Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Thomas Edison’s Crystal Ball

By Peter N. Berger — October 25, 2005 7 min read
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—Dave Cutler


Thomas Edison was a brainy fellow. In 1913, the future father of talking movies declared that “books will soon be obsolete in the schools.” He added a prophecy that would fit just fine in many 21st-century mouths: “Our school system will be completely changed in the next 10 years.”

I went to school three miles from Edison’s old laboratory. Every so often, we students would sit in the dark of our classroom while a cutting-edge Bell and Howell clicked along in the background. But nobody with a brain was exhorting our school to toss the books and park us in front of a well-oiled 16-millimeter Filmosound.

Today we’re up to our hips again in technology hype. Books are once more obsolete, while computers are vital for teaching everything from basic skills and critical thinking to problem-solving and creativity—all of which, without silicon, are doomed to become as dusty and antiquated as a chalkboard.

Or perhaps a cellular phone. The cellphone I once kept in my car for emergencies was the size of a loaf of bread, but could only place phone calls. Despite its impressive bulk, it couldn’t broadcast digital images worldwide via satellite. Of course, it’s unclear why anybody outside of MI5 would need a portable phone that can broadcast digital images worldwide via satellite. But technology can do it, so we’ve got to have it.

Do you think we could find better things to do with our time and resources than transmit tiny videos of trivialities?

A lot of the latest technology at school is just as conspicuously nonessential. And the uses to which we put it beg the same question: Isn’t there something better we could be doing with our time and resources?

It depends on whom you ask. In a 2004 survey of 11,000 teachers, 90 percent ranked technology as “important” or “very important.” Of course, the survey was conducted online, which means that most of the 11,000 already liked technology enough to click on an Internet survey. It’s like polling in a sushi restaurant to determine how popular sushi is. If you didn’t like it, you probably wouldn’t be there.

After an experimental, one-to-one laptop program in a Maine high school was studied, the Associated Press trumpeted: “Laptops Raise Student Performance.” Unfortunately, the “performance” consisted of such subjective criteria as “improved student-teacher interaction” and students’ perceptions that “laptops improved the quality of their schoolwork.” The impact of laptops on actual achievement was unclear. Writing scores improved somewhat, while social studies and science figures remained unchanged. Reading and math performance actually declined.

These lackluster findings echoed results obtained after Maine gave laptops to every 7th and 8th grader in the state. Two years and $37 million later, math scores improved slightly, while writing, reading, and science scores either dropped or didn’t change. A University of Chicago study of California classrooms similarly found no evidence that Internet access has “any measurable effect on student achievement.”

Today we’re up to our hips again in technology hype. Books are once more obsolete, while computers are vital for teaching everything from basic skills and critical thinking to problem-solving and creativity.

Undaunted by bad news, technology boosters continue to cite their own ardor and student testimonials as evidence. When New Hampshire experimented with its own laptop giveaway, one 7th grader quoted in a news report enthused, “I forget to bring pens and pencils to class, but you won’t have to use pens and pencils with the laptop.” First of all, someone needs to point out to the lad that he’ll still need to remember to bring something to class, namely his laptop. Second, how do you rate the rigor of a 7th grade program that eliminates pens and pencils?

Meanwhile, a Baltimore 5th grader, referring to laptop science videos, testified that science is “easy” with “the computer to show us.” Visual aids, even filmstrips, have always come in handy, but what he really meant was that watching a video is easier than reading, an endangered skill we can’t afford to neglect further. In fairness, you can’t blame a 10-year-old for not realizing this, which is one reason not to put much stock in the instructional judgments of 10-year-olds.

Or 9-year-olds. In a 2004 California study, half of the 9- to 17-year-olds surveyed complained that they didn’t get enough online time at school. The same study noted that more than 2 million American kids, some as young as 6, have their own personal Web sites.

Do we really send our kids to school so that they can spend time online? As for giving 1st graders Web sites, shouldn’t you have to learn to write your name with something besides a crayon first?

A model 5th grade class used PowerPoint to reproduce and narrate the students’ daily schedule. It’s far from clear why this needed doing, but according to their teacher, the “biggest challenge” was the battle for the microphone, because the kids “wanted to record their voices over and over again.” She figured this was because they “cared so much.”

Meanwhile, an art teacher took photographs of students’ pencil drawings. Then she scanned them into a computer, so the children could make electronic changes before she printed them and turned them into drawings again. In another giant leap for mankind, a project on the solar system included the comment “Pluto is not a dog” displayed “twice, with graphics.”

And these are the achievements we’re proud of. These are the headlines.

One geography teacher raved in print about the Internet because it lets students “look at the region, the country, and at maps.” Instead of getting bogged down in “an international news story,” which kids view as “sort of a dry topic,” the teacher said, a student “doing Jamaica” can use the Internet to “see pictures” and “listen to Bob Marley.”

Excuse me, but regions, countries, maps, and

pictures still appear in books. And you don’t need the Internet to listen to Bob Marley. In fact, you don’t need to listen to Bob Marley to write a report about Jamaica. If computers are leading us to substitute reggae for international news, on the grounds that it’s available and isn’t as dry, we’re headed in a perilous direction. Besides, the last thing schools need to encourage in our increasingly semi-literate society is a heightened dependence on video images.

The problem isn’t merely that we’re wasting millions on excessive heaps of technology without any detectable academic benefit. A 2004 University of Munich study of 174,000 students in 31 countries concluded that students who use computers at school several times a week actually perform “sizably and statistically significantly worse” as a result. Computers appear to distract students, while simultaneously crowding out traditional learning methods.

Phrases like “traditional learning methods” don’t go over well with the cutting-edge crowd. I don’t want to mirror that bias. After all, discarding something just because it’s old is no less reckless than discounting it just because it’s new. Technology, whether it’s chalk or a keyboard, can be a helpful tool. We need to get reasonable, though, about the value of what computers actually deliver, and what we’re losing as they multiply in our classrooms.

The last thing schools need to encourage in our increasingly semi-literate society is a heightened dependence on video images.

Technology champions counter that students need to learn to use these new tools. OK. An index is also a tool. How much time and money should I spend teaching kids to use it?

Teaching students to use a book’s index isn’t the same as teaching them the knowledge in the book. And teaching kids to use a computer isn’t the same as teaching them.

Yes, kids like computers. That’s partly because they feed our modern addiction to lightning-fast images and user ease. But when it comes to learning, “active” and “fun” don’t equal valuable. “Smartboards,” for example, are whiteboards onto which computer images can be digitally projected, and used in lieu of a blackboard. They cost a few thousand dollars apiece, but boosters claim they’re worth it because they’re “interactive.”

So am I. And I’d rather my students interact with me.

Technology apostles promise wonders, from higher graduation rates to “engaged” students who can’t wait to go to the interactive “board.” But learning isn’t a video game. It’s the comprehension of difficult concepts and the acquisition of complex skills, and that kind of mastery doesn’t suddenly become easy just because the picture’s on an LCD screen instead of from a Bell and Howell projector.

Sooner or later, the thrill of the bells and whistles wears off, and kids are back to the deed of learning and all the toil and sweat it requires.

You can’t blame 10-year-olds for not understanding this.

But we’re not 10.

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Thomas Edison’s Crystal Ball


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