Coming Soon, the iPad3: Effects of New Technology on Education and the Digital Divide

When the iPad2 came out, much of my cynicism was directed at yet another expensive piece of hardware that would require infrastructural tech supports that school districts don't always have, especially the poorer ones.
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Is it just me, or does the continued hyper-focus on technology in the classroom leave anyone else just a little bit cold? While it has long been said that academic institutions change more slowly than any others, and for good reason, this is perhaps no longer the case. When I was a school administrator, the joke was always that the kids could keep ahead of the technology, while the adults were forever chasing both.

I do believe that our children are growing up in an increasingly disconnected world -- socially, emotionally, and geographically. Educational technology offers the opportunity for kids to be "connected" in many different ways, even socially, even globally. Is this sort of virtual connection a viable substitute for real connections among students, and between students and adults in their schools? Or does it actually enhance those real-world connections? I think the question of the place of educational technology is one of emphasis, not of essential value.

Less than a year after release of the iPad2, here comes the iPad3. I'm no technology expert, so I do not presume to know how the 3 will surpass the 2, or whether the new iPad will make significant inroads into schools. It seems that everyone has something to say about educational technology these days, and that's not a bad thing. Technology and the Internet allow all of us to have something to say about education, which broadens the stage for this very important discussion.

Do I risk professional suicide -- or at the very least, comment thread suicide -- if I propose that there is a potential downside to the technology craze being embraced by schools? According to this recent NYT article, "the debate continues over whether schools invest wisely in technology -- and whether it measurably improves student achievement." While many comments on this article rave about the benefits of 1:1 technology access in classrooms, others feel differently, as expressed by this comment:

Education that heavily relies on technologies such as laptops is producing a generation of students incapable of prolonged, sustained intellectual thought. This is evident in my college students' performance as:

• The inability to write. Papers resemble texting and not the formal compositions traditionally taught. The writing I see is absolutely abysmal.

• Poor behavior in the classroom. Unless professors continually stimulate or entertain students, their minds wander. They become impatient and begin to act out.

One thing is clear: teachers and students love technology and use it constantly in their lives. It is therefore not surprising that most of them feel technology makes school better and "less boring," as I have heard many kids (and teachers) say. Does "less boring" equal greater skill development? And where in the budget-setting process -- particularly during tough times -- do we place line items for computers vs. line items for teaching staff? What is the optimal recipe for the success of our students, within America and relative to other countries?

Technology and the 3 R's

Among the many enthusiastic articles, blogs, and discussion threads about our new educational technology revolution are a few rather tentative voices asking, "But what about deep reading skills? What about writing?" The iPad and similar devices save trees, and that's a good thing, but, assuming these mobile devices eventually get into the hands of every child in America, do we have anything to worry about as well as celebrate? I think we do. Reading on screens encourages skimming and undermines comprehension. Typing on touch pads is difficult. Math has become increasingly disconnected from computation by hand. Some educators feel the tail is wagging the dog, but opinions do vary, and I'm open to all of them. Of greatest interest are best practices in countries outside of our own, and the need to become less inwardly focused.

What About Equal Access?

When the iPad2 came out, much of my cynicism was directed at yet another expensive piece of hardware that would require infrastructural tech supports that school districts don't always have, especially the poorer ones. These tablets would be more intuitive to use and less cumbersome to maintain than traditional desktops and laptops, but here again was another shiny new toy that could potentially further widen the digital divide. And how long would it be before the introduction of a newer version of the iPad that everyone wanted?

Nine months ago a friend of mine who heads a charter school in a socioeconomically disadvantaged urban neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, quipped, "So if we somehow come up with the funds to get some iPad2's, what if only 15 months later, there is a newer, better version?" Well, that has happened in much less than 15 months. The arms race is well under way.

It is difficult to find articles that address the issue of equal technology access. It is as if the ubiquitous slogan that "education will be revolutionized" masks the very real problem of equal access across the socioeconomic spectrum. Theoretically all of this new technology can be deployed into schools throughout the country to enhance (even revolutionize) student learning, but can it really? Do Apple, the tech pundits, the academic intelligentsia, and all of the people in the educational trenches really care? It seems a lot more exciting to discuss the technology itself than who will and won't have it. And as is usually the case, technology evolves faster than our understanding of the complex cultural, psychological, and sociological impacts of using it.

Can We Have it All?

Technology isn't going away and it shouldn't. It is in the classroom, the workplace, the home, and many other environments -- to stay. Children must learn to use technology effectively to be successful in our world. No argument there. My concern involves what it may be replacing. Perhaps ever-improved technology will allow teachers to gain more free time that can then be spent nurturing and guiding students in other important ways. That would be a positive way of looking at it.

But what is the appropriate balance between the role of technology in children's education, and the role of human beings in their education? Putting aside questions about 1:1 technology widening versus narrowing the digital divide, what will be the effect of increasing the time kids spend with computers, other technology-assisted classroom learning, and even full-blown online learning, while decreasing the time students spend forming personal relationships with teachers, knowing them and being known, and being academically, socially, and emotionally mentored by caring flesh-and-blood adults? How will upping the incidence of multi-tasking (and the resulting divided attention), increasing the role of information processing in learning, and boosting screen time affect students' learning and developing brains?

This study by the Kaiser Foundation found that today's excessive media consumption via mobile technology among 8 - 18-year-olds is contributing to lower grades and decreased personal satisfaction. Can all of our new academic technology really fit seamlessly into the necessary human relationships, and harmlessly into child cognition and achievement? Is the trade-off in resources -- more technology, fewer teachers, bigger classrooms -- in our kids' best interests? Many people think so. I'm skeptical.

I advocate that educators step aside from the fast-paced excitement of new technology and the cascading waves of enthusiastic media coverage of each new device for long enough to think deeply about what might be gained versus what might be lost.

Used strategically, educational technology has the power to change lives for the better. Used indiscriminately for the sheer awe of it, not so much.

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