Technology in the Classroom: Where do we draw the line ?

Having observed various classrooms and been allowed a peek into the daily ins and outs of the education system, it’s not hard to see how much has changed even since I’ve been in public school. It’s amazing to see the subtle evolution of the classroom even over the past decade. One of the benefits of being a substitute teacher is getting to see a lot of teaching styles, learning styles and getting to see how those two clash and complement one another on a daily basis. Much of the burden falls on the educator to circumvent those situations where students for one reason or another, falter when it comes to   a lesson being challenging. Even as an outsider, I’ve always believed that a big responsibility falls on the home front, where more often than not, a child’s future is based on whether or not a parent decides their child’s education is worth meddling in. Unfortunately, the increase in technology has made that job ever more difficult as students young and old are bombarded with minute-to-minute apps, texts, Facebook notifications and twitter feeds.

Even as little as ten years ago, there were no phone apps beyond the most primitive ‘point and click’ games and organizer programs. Flash forward less than a decade later and you’d be hard pressed to find a person over the age of 10 who doesn’t have some form of smart phone, tablet or handheld device. It’s this sort of ubiquitous usage of technology that has seemingly made us deaf to the world around us. It’s common to turn on the news these days and hear about a young driver having killed or been killed by another driver simply because they were focused on a text or something related to a handheld device. Outside of vehicular fatalities there is an increasing implementation of technology in schools, from as young as elementary age children to those at the secondary level. Anyone who has stepped inside a classroom in the past decade will recall such things as computerized projectors and ‘Smart’ boards which are essentially ink-free chalkboards for teachers who prefer to avoid the hassle of wiping a board. However now even these tools are becoming more and more obsolete as more and more schools are beginning to go completely digital by implementing online ‘portals’ which are used to broaden the lines of communication between parent and teachers, who for the longest time have taken issue with ne’er-do-well parents who for one reason or another, never seem to know what their child(ren) are up to outside the home. Based on my experience and having spoken to teachers about the matter, it would seem that parent and educator alike appreciate the open line of communication that allow them to keep tabs on their children’s grades without appearing overly intrusive. It’s a rather ingenious setup that has proven to be a great aid to those forgetful students who need that extra reminder for when a particular assignment is due or a way to get instant feedback about a query they may have. Little things like using audiobooks and online reading programs, which help strengthen writing skills beyond the elementary typing class we all remember, have proven to be beneficial additions as well.

However, there is a rather significant push to implement large amounts of technology in the classroom which some critics have deemed as being a hindrance bordering on the intrusive. An article published in 2012 by the New York Times examined tech-heavy programs such as mandatory online courses for high schoolers and noted that while it saw “overwhelming approval”, it faced a fair amount of criticism from educators who noted that their state of Idaho effectively “shift(ed) tens of millions of dollars away from salaries for teachers and administrators….making them less a lecturer at the front of the room and more of a guide helping students through lessons delivered on computers.” What’s more, many teachers felt that too little effort was put on enforcing existing programs which were being crushed under the weight of “heavy lobbying by technology companies, including Intel and Apple.” There has been great concern among educators that with future mandatory changes that over reliance on technology will in effect replace physical teachers with artificial ones; claims that lawmakers have dismissed as “misleading”.

So where do we draw the line on technology? Are we to forego convenience and innovation for teaching styles which don’t suit everyone? Or is the age of computers and ‘instant’ everything creating a future workforce that can’t think for itself?

It would seem at least from my point of view that the answer falls more in line with the latter. Even in the past year, there has been significant overhaul in technology in the district that I presently work for. Every student at the secondary level has a Samsung Tablet assigned to them, which they use on a daily basis from everything including: guided reading, classroom activities, notes, accessing Powerpoint presentations, interactive videos, and their grades. Upon seeing that this was going to be the new norm I was incredibly skeptical, given how irresponsible this generation is when it comes to even managing their social media accounts. However, I must say that the assimilation process went much smoother than I previously imagined although that could have to do more with the age of the user than the difficulty of the change. Aside from the occasional network hiccup and server issue, there seemed to be little to no issue with the suddenness of such a big change in classroom habits.

What did disturb me however was one particular case in which a student at a middle school I work at, shared a graphic photo with another on a school tablet, which promptly required local law enforcement intervention. While I am not privy to the specifics on the matter, I can tell you that it did highlight an issue which I imagine could easily grow out of control if more obstacles aren’t put in place to prevent such behavior.

I suppose the real issue, more so than lewd behavior, is what sort of issues are we introducing into the classroom? An over reliance on anything can be detrimental to the desired effect. I’ve always been a believer that showing videos in place of an actual lesson does little to reinforce good learning habits than it does in providing the teacher with an easy way to avoid doing any actual work. As someone who’s spent more time in Social Studies and English classes, I can say without a doubt that there is a tremendous overuse of films and YouTube videos which are always excused as being a ‘interactive learning tool’ but end up amounting to little more than a time for students to mentally check-out of the days lesson and chit-chat with their peers. The same can be said for computers and ‘library time’ which can create a headache for anyone who is attempting to get any significant quality out of their students work, as ‘computer time’ to many students means ‘playing games and listening to music on the internet’. Far too often in classrooms with teachers who use computers over physical paper assignments, I’ve been witness to students who are allowed to essentially dictate what pace they learn at (usually not at all, if we’re being honest) as they plug their headphones in with the supposed purpose of watching some sort of video lesson which quickly devolves into watching YouTube videos and thus forcing the teacher who foolishly put trust in their students, to play catch-up the next week as they struggle to get the slackers caught up on material. Now I’m not going to sit here and say these are new problems but what I will say unequivocally is that far too many school districts are either willfully ignorant of such problems or simply don’t see it as a big enough issue to merit any significant change. My thought on the matter is this: sure you may not see test grades plummet at the rate you might expect them to but the trade-off on this over reliance on technology is that the workforce of tomorrow is going to suffer because of unwillingness across the board to say ‘no’ to such implementations. If you are going to dictate how individuals run their classrooms simply because you’re afraid of your district ‘falling behind the curve’, you’re going to sacrifice a lot of actual teaching time from trained professionals who are better suited to figuring out what their kids need than a tech or learning company that simply wants to find a venue for its product. It’s a sad day when teachers are essentially forced into the role of babysitter and are effectively pushed to the wayside because our society has become so attached to the idea that technology equates to progress.

As for the school in Idaho there seemed to be quite a large divide among those who supported and deterred from the idea of ‘online classrooms’, even after various events were staged in protest of the radical changes. A recent survey conducted this year determined that “96% of teachers reported that technology is making a significant impact in their classroom,” with over, “$600 million in venture capital poured into ed tech last year – a 32% increase over the prior year.”(Forbes)

Despite the numbers, there is still quite a discussion raging over the role technology truly plays in the future of students and whether that role truly matters beyond ‘test scores’ and ‘graduation rates’. The real question is whether universal access to limitless information can be equated to actual learning and retention of facts. What is certain is that technology isn’t going away anytime soon and as more and more companies realize the full potential of this market, you can be sure that the world will continue to pour funds into such programs; regardless of the cost.

Links to Articles Mentioned in this Blog Post: 

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/04/technology/idaho-teachers-fight-a-reliance-on-computers.html?_r=0

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/25/the_plot_to_destroy_education_why_technology_could_ruin_american_classrooms_—%C2%A0by_trying_to_fix_them/

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