We live in the age of technology and all around us we see students sinking into the virtual world more and more frequently. We are now at the point that technology is viewed not only as a good thing for society, but as a necessity—a requirement for both life and learning. To evidence this, I simply need to point at the current discussions in America regarding education and the references from all political stripes to having more computers in the classroom. Politicians in Canada do the same thing. Advocates of this position make the point that putting students in front of computer screens (and really most of the screens we have now can be used as computers) is as good as or better than the old ways of teaching. The question still remains: do computers in the classroom and an increasing teacher/student reliance on this technology actually make students better learners than they were before? Do they know more? Can they do more?
As a classroom teacher, I have sat in on a number of professional development sessions that all start from the default position that computer use as an educational tool is better than anything else, and since it is “where the students live,” it is where we should go to meet them as educators. Does it work? I am going to stand on a limb and suggest that perhaps keeping the wired world outside the classroom, or at the very least on a tight leash in the classroom, would be more valuable to our students than rushing to meet them where they live.
There are no definitive studies out there suggesting that computers in the classroom are helping our students learn better to any real degree, and there are some anecdotal references I could make to suggest that the opposite is true.
As an example, Ontario has had a mandatory literacy test for all grade ten students for close to ten years. Over that time, access to computers in classrooms has increased, teachers’ comfort with using technology in the classroom has improved, and the saturation of students’ lives in technology has increased many times over, but most of my colleagues agree that even though the level of difficulty of the test has not increased, the results have not moved all that much.
Even the kids get it. On February 24, 2011, Parent Central posted the results of a survey done among high school students stating that 72% don’t want cell phones to be a part of their learning experience. I know, it’s not directly about computers in the classroom, but it certainly ties into the push to get more technology in the classroom.
So let’s look at something a little more specific and see if technology really does improve student performance. The World Bank published a study in 2011 that discussed the introduction of computers into the classrooms of Columbia. The government spent twenty months training teachers, and then installed 73,000 computers into 6,300 schools. There was no statistically significant improvement in test scores for either math or language. The report concedes that the results might have had to do with teacher implementation or other issues, but it does suggest that having kids sitting in front of computers is not making them better learners.
Sticking to the information we have at hand, let’s talk about the basics that we know set kids up to be more successful. I think most of us would agree that reading outside of class is an indicator of student success both in school and in life. Many studies indicate that kids who read for pleasure tend to be more academically successful. What has technology done to students’ reading? According to the American Freshman Survey, the number of students who spent no time in their last year of high school reading for pleasure went from 19.6% in 1994 to 24.8% in 2005.
In 2006 two University of Chicago economists looked at the effect on student test scores in California between the years 1997 and 2001. During that timeframe, the level of connectedness in this particular school system went from 55% to 85%. Current conventional wisdom would say test scores and other measures should have increased as well, but in fact, there was a decrease in scores!
During the presidential race in 2008 there was a lot of talk about how much access there was to broadband technology in schools. I can remember then-candidate Obama mentioning that South Korea was number one in national broadband penetration. The reason that South Korea has so much broadband access is that the entire country has a huge Internet gaming addiction. Why is a nation of Internet gamers the model we are trying to emulate in our schools?
Psychologists tell us that it takes the human brain up to 20 times the interval of an interruption to get our train of thought back on to an initial task. Think about how much learning students will lose if we open up broadband in every school and allow them easier access to distraction.
I am not saying the machine is evil, but I am saying that connectedness for its own sake should not be looked at as the future of education.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam Mercer has been teaching History and Geography in Durham Region, ON for over ten years. He is the current Canadian and World Studies Department Head at R. S. McLaughlin C.V. I. in Oshawa. Adam is a questioner of “conventional wisdom” wherever it may be found.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s May/June 2012 issue.