Debate Magazine

The Gilded Classroom

By Stevemiranda

The New York Times ran an interesting story on technology in the classroom this weekend called, “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores.”

School districts across the country are spending millions of dollars on Smart Boards, laptops, and networking hardware in hopes that technology will boost academic achievement. One teacher explains of students, “They’re inundated with 24/7 media, so they expect it.”

The story continues,

Minutes earlier, [this teacher] had taught a Civil War lesson in a way unimaginable even 10 years ago. With the lights off, a screen at the front of the room posed a question: “Jefferson Davis was Commander of the Union Army: True or False?”

The 30 students in the classroom held wireless clickers into which they punched their answers. Seconds later, a pie chart appeared on the screen: 23 percent answered “True,” 70 percent “False,” and 6 percent didn’t know.

The students hooted and hollered, reacting to the instant poll. Ms. Smith then drew the students into a conversation about the answers.

The enthusiasm underscores a key argument for investing in classroom technology: student engagement.

The problem with this theory, articulated later in the story by Stanford University professor Larry Cuban, is this: “There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,” he said.

* * *

In fact, that’s a recurring theme throughout the story. Technology in the classroom is very, very cool. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that students are learning more as a result of all that spending.

Using technology, students can create Facebook pages for characters in a Shakespeare play! Using technology, students post a video about a Woodrow Wilson speech on YouTube! But assuming that using these new platforms will increase academic achievement reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about why young people engage with technology in the first place: they perceive that it adds value to their lives.

Students enjoy being on Facebook because they get to connect with their friends. They like YouTube because it allows them to watch videos that are interesting to them. These new media allow students to customize and personalize important parts of their lives. To force students to use these media in response to a required assignment, on subjects that may or may not interest them, misses the point entirely. On the irony scale, it’s simply off the charts.

Students don’t want adults to pander to them by disguising the classroom as a game show studio. They want to connect with adults who will add value to their lives. To do that, you have to get to know them. You have to ask them what they’re interested in.

When you find out what they’re interested in, then you can make intelligent decisions about what kinds of technology will help them achieve their goals.

Oh, you want to form a fan-fiction writing circle with seven of your friends? You know, you might want to set up a blog where you can post all your writing, then comment on what each other wrote.

Ms. Department Chair, the kids in the marine biology club are saying that the microscopes we have are old and outdated. Do we have money in the budget for new ones?

You know, there are tools in Photoshop that can really enhance the quality of your photographs. Have you ever tried using it?

Using technology in the classroom can have a powerful impact on student achievement, when used strategically in response to the needs of kids. When it’s used to decorate the learning environment, you run the risk of creating a gilded classroom in which the students who used to stare vacantly at a chalkboard are now staring vacantly at a Smart Board, wishing they were somewhere else.


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