Overthinking Technology in Education

On Jan. 19, 2012, Apple announced its plans to transform education through interactive digital textbooks, served up via the iPad. Students can now interact with their learning materials, dive deeper into specific content to their heart’s desire and choose not to learn in the linear fashion typically dictated by textbooks.

This is all very good. The system of distributing educational information to children has been broken for decades. Curricula are translated into syllabi, which then find their way into rigid textbooks that are outdated soon after they are printed. Somewhere along the line, many children lose interest in learning, and we end up with the crisis we have in the nation today: the slumping quality of our education system, specifically in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The public education system is deteriorating rapidly due to funding cuts and a lack of innovation, yet technology alone cannot solve this problem, especially through expensive and walled-garden approaches utilizing technology. The revitalization of education must also involve transforming how teachers interact with teaching materials and with students. The success or failure of elementary education hinges on our ability to train and motivate a new breed of teachers who can experiment, learn and iterate to find approaches that work best within their varied environments.

In this context, Work Hard, Be Nice, written by the founders of the KIPP schools, is a fascinating read. Technology is a very small component of the success of this network of open-enrollment, college-preparatory, public charter schools.

There is a case to be made for integrating technology into middle-school and high-school education, as children’s exposure to technology increases with age. Here again, though, the best value for money spent may not be in expensive solutions like tablets. Even simple experiments, such as those completed by Khan Academy, which explore the use of online lessons to aid classroom teaching, have shown remarkable success in improving middle-school student performance.

A closed solution of information consumption through digital materials owned and transmitted by private enterprise may not be ideal for our public education system. Every child should have equal access to education and equal access to the tools that help them learn in ways that are best suited to their individual needs. To ensure this, resources need to be spent on finding ways to scale successful solutions and strategies to a national level. A tablet-for-all solution is not scalable.

Apple’s textbook initiative will be transformative for the few millions of children who can afford it, and for those who come from backgrounds in which they receive the help they need from their surroundings to use the technology to its fullest. But for the many more millions of other students, books and pencils could suffice if they have lively classrooms and an excited and motivated teacher.

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