re ready – or, free to repeat and loop lectures that they’re not quite grasping. This frees us from the age-old dilemma that a teacher can only teach as quickly as the slowest student progresses.
The more significant benefit, however, is that teachers can spend their days doing that which is known to be the most effective means of promoting comprehension, and, for lack of a better word, “teaching”: Spending time one-on-one with students, addressing the specific challenges of a specific student and helping them to overcome them.
Brief but compelling evidence suggests that schools that have adopted the approach of swapping home-work (exercises) at school, and school-work (lectures) for home, are realizing magnificent gains.