Digital classrooms are the problem, not the solution

~850 words

Naomi Buck wrote a thoughtful piece in the Globe recently entitled “A hard lesson: The digital classroom can really fail.” It’s a rare acknowledgement that “digital” and “classroom” may not go together the way everyone assumes — or would like. 

Getting digital tech into the classroom has reached motherhood status. The latest well-intentioned effort to keep kids plugged in comes from US Senators Udall and Gardner, who’ve written a bill to ensure school buses get equipped with Wi-Fi — so the kids will ignore Instagram and dive into their homework.

Good luck with that, Buck might say, pointing to the “misuse” of tech as a good reason not to give schoolkids ubiquitous access. Misuse is what everyone wants to stamp out in class — as in content that’s “inappropriate” for our tender offspring. Misuse, sadly, is baked into the system. Kids can’t be expected to resist the addictive temptations of digital life — especially, I would add, given the poor example set by their parents. 

Buck is justifiably more concerned about a second basket of troubles, which she calls “shallow” use. That would be the unforgiving legacy of classroom technology — expectations endlessly disappointed. We learn from no less an authority than the OECD and its 31-country study that there was “no appreciable improvement” in student achievement in countries that had invested the most in computer technology (study pdf uploaded here). 

Sometimes, however, real life doesn’t support the research. Last week, no less an authority than FCC chair Ajit Pai was congratulating himself for helping educators reach a milestone: getting broadband Internet into every classroom in North Carolina. At the school where the ceremony was held, digital technology was credited with boosting the school’s performance from an “F” to a “C” in a couple of years. One helpful factor — a plan, in this case the state-wide Digital Learning Plan, a national first.

That plan may not improve educational achievement across the state. But compare having some plan to the popular solution: teach teachers more about technology then have them provide more guidance for students. That might be a good start, were it not for two misguided assumptions that pretty much guarantee disappointment. 

First, nobody ever admits, sorry, the tech won’t work. The barriers are always temporary — be patient, just a few more tweaks. The other assumption is equally unfriendly to planning — some tech is better than none. Educational decision-makers see every box with blinking lights as the solution to some problem or other — discipline, grades, the homework gap. A little goes a long way, except for the fact it usually doesn’t. 

Take Buck’s story about her school parent-council spending $10,000 on iPads, MacBooks and a cart to transport them. They saved themselves the trouble of lugging stuff around, not to mention money on software, peripherals and teacher training. But what happens when they need upgrades? Parents want porn filters? The school gets hacked? Someone drops an iPad and it needs repairs?

These unavoidable concerns have a nasty habit of soaking up all the institutional oxygen, leaving no resources for actual learning. And here’s the bitter paradox. The more school kids are encouraged to use tech in the classroom, the more likely they’ll be to misuse tech where it counts — after they graduate to college classrooms.

Suddenly your kid is free to treat everything as appropriate, including in the middle of lectures and tutorials. The idea of “misusing” tech becomes irrelevant. Here, ubiquitous access to devices isn’t just an entitlement — it’s a sign of digital superiority. Screen addiction becomes worse, the K-12 containment measures are gone and Wi-Fi is everywhere on campus. There’s no escape.

It’s here on the post-secondary campus that Buck’s “shallow” use comes home to roost. But not because of a lack of planning or teacher training or student supervision. The real problem is one little distinction nobody pays attention to — using technology to learn isn’t the same as learning about technology. Spending class time doing Web searches may speed up assignments, but it doesn’t teach anyone a damn thing about why algorithms are biased or why Wikipedia is a better resource than Google.

It’s the magical osmosis theory of tech transfer — be exposed to your devices all day long and be the digital master. The bad outcomes of this terrible idea are far-reaching:

  • No tech learning. It prevents young adults from learning anything about tech beyond their usual routines on social media and the like. “Digital natives” are made not born.
  • No course attention. It promotes what’s already a huge crisis of inattention in higher ed.
  • No teacher authority. It feeds into a larger and even more absurd trend: education must be student-centered so everyone can work at their own pace — freed from the oppressive teacher-crafted standards that require striving and occasional visits to the library. 

Of course Buck is right to want solutions in K-12 — where the problems start. But no amount of success in lower grades will begin to fix the mess we’ve got on our hands in higher ed.