Is Technology in Schools Still Working?

by Anna Olcott

Over the last two decades, elementary, middle, and high schools alike have seen a huge influx of technology. We’ve all seen it—from chalkboards to SmartBoards, from notebooks to new laptops. Though many ogle at this technology and marvel at the possibilities, we rarely see the technology being used to its full potential and sometimes we don’t see it being used at all. Despite the lack of concrete evidence supporting the effects of technology in education, school budgets are skyrocketing as funds are allocated for the latest technologies. Although students and their parents seem to desire the newest technology, its effectiveness in classrooms and its ability to enhance learning is still up for debate.

As a recent high school graduate from a school in New Jersey, I caught the tail end of the classroom technology fad. Though I saw SmartBoards replacing chalkboards every year, my older teachers still stubbornly found ways to avoid using the innovations placed in their classrooms. Many were still unskilled with basic Microsoft operations and completely avoided technology altogether. I found, however, that in some situations this was beneficial to my educational experience because these classes centered on writing and note taking, which forced us to be present and focused. In classrooms where teachers attempted to use technology, lessons were often dull, slow, and required little actual engagement while the teachers fiddled with the quirks in the technological systems.

Lucy Edkins, a British schoolteacher, finds that her students perform just as well without the use of technology in class by giving them a chance to “exercise their concentration skills” instead of “finding new ways to grab the attention of the over stimulated” (Edkins).  As a student who admits to spending too much time on the computer, I find schooldays are a much needed break from the black hole of the internet while providing time for a level of thinking that is simply not possible when distracted by technology. However, Jon David Son, the CIO of Marshall County schools in Kentucky, disagrees; he asserts that technology doesn’t inhibit attention spans, but rather caters to the new type of student with a limited attention span due to technology use. As Son puts it, “kids are wired differently because of technology” (9). Still, this does not mean that kids’ abilities to concentrate and focus on the tasks at hand should not be challenged. In fact, many rise to the occasion and appreciate the skills earned by doing so (Son, Marcovitz 9).

Jon David Son also argues that technology can enhance creativity and expression, while taking notes on paper is a passive way of receiving information that inhibits the self-discovery aspect of learning (Son, Marcovitz 9).  However, as English teacher Amy Furman from the Kyrene School District in Arizona notes, in Matt. Richtel’s  2011 New York Times editorial, “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores”: “there is a connection between the physical hand on the paper and the words on the page” (Richtel). While Furman uses technology in the classroom to help students comprehend complex texts like Shakespeare’s As You Like It, she admits to beginning the school year with basic pen on paper exercises.  She often finds these to be powerful experiences for her students and does not glean the same reaction from online exercises (Richtel). I can relate to this; when typing on a computer or a tablet, there are so many distractions right at your fingertips. The Internet sits idly by as I type or create a PowerPoint, and before I know it, I’m perusing the web, completely detached from my task. When writing by hand, I am completely focused on just my pen and the paper, and creativity often flows more easily.

Those who work to implement technology in the classroom believe that their devices facilitate a form of education unlike traditional subjects, such as reading and math. Students today need to reach a certain level of fluency in technology not just to keep up with current trends but also to secure jobs. Many jobs now require basic computer skills, and if students lack these skills, their chances of success are considerably decreased. By using technology from an early age, Richtel editorializes, students are learning the “skills needed in a modern economy,” and will develop an advanced sense of our increasingly technological world (Richtel).  While developing these skills will only become more important for future generations of students, separate classes should be set aside specifically to address technology. In subjects like reading, math, and science, many wonder, like Richtel, “do we really need technology to learn?” While there is obviously a place for technological education, there is a difference between learning how to use it and letting it take over all learning completely.

