Whitefield Academy Blog
Does Tech in the Classroom Make a Difference?
This post was originally published in October of 2019 but is even more applicable in today’s post-pandemic discussions of education.
In the past few decades, we’ve seen a revolution in the way most students are educated in this and many other countries. Countless hardware and software products have been produced with the promise that they will help schools better achieve their mission of educating students. Often these methods and applications carry the label “STEM” for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Those anxious that the humanities are being left behind have coined “STEAM,” where arts are shoehorned into the mix.
Since science comes first in either neologism, one would hope that this revolutionary pedagogy stands up to scientific examination. But a recent essay by Jared Woodard in the journal American Affairs surveys the current research on technological efforts to improve educational outcomes in the United States, and the results are not encouraging.
To many students, parents, and teachers, the most visible technological incursion into classrooms and homes is the universal provisioning of laptop or tablet computers to students, which Woodard calls a “carpet-bombing” of schools. The ratio of computers to students in U.S. classrooms is approximately one to one, a ratio that a local school district has explicitly targeted at a cost of $50 million, with no evidence of any positive impact on student outcomes five years into the program. Such a result is typical of U.S. schools. Though negative effects are also sometimes found; one well-controlled study of West Point students shows significantly lower scores when laptops are present in the classroom.
International test results are not promising for tech, either. Some of the best standardized test scores come from East Asia where schools have been reluctant to adopt computer technology in the classroom. The classrooms that have adopted them in these places have shown worse results than those that continue to do without.
Interestingly enough, according to Woodard, the only technology that we can reliably say improves educational results is the overhead projector.
I think parents and teachers intuitively know that children are more likely to be distracted than aided by digital technologies in learning. Many of us find ourselves fighting the distraction of technology as we try to get our own work done under the oppression of the constant pinging of notifications and temptations of the apps on our smartphones. We often find technology a necessary evil in getting our work done, but we can often confess that these technologies are often not so much a necessity as an addiction we’ve given in to.
For the work of education, however, it is clear that technology is not a necessary evil but more simply an evil that is being subjected on our children by tech companies and our technocratic government. This becomes more clear when we understand that the work of education is not about techne, the practical work of getting things done. Of course we want our children to get things done, but the work of education is to form people who know what should be done and why. I think such people usually end up better able to figure out how to do those things.
In some ways, our technophilic overlords seem to agree. The most popular school in Mountain View, California, where Google and many other tech companies are based, is a Waldorf school where computers are not allowed in the building and are discouraged for homework. The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children there, where the tuition is several times that of Whitefield Academy. Many in the techno-utopia of Silicon Valley have written into their contracts with their nannies that smartphones not be used in front of their children. Some are taking it further and reporting their friends’ and neighbors’ nannies on online message boards for violating anti-tech contracts. The people closest to these technologies have the strongest opinions that children need to have less, not more, contact with them.
I’d much rather my children’s time in school be spent forming them to be virtuous people than learning to code for Google, even if that means they’ll be behind those whose education was directed toward improving their usefulness to the techno-economy rather than the cultivation of virtue.
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