It’s hard to believe that technology as we understand it today has existed for less than thirty years, ever since the World Wide Web popularized the Internet in the 1990s. The “network of networks” began as a way to connect researchers from universities across the country and was eventually opened for commercial use, introducing a rush of digital technologies to markets around the world.
As computers became smaller and cheaper to produce, they began finding their way into public school classrooms, where students learned the basics of typing, explored software applications, and played Oregon Trail when the teacher wasn’t looking.
Education today is impossible to imagine without laptops, learning management systems, and interactive whiteboards. And while every wave of change comes with growing pains, technology in education has the potential to impact student learning for the better.
The triumphs of technology in education
EdTech is booming nowadays. According to Education Week, it has become an industry worth $8 billion-plus annually, and every year public schools spend $3 billion on digital content alone.
The result of this market is a variety of innovative educational products designed to enhance student learning. Increasing motivation, shifting classroom roles, and fostering collaboration are only some of the ways educational technologies can help students and teachers achieve their goals.
When students engage with technology in the classroom, they take a more active role in their education. Modern digital instructional platforms not only allow students to receive information more quickly in an easy-to-use interface, but it also lets them choose how to organize it, define relevant goals, and measure their progress. This gives students more ownership over their lessons, helping them take the lead when appropriate.
And in turn, this frees teachers from the role of merely broadcasting information. They can instead provide a framework and facilitate project-based learning while checking in and offering guidance on a more individual basis.
Albert Hitchcock, chief technology officer for Pearson Education, points out, “The digital medium gives us the opportunity to really take the education and learning experience to the next level. […] The technology, ultimately, will allow us to truly personalize the education experience in a way that both improves learning outcomes (and) shortens the learning time.”
Impact in the classroom
A feeling of ownership over education inspires an increase in motivation and self esteem among students. The Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) sponsored a project that detailed the experiences of teachers in nine different schools who incorporated technology in their classrooms. One teacher observed, “Students gain a sense of empowerment from learning to control the computer and to use it in ways that they associate with the real world.” Another described technology as “the ultimate carrot.”
Students feel pride in mastering technologies, which lets them design an approach to education on their own terms. In this way, their learning is more closely aligned with their personal learning styles and can be much more productive as a result.
As educational technologies enter the classroom, it’s common for teaching practices to favor small group work. After establishing guidelines for the day’s lesson, the teacher will allow these groups to collaborate on tasks designed to reinforce student comprehension. This can also lead to peer tutoring—both on the subject matter and on the use of technology itself—and consequently, students interact with lessons at multiple touchpoints.
The OERI reports that “the public display and greater legibility of student work creates an invitation to comment. Students often look over each others’ shoulders, commenting on each others’ work, offering assistance, and discussing what they are doing.”
Rising to challenges
Despite its potential, technology isn’t magic. Changes are often slowly adopted by teachers who may be poorly trained or set in their ways, and many schools struggle to invest in EdTech infrastructures. This can create educational inequalities between individual classrooms as well as whole districts. But as younger teachers enter the profession, and as technology becomes a greater budgetary priority, these gaps will begin to close.
EdTech training has become a cornerstone of teacher preparation, with several master’s programs offering accreditation. In 2014, the FCC overhauled its E-rate program—which collects fees on consumers’ phone bills to support technology infrastructure in schools—raising the annual cap from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion. These and other developments have corresponded with measurable progress. Only a third of school districts had access to high-speed broadband in 2013, but by 2016 that number had climbed to 81 percent.
With the growing use of EdTech in schools, there are also concerns about classroom conduct. Because many technologies have multiple functions and are connected to the Internet, students have a tendency to become distracted. Compounding the problem is the fact that nearly every student has a smartphone today, stocked with social media and gaming apps competing for their attention. It’s increasingly difficult for teachers to monitor inappropriate use of technology in the classroom.
But it’s not as if the classroom is the only place where this occurs. Technology is everywhere, and as a society we’re still working out how to put it to best use. What’s really at issue is the nature of distraction itself.
James Lang, a columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education, describes research from Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen’s book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, saying of the authors:
“They argue that distraction actually arises from a conflict between two fundamental features of our brain: our ability to create and plan high-level goals versus our ability to control our minds and our environment as we take steps to complete those goals.”
As it relates to the classroom, there are ways for teachers to keep students on track. “The more powerful the goals we establish for ourselves, and the more we feel ownership over those goals,” says Lang, “the more we are able to pursue them in the face of both internal and external distractions.”
Back to the future
Despite the benefits, however, some people will have a negative view. Writing for The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr bemoans the advance of digital technologies, saying that as technology takes over our lives, it remakes us in its image. In this light, EdTech can be thought of not as an aid to student progress but a distraction from it. But even Carr admits that “[j]ust as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine.”
Plato believed that dependance on writing would make people forgetful. Educators across centuries have feared that the printing press would lead to intellectual laziness, calculators would make us incapable of doing basic arithmetic, and search engines would erode our capacity for deep reading.
The truth is that technology is a tool, and its ultimate contribution to humanity—and the classroom—depends on how we use it. Carr goes on to say that although Plato wasn’t completely wrong, “He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur ideas, and expand human knowledge…”
The same goes for technology in the classroom. But we should be careful not to mistake the vehicle for the distance it can take us. To get the most out of technology, schools need to pair it with purposeful planning and strong interpersonal relationships. As districts dedicate more resources to EdTech and teachers become more comfortable using it, students stand to benefit massively from these new technological tools.
Photo by U.S. Department of Education.