One major problem regarding the question of technology’s effectiveness in the classroom is the lack of hard data to prove any sort of position. Many who claim to have knowledge on the subject, such as John David Son, make bold claims about the use of technology in the classroom without evidence to support any kind of conclusion. He offers visions of technology in the classroom, asking his reader to “imagine a school with no library, no books—just computers,” without any supporting arguments as to why this would be beneficial (Son, Marcovitz 9). There lacks research suggesting that the implementation of technology would be wholly bad. However, David Marcovtiz, a professor at Loyola Maryland, speculates there will be some “Faustian Bargain; for every positive benefit, there is often an unseen and very serious downside” regarding the use of technology (Son, Marcovitz 8).  Carlo Rotella, an American Studies professor at Boston College, also addresses this point in his cleverly titled article “No Child Left Untableted.” He quotes neuroscientist Jay Giedd, proposing the question of the unforeseen consequences of technology on student development. “A lot of our brain activity is devoted to social interaction with other people,” explains Giedd, “and an enormous amount of the change in the adolescent brain is about socialization. What if we’re inadvertently interfering with development in ways that will show up in 20 years in ways we didn’t expect?” (Rotella). Since our generation is still young, there is no way to tell whether the effect of this overstimulation on our future brains will be a good or a bad one.

In fact, in 1997, a White House committee addressed the issue of the declining state of American competitiveness by suggesting an increase of technology in the classroom. Despite the fact that the research done to back up this argument was insufficient, Richtel notes that “this committee did not … recommend that the deployment of technology within America’s schools be deferred pending the completion of such research,” causing many schools to go ahead and pump millions of dollars into technology that, according to Richtel, has no proven effect in the classroom. Since as early as 1997 schools have taken this idea and run with it, grasping blindly at a solution without a guarantee of its effectiveness. This blind investment has cost taxpayers large amounts of money, and it still may not reach the root of the problem in education. Richtel looks at the numbers: In 2005, Kyrene County approved a $33 million technology budget instead of hiring more teachers, raising the typical class size from 30 students to 33. Though this increase is small in number, one interviewee, Larry Cuban, an education professor at Stanford University, claims that larger class sizes “can frustrate teachers, making it hard to attract and retain talented ones” (Richtel).  Similarly, the Los Angeles school district laid off many teachers to cut down on spending but spent half a billion dollars on the purchase of iPads (Lytle). The White House Committee acknowledged the success of several schools, yet there was no scientific data to adequately justify increasing funding on technology so greatly.

Despite the lack of hard data, technology has crept into classrooms not only in Los Angeles and Kyrene County but all over the country. Though some teachers choose to ignore the pile of iPads handed to them, science and math teachers may find more use for these technologies. Authors of a study on secondary science teachers, reported in the article, “Secondary Science Teachers’ Use of Technology in the Classroom during Their First 5 Years,” in theJournal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education reported that “using technology effectively in the classroom may be best accomplished by new science teachers, who tend to be digital natives and who are more likely to work toward adopting new technologies in their daily instruction”—these uses include virtual games to foster scientific inquiry and eliminate the lecture format (Bang, Luft 118). Similarly, another researcher notes, in Ohio Journal of School Mathematics, an entire geometry project accomplished with the use of an iPad. These students were also challenged to think creatively and find the “most interesting” photos that exemplified geometric terms. This is an example of an extremely positive use of iPad technology in a classroom, as it designates visuals to words that may seem abstract to some students and forces them to creatively analyze everyday objects (Ingraham 27-32). Students were able to apply what they had learned in the classroom to real life—an experience most teachers don’t get the opportunity to see.

However, only with the right teacher is this positive effect of technology possible because many teachers still resist technology or lack confidence using it. Their technology gathers dust in a corner of a classroom, but is their style of teaching less effective than that of technology? Jan Tucker and Bari Courts, in “Using Technology To Create A Dynamic Classroom Experience,” from the Journal of College Teaching and Learning  claim that “incorporating multimedia such as videos or online quizzes, did not appear to influence the amount of learning which takes place in the classroom, but they did tend to increase the engagement of the student” (2). If forced to use a particular piece of equipment in class, they note that the student may have to concentrate and focus more on the task at hand.

