John Abbott

For all the convenience and connectivity that informational technologies bring to our lives, their advantages in the classroom are far from obvious. New doesn’t always mean better, and there are skills and work habits that can get lost in the transition. Internet access, for all it facilitates in wider informational access, presents a mixed blessing when it comes to intensive, in-depth reading. Old-fashioned handwriting, studies demonstrate, is a skill closely associated with language retention and mastery. Other studies show that, in taking exams, university students who had taken hand-written class notes clearly outperformed those who used laptop computers. 

One hundred years ago, the then-new phonograph sparked speculation that audio recordings would surely displace classroom teaching. Similar predictions have followed other technological innovations over the years, up to and including YouTube, yet our teacher-in-the-classroom model remains very much intact. And that’s a good thing. 

Some reasons why: 

1) Education is not a process like manufacturing in which mass-production techniques produce greater “value.” It remains a deeply human exchange, in which passionate and inspiring classroom teachers make all the difference in helping students become lifelong learners, alive to this world and its possibilities. 

2) Successful students are not passive recipients of information, but partners in their education; technology can be instrumental in that partnership, but never the main part. 

3) Attention spans, the ability to stay on task, remain vitally important even in our multitasking world; in other words, there’s much to be said for immersion in old-fashioned books. 

4) And for all the advantages new media and technologies can bring to the classroom, a blank piece of paper and pencil — the challenge to put one’s thoughts to paper — remain as effective a means as any in promoting critical thinking.

In other words, longstanding educational conventions should not be discarded simply for the sake of being “technology leaders.” We need serious discussion of these issues, informed by teacher input as to best practices, as well as the growing body of research into classroom technology use. In the case of technologies, such as the iPads, that spell wide-ranging consequences for households, parents must also be brought into this process.

A final point: Today’s push for more technology in the classroom comes largely from private interests — behemoths like Apple as well as hundreds of start-ups bankrolled by venture capital — whose motives are not necessarily aligned with our children’s best interests. Seeing huge growth potential in nudging public education down increasingly privatized pathways, enterprising companies have unloosed a tsunami of technology options onto our schools — scores of new education apps, the usual hardware and media. 

The sheer volume of these options generates a powerful momentum and sense of inevitability of its own, while introducing complexities (including privacy issues and control over student data) that can easily overwhelm those seeking to negotiate a path through this brave new world. 

Teachers, administrators, parents — and school boards too — need to take a long, hard look at these trends, never forgetting that technology should serve human needs and not the other way around. 

John Abbott is a candidate for the District 97 school board. 

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