Educational-Technology Boosters Feeling Stung by Media Backlash
It's de rigueur for speakers at educational-technology conferences to offer luminous visions of progress.
But many experts with top billing at this month's Florida Educational Technology Conference were equally concerned about buttressing their cause against a tide of skepticism in the news media.
Speaker after speaker at the three-day event, held for 13,000 educators at the Orange County Convention Center March 5-7, cited a recent spate of articles in newspapers and magazines, including Education Week, that have questioned the research base supporting schools' spending on technology.
They were especially stung by an article in the July 1997 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, which stated, "There is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve teaching and learning."
The piece, titled "The Computer Delusion," was "a scurrilous article," said Elliott Soloway, a University of Michigan professor, who called it a model of "yellow journalism and selective reporting."
"Some things don't work in technology, but it isn't true there's no evidence," he told an audience of several hundred.
To illustrate, the computer engineer, who has worked with middle and high schoolers for 15 years, described how students from as early as 6th grade can build analytical models to explain data in the manner of real scientists if they have tools that simplify the mathematics involved.
Using a software tool he helped develop, students at one Michigan school, for example, study whether the creek behind their building is safe.
Alan November, a former teacher and principal who is a regular on the "ed tech" circuit, turned the media's skepticism into a challenge to educators to stop wasting their technology budgets by doing the same old things a little faster and a little better.
"The real revolution is not technology, it is information and relationships," Mr. November said.
He offered two concrete proposals to shift information-based power to students and their parents:
First, give every student a daily report card. Successful people have efficient "feedback loops" that help them improve, he said. "Kids that don't do well at school don't know how well they're doing."
Second, Mr. November said schools should put digital cameras in every classroom so parents could observe their children at any time over the Internet. "Schools have been built to keep parents out," he said.
Although teachers might find the idea threatening, several teachers who have tried it found that students' behavior and grades improved as a result, he said.
Another well-known technologist, Christopher J. Dede, a professor of education and information technology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said schools must let go of old verities about "learning by listening."
Mr. Dede said he now teaches preservice teachers via seven technological formats: telementoring, an electronic "town hall," e-mail discussion groups, a multi-user environment called a MOO, World Wide Web sites, small-group collaboration, and face-to-face interaction.
Technology-using teachers need to be fluent in all of those formats, he said, because not all learners respond well to the same method. That helps explain why classes that use a single technology often show little improvement over traditional classes--some students do worse and some do better.
"But if you combine these media, they certainly do better" than students in traditional classrooms, Mr. Dede said.
The sprawling exhibit hall of more than 350 booths left attendees leg-weary and mind-numbed but flush with logo-covered tote bags and buttons and CD-rom demos.
One of the biggest exhibitors was Apple Computer Inc., its booth overrun with white-shirted employees bearing the slogan "Think Different."
The beleaguered computer company, which lost $1.8 billion last year but posted a $47 million profit for the final quarter, has been reaching out to educators to check erosion of its market share in the nation's schools. Schools increasingly have turned to computers that use Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system.
Most recently, Apple has had to explain its decision, announced last month, to discontinue production of the eMate 300, the durable, portable computer for schools that the company introduced with great fanfare just 16 months ago.
Educators have praised the battery-operated computer for its simplicity, ability to access the Internet, and low price--about $700--although it has no color display or disk drive.
Some districts have bought large numbers of eMates, although the company refused to release sales figures.
In an interview, Jacob Kandathil, the senior director of marketing for education markets, said the Cupertino, Calif.-based company had remaining stocks of the machines that it would sell to districts that had already planned and budgeted for them.
Next year, he said, Apple will release a next-generation product that uses the Macintosh operating system and has a color screen and multimedia features.
Creating those capabilities for the eMate, which uses the Newton operating system, was a costly duplication of the company's effort, Mr. Kandathil said. Instead, he asked, "why not redesign the hardware for MacOS?"
If some educators were shocked by Apple's decision to drop the eMate, a demonstration session the company held here shows that support for Apple still runs strong.
The event was the sales launch of a new Apple computer server, featuring a test of the machine against a server with a Pentium II chip.
As one would expect from such a demo, the Apple server was victorious. But what was notable was the pep rally atmosphere among the spectators, who broke out in sporadic cheers.
Sue Niebling, a technology-curriculum specialist who traveled to the conference from Prince William County, Va., explained the educators' evident affinity for Apple, which once dominated the school market.
"It's like university affiliation, like rooting for the home team," she said.
But teachers' loyalty to Apple could cause problems for districts that install Windows-based servers, because it's harder to accommodate computers with different operating systems on the same network, Ms. Niebling said.