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“Technology” is the educational term for Information and Communication Technology or ICT.

Here are five myths about technology in education:

Myth number one: Educational technology is always a good investment by schools; we owe it to our kids to have a lot of technology in the classroom.

Reality: some technology is useful, and other technology is not worth the time and money.

There are proven benefits from technology: student access to computers lets them write and revise, and develop their writing ability; internet access opens up the world for research. But, only if the students actually make use of the technology for that purpose. Studies  show that even computers and internet access, in and of themselves, can lower academic achievement. Still, computers and internet access are versatile. Teachers are probably more productive when they have reliable computers, networks and software. Overall, these kinds of investments probably pay off.

But some technology does not. For example, Interactive White Boards (also known by brand names Smart Boards and Promethean).

An Interactive White Board is a large touchscreen display, with a short-throw digital projector mounted on an arm at the top. These cost from a few thousand dollars to over $6000, for a six-foot-wide screen, on a wheeled, motorized mount, so it can be moved around, and up and down so children can use the touchscreen.

These were initially marketed to business in the 1990s, then as that faded, to the educational market, where they were very popular.

These devices are limited: you cannot use the touchscreen feature via other devices or software. Teachers must either find lessons on line, or create their own, which is time consuming. A multimedia projector alone, at a cost of about $400, does 99% of what these do and doesn’t take any floorspace, or training.

They are complex machines, and support will probably disappear within a few years, as the market moves on to the next educational technology gadget (tablets): Promethean share prices plunged 75% in 2012.

There have been very few scientific studies of how effective Interactive White Boards are in education. A major government-funded study (by BECTA) in the UK found no statistically-significant improvement with the use of IWBs. When they broke out their results according to ability, sex, and subject matter, there were small gains for some groups (for example, “high-performing boys in math”), losses for a few others, and no gains for most.

Robert Marzano, a popular educational presenter, did a study that found similar results – that roughly a third of the students did better, a third worse, and a third about the same, when the teacher used IWBs in the classroom. And yet, he claimed that “The study results indicated that, in general, using interactive whiteboards was associated with a 16 percentile point gain in student achievement. This means that we can expect a student at the 50th percentile in a classroom without the technology to increase to the 66th percentile in a classroom using whiteboards.” Fortunately the research was later reviewed is typical of what you’ll find on line.

When meager educational benefit is weighed against the money and time they require, it’s clear that IWBs are not a good investment.

Myth number two: Technology in the classroom prepares students for the high-tech world after graduation; youth will not be able to cope in the high-tech workplace /world unless we teach it in school.

Reality: technology in the classroom has no relationship to preparing students to master technology after graduation.

First of all what are the skills our kids will need in a rapidly-changing, technology-driven society? Most of what they must learn has not changed at all: they need to understand geography, civics, history, math, and science, and how to read and write well. But now, on top of that, kids need critical thinking skills, creativity, and to learn how to work with others.

Students must also learn how to sort through the vast amounts of information and marketing they face every day, skills called Information Literacy and Media Literacy. And, math and science are even more important than they were in the past, now that more and more jobs are in programming and development of new technology.

How does educational technology fit these educational goals? Much educational technology simply replaces the typewriter, mimeograph, and filmstrip of yesterday. Internet access, reliable computers, printers, and multimedia digital projectors are the improved versions of technology we have relied on for decades.

Most of what we think of as educational technology are the more specialized teaching aids – document cameras, Interactive White Boards, “clickers” or electronic voting devices, wii’s, and iPads and other tablet devices, and educational software and “apps.”

Do these items help our students reach 21st century goals? When employers are asked what they are looking for, number one is a work ethic (a complaint since Babylonian times), communication skills and analytical thinking. In the high tech workplace, a December Forbes Magazine article lists critical thinking, problem solving, active listening, and math, as well as programming.

When they get to the work force, will their experience using an iPad or IWB give them an advantage? Probably not. Will having learned to write well, to think, to use their heads to figure out what needs to be done, their ability in math and science, be of any use? Probably more likely – and educational technology devices are not needed for any of that.

Devices like iPads are actually harder to use than computers, for teaching vocational technology skills. It’s possible, but a struggle to do things that are easy on a computer, like creating a website or programming. Even web design is still done through code, and you’d be better off building computers and devices, doing your own programming, or troubleshooting a donated device. Ed tech devices like iPads offer no advantage.

As parents know, kids are uncanny in their ability to pick up new software and gadgets, I think we’ve all seen babies adept with iPhones. There is also the fact that any particular device or software we teach them in school will be obsolete well before they graduate.

Myth number three: Technology lets us reach students through multiple modalities; technology is interactive.

“Multiple modalities” is education jargon for the idea that we all learn differently, and some of us do better reading material, some of us by using our hands, some of us through seeing a picture.

Reality: a screen, even with sound, uses a fraction of our senses and abilities. Accessing anything via an electronic device means it is mediated, and not direct. Most children today have way too much screen time as it is, with the consequence that they don’t have the social skills, physical fitness, or ability to focus kids had just a generation ago.

