Learning in the High-Tech Era

Recently, there was a news report regarding the introduction of the iPod touch into third grade classrooms in Canby, Oregon. The article points out that, unlike many education officials who view digital devices as distractions to learning, the Canby School District has argued in favor of using such devices in an attempt to raise reading and mathematics test scores, citing how engaged the students are with the iPods.

One of my colleagues questioned whether or not the children of Canby are the neediest of children, arguing that  more affluent families could probably afford to buy their own iPods, expose their children to more things, and get higher scores anyway, regardless of iPod ownership.  She also questioned how the iPods would be safeguarded since young children have a tendency to lose and damage things easily. (Although Canby is not an affluent community per se, it is a middle class one, with distinct advantages over poverty stricken areas such as poorer sections of Bronx, NY or Chicago. Nor is it clear what policies are in place regarding students taking the iPods home or how they may or may not be used, who pays for lost, damaged, or stolen devices or whether such policies even exist).  Canby is also a community where 39% of the households have children, higher than the national average, so it’s easy to see why more taxpayers/citizens might favor spending their money this way.

Personally, I would like to see children develop problem-solving skills involving both low-tech tools such as pencil and paper, as well as high-tech tools such as the iPod touch, tablet or netbook computer. There’s at least one researcher who has found that low-tech classrooms may actually be better for mathematics instruction. We all know that devices and electricity can sometimes fail, that there are times/places when it’s unavailable, so over-reliance upon it should be avoided.  I think a happy medium between using low-tech and high-tech skills/knowledge needs to be sought.  It’s not clear to me whether or not the Canby students will be using the iPods all day long, or just during specific periods of reading or mathematics instruction.

There are several points that most critics seemed to have overlooked. These kids are being handed what many people consider a luxury item without having earned it in any way. They didn’t even have to be well-behaved to get them. Another point I’d like to make is that although the students of 2010/2011 may be excited about the iPod touch now, will they be as interested in them five years from now? Will schools have to buy the next big thing every six months to maintain student interest? Will this create a new kind of digital divide between students? Moreover, in an environment of holding teachers accountable for what is being learned in the classroom, how well can a single teacher monitor whether or not Johnny or Mary are really looking at the intended lesson every minute of the school day? The behavioral and sociological impacts of this school district’s decision will be far ranging and have yet to be determined.

The issue of how meaningful the test scores are themselves is certainly up for debate. Many students cram for exams the night before and pass tests, but are unable to recall the information they absorbed after the exam. Moreover, placing the ultimate authority of what should be taught in the hands of test company publishers, who may very well have had no direct interaction with your child or an individual classroom seems very troubling to me. Moreover, it’s unclear how students who rely almost exclusively upon an iPod or iPad for classwork would perform on a test which requires a paper and pencil and those which require written proof regarding how students arrived at their answers.

The iPad and the iPad touch are wonderful devices and may very well have a wide variety of educational applications, but does that mean that schools have to provide them and monitor their use instead of parents? Does the fact that a device is beneficial in various ways mean that we should adopt a one-size fits all approach to teaching and learning and use them with every child, regardless of individual needs,strengths, weaknesses, and/or interests?

Selecting school leaders who have actual experience in the classroom, as opposed to those from the publishing world such as Cathie Black, or others with political connections such as those whom Chris Christie would employ seems particularly important in the face of such sweeping educational decisions.

NY Time article on iPad use in schools

Canby, Oregon decides to use iPods in the schools