Education Opinion

Technology Is Not a Silver Bullet

By Justin Reich — July 05, 2012 5 min read
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This week, I’m taking a powered down vacation with my wife and daughter, so I’ve invited two students from my education class at MIT to share their thoughts on the future of education. In this installment, Ryan Normandin discusses his vision of effective technology integration.

When it comes to using educational technology in the classroom, it seems like every school is doing it, has done it already, or has plans to do it in the near future. Without a doubt, technology in the classroom, whether an iPad, laptop, or online simulation, has the potential to transform education for many students, and, in many cases, is already making great strides. But with the advent of the technology craze upon us, it is important for educators and administrators not to let their excitement for its potential carry them away; technology can be integrated into an educational program, but is not a standalone silver bullet for improving outcomes.

For the federal government, this warning comes over a decade too late. As the New York Times reported in September 2011, a 1997 committee formed by President Clinton admitted that there was not enough evidence to support the claim that educational technology improved student outcomes, but recommended that such technology be deployed anyway, before more research could be amassed. Outside of case studies, there is still little scientific evidence today that would allow us to make sweeping claims regarding the effectiveness technology in the classroom. When it’s done right, it works, and when it’s done poorly, it doesn’t work. But what differentiates occasions when it improves outcomes from those where it does not?

Microsoft PowerPoint provides us with a great example of this split in effectiveness. When teachers began to use PowerPoint prolifically in the classroom, I was in middle and high school. There were two clear camps: some teachers integrated animations, pictures, and Jeopardy games into their PowerPoints, which enhanced the classroom experience and actually held students’ attention. Other teachers simply typed out all of their notes onto slides, and then read off the projector screen to the class. As you might guess, students were less than enthralled by this method.

Although being a basic and straightforward example, the PowerPoint dichotomy illustrates the problem facing teachers and schools today. Teachers are being pressured to integrate technology into their classrooms, but are not always given clear instruction on how to go about doing it in a way that makes sense. To pull another example from my high school experience, it was with great aplomb that the administration announced that they had purchased a dozen or so “SmartBoards.” For those unfamiliar with them, they are giant white touchscreens that look like white boards, but can hook into a computer and display the image shown on the computer screen. Then, it becomes possible to interact with the content on the screen with “markers” that draw digital lines on the screen. Without a doubt, this technology could have led to some innovative lessons taking advantage of the SmartBoards capabilities, but that’s not what happened. Instead, only a few teachers were trained on how to operate the SmartBoards, and the plan was that they’d be rotated among the faculty as the year progressed. However, I did not have a single lesson where a SmartBoard was utilized in a non-awkward fashion to enhance my learning. After a few months, it became clear that the SmartBoards were also not being rotated and new teachers were not being trained in how to use them. Eventually, they became nothing more than expensive white boards that collected dust.

The flaw in the scenario was in how the technology was implemented. While teachers were taught how to physically use the system, they were not given sufficient instruction on how to integrate the technology into their classrooms. How do they take a lesson plan that they’ve been teaching for 20 years and throw in a SmartBoard to improve it? Perhaps it was assumed that teachers would be creative and find ways to use them, but most found it easier to simply keep on using the ol’ chalkboard instead of learning a seemingly complicated new method of instruction.

This is the hidden problem that many school districts will undoubtedly face as they join the 21st century drive to use new technology in the classroom. When a school district begins to ponder how technology might help them, they should take an unbiased look at the many options available to them, and decide which is best suited for their unique needs (and budget). They should then do extensive professional development to instruct educators how to not only operate the new tech, but also how to integrate it into their classrooms. A key part of this process will also be getting resistant staff onboard by demonstrating how it can make their lessons more exciting and effective. They may view this new imposition as a burden, but by showing them that it is actually helpful in a variety of ways, they may soften their stance. After the new tech is implemented, it is important to continue ongoing professional development to ensure that the staff is getting the most out of the district’s purchase. Best practices should be established, and an end-of-year review should help to figure out what went right and what didn’t, and how to make it even better for the following year.

The key is that administrators and teachers should not and cannot expect that if they just “do technology,” then their outcomes will improve. Dumping all the technology in the world into our nation’s classrooms will do absolutely nothing without proper training and preparation. Technology must be integrated into a strong academic program; it is not an academic program in and of itself. That is what separates a school that uses technology effectively from one that is just wasting money.

Ryan Normandin hails from Uxbridge, MA, but is currently living in Cambridge where he is a senior studying physics at MIT. Over the summer, he is teaching six weeks of physics seminars to high school students, developing content for an online physics course, and working out his plans for graduate school, which he hopes to attend for a Masters in Education. He’s passionate about education, politics, and showing people the beauty and applicability of physics. He plans to find more teaching opportunities to get involved with next summer before heading off to grad school and becoming a high school physics teacher.

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