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October 20th, 2011
05:47 PM ET

How best to educate our "digital natives"

Dave Schechter

Senior National Editor

Back in olden times, high-tech teaching tools consisted of the overhead projector and a television set wheeled into the classroom.

Today teachers and students can utilize – if their state or school district has the money to afford them – an amazing and expanding array of computer-driven tools.

Check out this report from CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen. "It's iPad time!"  for kindergarteners in Auburn, Maine. The little ones are hard-wired to use this stuff.

Thinking back to high school biology, I would love to have had the option of dissecting a frog without the scalpel, the mess and the smell of formaldehyde.

There are schools giving students laptops and tablets and classrooms featuring “white screens,” 3-D imaging and other technology that reminds of the later versions of “Star Trek.” By one estimate the nation’s schools have spent some $60 billion on digital learning tools.

A lot is being written about the expense of these tools and the debate over whether they improve learning.

Here is Matt Richtel’s review of the issue in The New York Times: “In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning. This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets. Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments.”

There is little doubt that technology will play an increasing role in educating our children who, after all, embrace the new.

Alan Rudi, who holds the title of principal solutions strategist at Thesys International, an educational services company, discussed the capabilities of these children in a recent edition of eSchool News, making this comparison with their elders: “Experts point to the current crop of digital natives–kids born into a world of modern technology. Digital natives have been immersed in a world of video games, computers, digital music players, and cell phones since they were born. That’s vastly different from the world of digital immigrants – an older generation that’s learning to adopt technology later in life. Digital immigrants are learning to speak a language that doesn’t come as naturally to them. While many have successfully mastered all types of technology, it’s a language they’ve adopted incrementally. Digital natives, on the other hand, have been shaped by the internet, Google searches, and instant messaging from day one and can’t imagine life without technology.”

The kids are all right; just different, Rudi observed: “These students aren’t programmed to sit quietly and take notes while a teacher lectures or demonstrates math problems on a chalkboard. They’re more amenable to an interactive environment where they can talk, touch things, and process information in multiple ways–ways of learning that were likely more effective than rote memorization all along. And more than ever before, students today demand a sense of purpose and control over what they’re learning.”

“They want to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” Rolin Moe, a creative writing teacher and doctoral student in learning technologies at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, told Rudi. “This is the first generation of students who are more proficient with technology than their teachers are,” said Moe.

Nonetheless, wrote Richtel in The New York Times, “Critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills — like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools — at the expense of math, reading and writing fundamentals. They say the technology advocates have it backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later.”

What is taking place in Mooresville, North Carolina, may be a harbinger of what will happen across the country. The school district there is in the fourth year of a program that now puts laptops into the hands of every student in grades 3-12. The district cites dramatic improvement in the percentages of students scoring as “proficient” in state exams for reading, math and science. The district leases the laptops and spends about $200 per student on hardware, software and maintenance. Meanwhile, it has eliminated 95 percent of its budget for print textbooks, along with reduced spending on calculators, encyclopedias and maps, applications that can be found in Internet-equipped devices.

In 1997, a science and technology committee assembled by President Bill Clinton called for billions of dollars to be spent on school technology, to avoid a future loss of American competitiveness in the global market. “To support its conclusion, the committee’s report cited the successes of individual schools that embraced computers and saw test scores rise or dropout rates fall. But while acknowledging that the research on technology’s impact was inadequate, the committee urged schools to adopt it anyhow, Richtel wrote in The New York Times, while also noting that the report’s final sentence read: “The panel does not, however, recommend that the deployment of technology within America’s schools be deferred pending the completion of such research.”

Now the federal government is looking to take a more active role in this endeavor. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Education Secretary Arne Duncan unveiled Digital Promise, “a bipartisan initiative that will be sustained primarily by the private sector” that would promote research and development of education technologies and help schools in the purchasing process. Duncan and Reed Hastings, founder and chairman of Netflix and former president of the California Board of Education, wrote: “At its full potential, technology could personalize and accelerate instruction for students of all educational levels. And it could provide equitable access to a world-class education for millions of students stuck attending substandard schools in cities, remote rural regions, and tribal reservations.”

Jay Greene, head of the education department at the University of Arkansas, not only thinks this a bad idea but makes light of it, getting in a jibe at another government initiative. “The last thing digital learning needs is a government funded corporation. The government is particularly bad at picking technological winners and losers. And if the government pours money into Digital Promise and signals to states and districts that they should buy from that company, they will stifle a developing vibrant marketplace that will experiment with different technologies and approaches to learn what work best,” Greene wrote at EducationNext. “If you don’t believe me that the government is particularly incapable of picking winners and losers in technology, just look at the example of Solyndra.”

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soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. David Gage

    Computers are simply tools. They are not that which is needed to actually improve the overall educational levels in a nation. Look at China. How can it be that they can have so many more engineers per capita than the USA? They have a very similar education system with one major difference: When the majority of their students head home from school they face even more learning time where typically their mother's involvement in their education starts. The more the parents accept responsibility for their children’s real learning the more they will be able to grow and use the technological tools which most in the USA already enjoy but to a far greater degree.

    October 20, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  2. Lydia Patterson

    Yes – technology is merely a tool. Without tackling the underlying family attitude toward education (and support or lack of support) the technology can become merely another "babysitting" tool or method to "entertain" students in the classroom. Education can be fun and technology can certainly assist in that arena - but not at the expense of rigor. Learning, even in subjects you like, has always been hard work. Without parental support for the hard work idea no technology is going to trick students into putting the dedicated effort into their own learning process that is required if we are to compete with education in China. Technological advances can titilate, encourage, and assist. But, at some level, learning still requires dedicated effort from the student.

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