Thursday, September 08, 2011

Why the Digital Classroom is Here to Stay, part two

It might not be the messiah, but it sure beats the competition...

Having publicly entered the fray regarding the boon (and possible bane) of the digital classroom, I've gotten even more emails and, wow, my Twitter feed's been active as well.  Not sure if that's a good thing, but by Friday night, I intend to be unplugged anyway.

My original post was a short and pointed reply to Matt Richtel's September 3rd New York Times article, which drove home a well honed critique of digital classroom initiatives.  It's fair to sum up Richtel's reportage as follows:  The digital classroom is potentially just another edu-fad, an initiative that is not supported by hard data on educational outcomes and one which might even be harmful, as it bleeds funding away from core educational programs.  (OK, Matt? Promise, I read the whole article, and in print no less.)  My initial reply argued that 1) Tech should come as an addition to a solid core program; 2) Pedagogy still matters most and 3) Reading and math scores are not the sole valid measures of educational outcomes.  While these claims remain valid, the full discussion about educational technology needs to include four final points.

1)  The cow is out of the barn.  From an early age, our children are exposed to a broad range of media delivered via a dizzying array of devices.  Educational researchers increasingly suggest that the saturation of technology is prompting a fundamental shift in the way children's brains access and process information.  The news...good or bad...is that this shift has already occurred, and the students that we receive in our classrooms will increasingly bring "digital" as opposed to "analog" brains.  Some argue that we can't beat this trend, so we might as well join it lest we risk losing our students' attention entirely.

2)  Technology is itself a new literacy.  Simple argument:  One hundred years ago, we would never dare send a child into the workplace without teaching him how to use a pencil.  He would be un-employable.  The corollary?  Today, a child that cannot navigate the internet, create interactive presentations and develop simple spreadsheets is functionally illiterate and has extremely limited prospects in the employment market.

3)  Pedagogic advantages.  Educational technology can do several things that few other vehicles can match.  It can instantaneously connect learners from around the world.  It can allow educators to create and deliver content that is consistently professional looking and truly interactive.  Ed tech supports differentiation by allowing children to access multiple content levels within a lesson or to demonstrate their knowledge by creating a range of products that are driven by student interest.  Why wouldn't we want these tools?

And for all that?
4)  Ed tech will not bring the Messiah.  Even as my school, the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School, strings Cat-5 cable and hangs wireless APs from pillar to post, we are drawing some lines.  Our early childhood program will remain a low-tech or even a no-tech zone.  In fact, we just invested in some really exciting technology for ages 2-5:  Water tables.  Sand boxes.  Clay for sculpting.  Wooden blocks.  Lots of paint, all in primary colors.  So far, we have found that these "open ended materials" have had a powerful impact on spurring creativity and encouraging children to imagine their own categories of work and play. 

So Matt, even as we invest in dozens of new laptops, fast wireless and (coming soon) a tablet computer roll-out in grades 5-8, we have kept balance within our program.  We are not doing this as a way to chase test scores or to impress parents.  Rather, we want to invest resources wisely so that our students develop creativity, a strong cluster of basic skills...and yes, a finesse with Wikis, Wordles and Wifi.  It's the best way we have found to prepare our kids for the confounding, brave new world that awaits them.

Dr. Allen Selis can be reached at allen.selis@sphds.org
Then again, there's always Twitter!

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