Techno Utopia?

January 01, 1998 3 min read

Is California’s New Technology High School the future of American education? For those who ardently believe technology is the panacea for the nation’s education problems—a group that includes President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and many of the nation’s governors and business leaders—the answer is a resounding, “We certainly hope so!” And polls show that the general public overwhelmingly supports the idea that more technology will improve our public schools.

Without question, “techno-reformers” have accomplished an incredible amount in the past decade. Expenditures for technology in education will reach $5.2 billion this year. Virtually every school in the country now owns computers; the ratio of kids to machines has been steadily dropping and now averages 10-to-1. Two-thirds of schools have access to the Internet, and three-quarters have cable TV.

The techno-reformers are pushing technology because they believe it can make all schools as successful as New Technology High in Napa, California. But if they look closely at the school and listen to its teachers, they will see that it is succeeding not because of technology but because of the way the school is organized and operated. The technology is a tool—an engaging, useful, sometimes dazzling tool. But it would be no more effective than the chalkboard if the school had not devised new and creative ways to accommodate it.

In their rush to link every classroom to the Internet and put a computer on every student’s desk, techno-reformers have not been thoughtful about how to use this promising educational tool. Their approach has been “ready, fire, aim.” The lack of planning is obvious. Unlike New Technology High, most schools do not know what to do with their new computers. Few have developed plans to effectively acquire, maintain, and upgrade their hardware. Many lack the expert staff needed to keep the machines running and to train teachers to use them. Only 15 percent of the nation’s teachers have had at least one day of computer training, and only 20 percent use computers in their work. Few schools of education require prospective teachers to become computer literate.

At New Technology High, computers are integrated into every aspect of the curriculum; students use them to complete almost all their daily work. But in most schools, technology remains peripheral to the school’s mission. Educators tell tales of computers still in boxes and locked in storage areas.

The feature “Software Savvy” profiles education-software packages that have been highly rated by classroom teachers. But much of the commercial software sold to schools has little educational value and fails to reflect research on how children learn.

Although educators hear plenty of anecdotal evidence that technology enhances learning, we lack sufficient research on the subject to know for sure whether that’s the case. Our most common form of student assessment—standardized testing—is a poor instrument for measuring the impact of technology on learning.

By rushing to purchase technology without thoughtfully planning for its use and pondering deep questions about the very nature of schooling, we are likely to waste millions of dollars and school hours. And in the end, the public will undoubtedly come to see it as “just another fad.”

If techno-reformers want to maximize the positive impact of technology, they need to stop hyping it and start addressing the organizational and education questions it raises. New Technology High offers a fine model. It created an education environment that would probably enhance student learning even without the wealth of technology. Students are given meaningful and engaging tasks that they frequently collaborate on. They produce work that is useful and taken seriously. The curriculum is interdisciplinary. Expectations are high, and students are held accountable. Because the school is small, teachers know the students well. “We’re always being watched here,” one student says. “Someone is always paying attention. You can’t just go into a corner and disappear.”

These are the conditions in which students learn. They are also the conditions in which new technology can be most effectively used. Adding technology without changing the way schools are organized and operated won’t get us from where we are to where we need to be.

—Ronald A. Wolk