How interactive is a touchscreen compared to handling bird feathers, measuring weights, negotiating with other children, going on a field trip, making music? Making anything? Going into the real world, and learning hands on how it works.

Myth number four: Children today are Digital Natives, and you have to adapt the classroom to their new learning style; technology is the paper and pencil of tomorrow; we can’t use yesterday’s tools to teach today’s skills.

Reality: Anyone who has seen a good teacher at work knows it’s not true, that kids can’t pay attention to anything that’s not digital. But even if it were – what do we do about it? Allow our kids to graduate from school, still unable to pay attention to anything that’s not spoon-fed to them digitally?

Learning might be the most rewarding thing we do, that sense of achievement,belonging, mastery, control, possibility. Children are hard-wired to learn. Yes, kids would rather play games on an iPad – but are they learning? We’re trading off short-term pleasure for lasting pleasure, in genuine learning.

Myth number five: Schools need iPads.

Reality: There is yet to be evidence iPads improve academic performance.

The advantages are hyped without letup: you can get textbooks for less cost. There is great educational software out there. They have a camera and Apple’s internet browser. It has a bright touchscreen. Kids love them.

There are enormous downsides to using ipads besides the very high cost ($500 dollars on up), including being locked in to the Apple browser and compatible websites (because it doesn’t support Flash, still used in many websites) and software. They have extremely limited connectivity. Things that are easy with computers, like hooking up to a projector or sharing files, are difficult with an iPad. And, they are fragile. You also have the built-in distraction of a device that’s built for entertainment – even adults have a hard time with their self-discipline. (In 2012 the idea of students bringing in their own phones and devices to school – “BYOT” was very trendy, but those students would have to have a lot more self control than I do.)

There are many wonderful educational apps (and of course many junky ones), but very few multimedia textbooks. The content just isn’t there yet. And when it is developed, it seems very unlikely the content publishers are going to be giving it away, and it will very likely cost as much or more than paper textbooks.

If you want digital textbooks, then look at the most effective platform, taking costs into account. Digital textbooks (ebooks) do exist, but as digital versions of textbooks, they are no more effective than the originals. So the only advantage is (slightly) lower cost, which has to be offset by the cost of the device. Another issue with any tablet or reader is compatibility.

As a computing device, you have imovie and a digital audio program (“sold separately”), but these kinds of programs are available, for free, for laptops. And the tablets have no keyboard ($70 for their small keyboard, which is not designed for serious typing, and can’t control the iPad), which takes away the biggest, and perhaps most effective use of computers in school – writing, revising and publishing, so you still need computers, as well.

Ultimately, iPads, like Interactive White Boards, are designed for consuming information, not for creating. Apple’s goal is to have the iPad be the portal for all of our entertainment – purchased through Apple-controlled websites.

The wild enthusiasm for iPads in education – how much is because they look good, and how much is because they add anything to education – especially when you compare them to things like laptops, which are much more versatile and useful?

But with any educational technology, when you look at educational technology blogs, forums, websites, you won’t see much debate over whether an IWB or tablet is a useful tool, or worth the money. The only posts I found criticizing IWBs exalted tablets. You will see a frenzy of posts about how teachers are working to figure out ways to use it in their classroom, and testimonials about how the kids love it. Given this enthusiasm by educational technology experts, it is little wonder that districts do not scrutinize these machines or ask to see evidence they work. Still, before spending millions of dollars on these devices, wouldn’t districts want evidence they work? Wouldn’t Apple benefit from a compelling study?

I was surprised to find there is no evidence they improve academic performance. One study in Auburn Maine was supposedly “finally proof” but it turned out that study had no statistically significant results – only “trends.” Most of what you’ll find are “case studies” reporting only that faculty felt kids were learning more, or that most students liked them.

Yes, kids adore iPads. But, are they learning? It’s possible there won’t ever be evidence they improve academic performance. A teacher has to plan out the year knowing what the students need to accomplish, and get them there, mastering material and skills sequentially, step by step. Programs like Khan Academy work well for some kids in math, because it is sequential and requires kids to work the problems, but don’t require an iPad.

There is a limited amount we can learn passively. We need to actively engage with content. (Think about the last educational tv program you watched, and how you felt like you were learning, and how much you retained afterward.) In theory, you could design a program or app that could do this – answer kids’ questions, get them thinking and writing. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Imagine a classroom using an app on Paul Revere’s ride. They watch animations, do puzzles and games, answer multiple choice questions. Now imagine using that same class time to see a video and graphics together; read about it; the teacher asks the kids questions, answers ones they have, and if she doesn’t have the answer, models how to find it; assigns them to research questions they have (like, why is Paul Revere so famous?), and write about it, and share their findings. Which group of kids will retain more about this period in history?

The weakness of ipads is that they are not good for engaging students with content, which is essential for learning. You could use them as part of a high quality educational program, but since they are expensive and don’t add anything, are they worth the cost? With any individual device, while the potential is there for “student-centered learning,” the reality is that you also have a lot of potential for student-centered surfing, messaging and games.

