Many education reformers look to technology to solve some of the challenges that face our public schools. From online education to interactive games, the emphasis on exploring technological forms of pedagogy to raise student scores has generated a number of interesting projects and studies. The most recent of these, Time magazine reports, is a study done on Maine kindergarteners that showed that when students have access to iPads in the classroom, they score higher on literacy tests than students who do not use such technology.
This seems like great news, and more and more school districts are re-shaping their budgets to include the purchase of iPads for classroom use. It’s even something being explored at the community college level, as faculty take part in pilot programs to test the efficacy of iPad use for student learning. My own school-issued iPad is set to arrive next week, so that I can work with other faculty members to develop some best practices.
However, I wonder if we have enough information about the way that interactive technology actually affects learning and workplace efficiency. I think there are a lot of unanswered questions about the value of integrating technology into many aspects of daily life, and don’t think there has been much examination of what we might lose in exchange for the high-tech gadgets.
For example, last week I went to a high-end department store planning to splurge on a little birthday treat. To my shock, many of the salespeople were texting on their cell phones, on the floor and behind counters, even with customers shopping around them. In one department, where I was the only shopper, the salesperson did not even see me, and jumped when I walked past her. “Oh!” she said. “I didn’t see you there!”
Of course she didn’t. She was too focused on her text messages to notice me. Customer service had gone out the window.
When I spoke to the manager about it, he told me that all his employees had just been issued iPhones to communicate with their customers, complete inventory, and communicate with their supervisors. Apparently, no one had thought to discuss how to manage that along with the real live customers standing right in front of them. He said they’re “still trying to figure that out.”
A Culture of Distraction?
My department store experience wasn’t the only time I have surprised someone who was focused on their tech gadgets when they should have been paying attention to something else. I routinely make my way slowly across the classroom to stand right next to a student who is texting. They don’t even notice me and are startled when I lean over them and say, “Anything interesting going on here that I should know about?”A few weeks ago, I watched one woman cut across two lanes of traffic and run someone off the road while chatting and texting on her phone. When I pulled up next to her in the other lane, I yelled out that she had run someone off the road. She had no idea.
Such behaviors suggest that technology can be a distraction to what is going on right around you. Distraction doesn’t seem to be all that big a thing in our culture anymore-or, at least, we seem to tolerate distractions more often and with greater ease. Take libraries, for instance: one librarian in Oakland, CA recently said,
“If we’re quiet, hush places with books only, we’re not relevant to this community. I think we have to provide a safe place; we have to provide a place where people can come and hang out and exchange ideas and develop a sense of community.”
I agree that building a sense of community is important, especially in areas that have long struggled with conflict such as Oakland. But where do people go when they DO want some quiet concentration, without distraction, in this loud, busy, interactive world? Is there no room in the community for those people?
Are We Creating a Distracted Environment in Today’s Classroom?
It used to be that you could count on the classroom as a place where you could concentrate, but that doesn’t seem to be true these days. Regarding the Maine kindergarteners, I wonder to what extent the use of an iPad has fostered not just higher literacy scores, but also a high tolerance for distraction that can prevent students from developing different forms of concentration other than a tech-centered one.
There are countless benefits to using technology in the classroom. My history teaching has been revolutionized by the ability to link to the Internet and bring up on a large screen documents from such impressive collections as the Library of Congress and National Archives, which I can then highlight, underline, etc., for my students, showing them how to read and analyze documents. I’m the first to champion how much Internet and interactive technologies can enliven any lesson. But technology can also create problems in the classroom, as I’ve shown in my example of distracted students.
The study discussed in Time is also problematic in other ways. The Unofficial Apple Weblog (YUAW) contributor Mike Schramm countered reports of the Maine study by pointing out
“There are caveats to these results. Many schools don’t have the budget to distribute iPads to all of their students (Apple has education programs, however, and third-party programs are getting better all the time). Additionally, the students’ excitement could be attributed to access to an iPad. When I was a kid, our school boasted brand new Apple IIes, which fostered a lifetime’s worth of interest in computers, technology, and the written word for me. But that’s likely because they played Oregon Trail and Prince of Persia.”
The “digital divide” means that while the communities that can afford to implement tech-centered learning like the kindergarten program in Maine did may show great achievements, poorer districts may lag behind, perpetuating low levels of academic success and reinforcing inequality.
So while I’m all in favor of using any tool that will help students learn, I think we need to be cautious about the results of small studies such as this one, and balance those conclusions with larger, more deliberative analyses. When we do that, we get further along in the project of educational improvement for everyone.