Opinion
Ed-Tech Policy Commentary

Getting There

By Alan Warhaftig — April 14, 2006 3 min read

After a decade of substantial spending, educational technology remains, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, “a perpetual possibility/ only in a world of speculation.” Computers will eventually play a significant role in K-12 instruction, but the what, how, and when have yet to be determined.

Software designer Marc Prensky, a leading advocate of technology-centered learning, expresses boundless faith in both children as self-directed learners and software’s capacity to productively channel their curiosity. Kids love computer games, so the desire to “level up”—to reach the next stage in a game—can be used to create software that motivates students to master algebra and other complex subjects.

That may be, but a vision of what Prensky calls “21st century tools” is not yet a product, as he recently acknowledged: “A big part of our problem is figuring out how to provide this before the end of the 21st century.” Schools, being obsolescent vestiges of the industrial age, must function as best they can in the interim. This includes facing waves of technological utopians who denigrate nondigital learning and vendors who shamelessly hype potential not evident in actual products—urging schools, meanwhile, to buy what’s available today, so American students won’t fall behind.

Facing this bait and switch, educators must be the sensible adults who define integration of technology, resisting fashion, fantasy, and undue influence. Hydroelectric power plants aren’t mothballed because cold fusion is theoretically possible, so why should teachers abandon longstanding pedagogy without proven alternatives?

How, then, can we sensibly integrate technology? How do we get there from here? Consider social studies, in which students learn about history, government, politics, economics, and geography, along with the analytical approaches and methodologies of these fields. Migration is a topic that encompasses the entire social studies curriculum. And the Caribbean islands—tropical jewels from which millions have emigrated since World War II—provide a rich laboratory in which to study migration. Why have so many West Indians left “paradise” for industrialized societies with grueling winters? Is paradise really paradise?

The answers require genuine research and understanding of the relationship between statistics and everyday life—that mathematics is a valuable tool, not just the devil’s shorthand. Literary narratives express the experience of individuals; statistics communicate collective experience if we can imagine how they reveal truths about groups of people.

Population density, per capita GDP, infant mortality, life expectancy, and unemployment and literacy rates combine to paint a picture—and show how life in Haiti is different from Trinidad and how both places differ from the United States, Canada, and the U.K., the favorite destinations of most Caribbean émigrés. If students can visualize these distinctions, then important learning has occurred.

Social studies is well taught through this sort of inquiry, which is far more effectively undertaken with technology than without. The Internet offers unprecedented access to statistics, and software is superior to index cards for analyzing data. The point is that technology integration must begin with lesson design, not wish lists of hardware and software, maximizing opportunities where computers offer superior approaches to specific topics.

Technology should remain a vehicle, not become the destination. It is good to know how to drive, but better to have somewhere to go. Technological utopians offer a faith-based logic unsupported by metrics of efficacy, reminiscent of “The Music Man,” in which a charismatic huckster mesmerizes a town with visions of a marching band. To sell instruments and uniforms, he promises an enhanced social fabric as well as the glory of music.

Unfortunately, schools are not as easily transformed as River City, and today’s crude courseware cannot persuasively emulate 76 trombones. We will get there from here only if technologists collaborate with educators to develop both 21st century learning tools and pedagogically sound ways to use them.

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