What is quality education? Small class sizes; everyone understands the goals; teachers are motivated and highly-trained: the teachers know the subject matter, are able to get the students interested in it, and move step by step, building on what the students have already mastered.

Any tool has to be chosen because it contributes to what the teacher can do. Unfortunately, often the tools seem to come first, with the teachers scrambling to figure out ways to use it.

Educational Technology is a vast and growing business. What is sad is that the marketers don’t even have to work hard, much less offer discounts, to get school districts to spend millions on expensive, unproven equipment.

“Flipped” classrooms (listening to the teacher’s lecture at home, and doing practice in school) will only widen the “digital divide” between more well-off students who have internet at home and those who don’t, who we know are already at risk for dropping out. Offering time during recess for these kids to catch up only adds to their burden.

Another issue is privacy: the free cloud-based services like Googledocs, and many free educational sites, require quite a bit of personal information in exchange. Maybe it’s worth the trade off, but it’s something we have to be aware of.

We want to graduate competent young people. Tech in the classroom can be as much a hindrance as a help; many students have way too much screen time, and way too much electronically-mediated communication in their lives already. They need knowledge and skills they aren’t getting on their own: how to communicate, create, think, solve problems.

In the end, technology is tools. Technology does have exciting potential, in being able to access lessons and information remotely, and kids can program, create movies, write and publish. We have to know what we want technology to do, and buy the gear to do that – but consider the entire school environment, make quality teaching the highest priority, and not give too much weight to gadgets.

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A letter to the editor of our local paper.

Our school district received $800,000 from a Stimulus grant, and spent it all on technology for the district. Unfortunately they used a big chunk, a quarter of a million dollars, to purchase 37 Promethean Boards  (Interactive White Boards, 6-foot-wide touch screens that use a digital projector). They used another part of the grant to get a cart of laptops for the kindergarten and first grade. They also raised the amount they will spend on technology, out of their regular budget, in perpetuity, and did not account for an additional tech support position, which they already need. At the same time, they eliminated teaching positions (though our district remains relatively well staffed).

They had an education technology consultant come to town, but he did not seem to help them with the essential issue – what sorts of technology are actually worth while, useful, and worth integrating; and which ones are relatively ineffective, expensive and time-consuming to use. I think some of the decision making was in the idea of equality among the schools – the k-1  principal did not ask for a cart of laptops and did not know what they’d do with them.

The larger issue of course is to decide how best to improve education with the money at hand, to decide whether technology or some other expenditure is better.

I use “technology” (aka  information and communications technology), quite a bit, which I think must give me not only some understanding of what it can do and what it can’t, but also immunity from the hype surrounding educational technology. Future post on that.

Dear Editor,

I want to express my appreciation for our school board – we are truly fortunate to have such a smart and hard-working school board. The current candidates look to be just as well qualified.

But I am concerned about the emphasis on getting more technology in school, one of the school board’s goals. Every technology expenditure must not only promote the overall goals of our schools but do it more effectively than other possible expenditures, especially as budgets get tighter and tighter.

I think it is very important to sort out the various uses of technology, and to recognize that not every piece of technology has the same value.

  1. You have the basic functioning of the district – the devices and software used by staff.
  2. Teaching aids like document cameras and Interactive White Boards (touch screens) and computer programs used for drill.
  3. Technology students learn to use, for typing, research, science, and presentations.
  4. Technology used for creative work like making movies or creating websites.

I have yet to hear of a student who has trouble using technology. I think our real concern is to prepare kids to evaluate, create and command technology and information, part of what is called 21st century learning: kids also need to graduate able to read and write at a high level, with a good understanding of math, science and culture, with the confidence and curiosity to keep learning, with problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, creativity, and the ability to work with others.

The Interactive White Board (IWB, Promethean, Smart Board), which cost about $5000 each, do very little you can’t do with a digital projector alone ($400-500). The high cost is for the touchscreen feature and a mobile stand that can be raised and lowered. ( The “clickers” or student responders don’t require the touchscreen, and are a separate cost.) With any technology you must add in the costs for tech support, maintenance, and training.

IWBs are neat machines, which have been used in schools for some time (peaking in the UK in 2005), but if you dig past the hype and the potential they seem to have, you will find that studies show little educational benefit. The next thing is tablets and other “interactive” devices. There are built-in limitations to this type of technology, the main one being that the student does not use it to create, but is taught material in a 20th century mode. Other measures, such as developing curriculum, integrating art and music, sports, field trips, and science training for teachers might be as or more effective than a particular technology tool.

We should also take a hard look at the notion that since kids are so used to technology you have to use it in school. Back in the 1970s the same argument was used for television in schools. Many children have too much screen time as it is, and need socialization, motor skills, books and other experiences in order to succeed.

The goal of schools is to hook kids on the real rewards of learning, which (studies show) takes a skilled and motivated teacher. All spending decisions should be made to support this goal in the most effective way, without special status for technology.

Thank you,

Rebecca Poulson

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