New Media, Laptops, and Learning

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

About a month ago I wrote a little on a study that found little improvement in learning from educational technology. Unable to find the study, I had to take analysis from the newspaper to form a conclusion: that studies critiquing edutech will always come to wrong conclusions if questions are begged. Now this article on laptops in schools is making rounds (may require login). Here’s a snip:

Yet school officials here and in several other places said laptops had been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans, and showed little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time of increased pressure to meet state standards. Districts have dropped laptop programs after resistance from teachers, logistical and technical problems, and escalating maintenance costs.

Such disappointments are the latest example of how technology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums. Last month, the United States Department of Education released a study showing no difference in academic achievement between students who used educational software programs for math and reading and those who did not.

Again, the question of “no difference in academic achievement” comes up as a focal question. The problems at Liverpool Central School District are foreseeable: tech support, abuse, and pedagogy. Those of us who have been working with technology for a while, in my case it’s nearly 17 years, have learned a lot about benefits, limitations, and the questions that need to be asked before money goes into the techno sink hole. How will the technology be used? How will it solve problems of collaborative work and learning, team problem solving, and design work. I’ve never heard people who have struggled with technology talk about “improving learning.” They talk about alternatives, contexts, and specific problems, such as lab times, augmentation, and effect.

I’ve never thought providing laptops to students at school is a good idea. Were the teachers provided laptops? Now we’re in a bad apple situation. When ill results come from underdeveloped questions, people with good intentions will be required to prove possible conclusions first then get the technology they think fills a gap. That line on the requisition form that says “How will this device improve your students’ learning?” should be stricken. Only students can improve their learning.

If people write more with word processors, their writing will improve; it’s not the word processor that is making the improvement.

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