There are two hot potatoes currently being juggled in the 21st Century learning arena, with no end in sight to the buzz each has created. One is Common Core Standards. The other – and what this post will discuss – is the integration of technology in today’s classrooms.
The million-dollar question is how much is too much, or in some cases, when is a greater technology presence needed? The quick answer is, there is no answer. A Google search stirs up no shortage of valid voices representing all sides of the debate. Some educators boast the benefits of total technology immersion; equipping kids with modern-day tools is critical. Others make convincing arguments about the dangers of technology in K-12 education, especially in the early years. Without adequate research results, are high-tech classrooms an experimental Wild West or an optimal school setting?
The inquiring mind, whether educator, parent, administrator or observer, must weigh the pros and cons. Which, by the way, are evolving as quickly as cloud computing itself. Furthermore, is it even possible to scale back digital classroom learning? According to a survey by PBS Learning Media, nearly three-fourths of U.S. teachers use technology to motivate students to learn.
Below are cases for and against in the “how much is too much” classroom technology debate.
Bring It: The Case for High-Tech Classrooms
This side of the debate makes convincing arguments for how the 21st century classroom is improving education. It’s opening doors to fresh, new ways to customize learning, creating global connections, and preparing kids for their tech-filled horizons ahead.
• Preparing students for a digital future
Many educators believe there’s no turning back the technological tide (and, perhaps, the one-laptop-per-child initiative). Why should we, they conclude, considering its place in college and the workplace. Kate Ash, a writer for Education Week and Digital Directions, agrees: “It’s clear that more and more schools are aiming to prepare students for a global marketplace that requires networked learning experiences, an understanding of digital citizenship, and a way to navigate and organize a stream of information and resources from a variety of different sources.”
• Deeper engagement, broader learning
Students like the engagement of technology; the interaction of gaming, texting and natural use interfaces (NUIs) that use body movements (think Wii, Xbox Kinect) are interesting and fun. There’s a sense of instant connection between people and information, no matter the distance. Modern classroom designs help by making connectivity effortless with accessible power in classrooms, moveable furniture, and multimedia library commons.
• Inspiring self-directed learners
Full access to technology, including computers and the Internet, enables students to become self-directed learners, writes James Rosenberg in the Huffington Post. Rather than depending on teachers or textbooks for direction, students can develop the research and analysis skills they’ll need later in life. Put simply, they can pick a topic and run with it, without being tethered to textbooks or a physical space and its distractions.
• Tools for teacher efficiency
For teachers being asked to do more with less, technology can be a godsend. Teacher websites can post assignments, resource links, quizzes, video lectures, offer parent portals, and more. There are apps for keeping Common Core State Standards at teachers’ fingertips, grading, selecting books by reading level, and scanning documents. Electronic whiteboards have replaced chalkboards; on-point texts have replaced phone tag.
• Supporting PLEs
As the interest in personal learning environments (PLEs) grows, so does support for classroom technology. PLEs are a type of learning where students choose their resources, often through electronic formats, that fit their pace and style. Using cloud computing and mobile devices, students create their own customized learning futures. With guidance, they set their learning goals, manage their learning content and process, and choose methods of communicating with others.
Leave It: The Case for Keeping Schools Low-Tech
This group isn’t necessarily proposing that schools return to keyboard-less learning. They’re saying we need to rethink what classroom technology is being introduced, when, for what purpose, and how teachers are being trained to use it for students’ greatest benefit.
• Meaningful engagement comes from people
Some may think it’s extreme, but Waldorf educators feel the appropriate age for computer use in the classroom and by students is in high school. Its educators believe hands-on learning experiences through the arts and writing, as well as collaborating with others, cultivates students’ intellectual, emotional and spiritual capacities.
One online responder to the topic of classroom technology bluntly agreed. “Technology, specifically the Internet is a great ‘tool,’ but without the proper education first it does nothing but make our students lazy and less smart.” Food for thought: Publishing giant McGraw-Hill’s line of digital SmartBooks quizzes students after every chapter and highlights the materials they need to review.
• Too much too soon
Ongoing studies are underway to measure how much children of all ages use technology and its impact. Mali Mann, M.D., in psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, cautions against having too much auditory and visual stimulation in early childhood education.
“In the past, we only had to be concerned about too much TV exposure. Now, we have [so much more]. It … creates patterns of behaviors similar to addiction. Their brains get used to too much stimulation.” The result can be kids who lack patience and struggle to master the self-control needed for academic success.
Furthermore, does an abundant buffet of classroom technology lead kids down a rabbit hole of distractions? What happens when students have endless access to endless information, much of it from unvetted sources? Some child development experts firmly believe that technology too soon can deprive young brains of developing stamina and learning how to think critically and creatively.
• Cost and obsolescence
Classroom technology is expensive, with the potential to create huge inequities among schools and students. Low-income schools are at a disadvantage. They may have to forego digital tools (or productive tool-to-student ratios), and their teachers are less likely to receive formal training in the use of digital tools in the classroom.
Also, for many schools, the red tape in funding poses huge hurdles. A district needs to budget for both acquiring multi-media tools and teacher training, and keeping each current. By the time some districts receive funding, their purchase, no matter how progressive at the time, will be outdated in a few years.
• Taxing teachers’ expertise
“At times, it seems like teachers and administrators need a second full-time job in the technology sector to keep up with the electronic classroom culture,” writes Matthew Lynch, an Education Week blog writer. Indeed, if schools have the technology, they need the teacher training to maximize learning and avoid what some call an “expensive distraction.”
Classroom technology also raises the issue of maintaining teacher control. What role are teachers expected to play in monitoring online activity? As one teacher surmised, he was fine showing a guest author’s lecture via Skype, but wasn’t in favor of giving laptops to every student to watch it.
So what’s the right answer?
The “how much is too much debate” debate will not end soon, and the answer is probably complex. More likely, it’s some combination of “it depends,” “everything in moderation,” district budgeting, class size, etc.
What has siphoned to the surface of collective thinking is to focus on what’s best for students, rather than using technology for technology’s sake. Administrators and teachers should explore options, learn from peers who have tried various digital tools, and invest in formalized teacher training. Foremost, classroom technology should be used to deepen student engagement and enhance learning dynamics, not just to keep kids busy.
Ash, Kate. “Personal Learning Environments’ Focus on the Individual.” Education Week Spotlight. May 13, 2013.
LeClaire, Jennifer. “Kids and Tech: How Much Is Too Much.” Tech News World. Sept. 6, 2006.
Luckerson, Victor. “Too Cool for School. Disruptive tech is changing how kids learn.” Time. Sept. 22, 2014.
Lynch, Matthew. “Evolving Classroom Education: Where is K-12 Technology Headed?” Education Week Blog. Oct. 2, 2013.
Rosenberg, James. “Technology in the Classroom: Friend or Foe?” Huffington Post. Oct. 26, 2012.