However, with the use of such technology as iPads, there is always a danger that the technology will distract from the lesson and teacher rather than provide an actual benefit. Students can easily lose focus on the primary goal, especially with this new shiny piece of equipment in hand, and will find ways for technology to detract from their education. In the Kyrene school district, technology can sometimes “allow students to disengage from learning: They are left at computers to perform a task but wind up playing around” (Richtel). Unless there is some sort of control by the school on what the students use iPads for, there is a possibility that the technology could inhibit the learning process. As Rotella mentions in his article, the Amplify program, an initiative utilizing tablets in the classroom, addresses these concerns using methods like “eyes on teacher” that locks the tablets when the teacher desires full attention and regulates what programs the tablets can run. However, there is no guarantee that students will be able to focus better because they are being told by their technology to pay attention. The ever-present problem of the distracted, misbehaving student will not just disappear. These tablets or iPads cannot also just be thrown at students with no instruction. “The purpose of providing technology to schools is to improve student academic performance and other educational outcomes,” explains Harold Wenglinsky in “Does It Compute,” a study on student achievement in mathematics when using technology. There is a reason this technology is being used, and it’s not just for bragging rights for a school. It must deliver some kind of result, which requires student engagement and competency of the teachers in their use of technology.

There is, of course, the overwhelming suspicion that technology is skirting a more inherent problem in the education system instead of directly attacking it by acting as a method to mask the real troubles behind a failing school. There is a movement for teachers’ roles to shift from a “sage on the stage to a guide on the side,” in order to bring students through a journey of learning instead of being at the forefront, which places less emphasis on the teacher (Richtel). However, is this the direction education should be moving in? Kristen House, a former teacher at Belmont University, argues that instead of addressing the direct problems of students and the core issues behind their issues in the classroom, “we throw gadgets at the problem” (Lytle). When schools are struggling, there is a tendency to increase funding for technology instead of hiring better, more skilled teachers. In the Chicago school district, a typically troubled district funding-wise, an iPad program has been implemented to provide highly motivated teachers with iPads to specifically improve aspects of their teaching. Though there is no evidence to support higher test scores due to this program, students have shown “improved attendance and a lot more enthusiasm,” according to Talha Basit, the client computer service manager in the Chicago school system interviewed by Lytle. However, the key words here are that these iPads are not just being doled out to anyone—they are awarded through grants to teachers who show a true passion for using technology in their classrooms. Once again, good teachers are at the core of student improvement. Even Robin Britt, a key player in training teachers for the Amplify program, admitted, “It’s the teacher, not the technology” (Rotella).

Despite the sudden desperation for schools to implement as much technology as possible, there is no denying the fact that there are still problems in our public schools. Although these technologies do serve a purpose, unless implemented correctly and taught by the right people, they can be distracting and a waste of funds that could be allocated towards more productive programs. While I respect the effort of schools to improve, I believe these outrageously high technology budgets should be funneled back into hiring quality teachers. If, in ten years, there actually is some hard data on the subject that reveals some negative aspects of technology use in the classroom, we will have to abandon our vision of technology as a panacea for educational problems. This possible outcome will lead back to the issue that was there all along—the lack of good teachers in the American school system.


Works Cited

Bang, Eun Jin, and Julie A. Luft. “Secondary Science Teachers’ Use of
       Technology in the Classroom during Their First 5 Years.” Journal
       of Digital Learning in Teacher Education 29.4 (2013): 118-26. Print.

Courts, Bari, and Jan Tucker. “Using Technology To Create A Dynamic
       Classroom Experience.” Journal of College Teaching and Learning
        9.2 (2012): 121-28. Print.

Edkins, Lucy. “I Don’t Act, I Teach. Grow up and Focus.” The Times
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Goodwin, Bryan. “Research Says… / One-to-One Laptop Programs
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Ingraham, Melissa. “Incorporating IPad Technology into the Classroom:
        A Geometry Project.” Ohio Journal of School Mathematics 67 (2013):
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Lytle, Ryan. “Study: Emerging Technology Has Positive Impact in
        Classroom.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 14 July 2011.
        Web. 30 Oct. 2013.

Marcovitz, David M., and John David Son. “Is Educational Technology
        Shortening Student Attention Spans?” Learning and Leading
        with Technology 36.1 (2008): 8-9. Print.

Richtel, Matt. “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores.” Editorial.
        New York Times 4 Sept. 2011:
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Rotella, Carlo. “No Child Left Untableted.” New York Times (blog).
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Wenglinksy, Harold. “Does It Compute? The Relationship Between
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