Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Why the digital classroom? A response to NYT

So just what IS the case for the digital classroom?  (Part One)

Around midnight on September 3, my BlackBerry started to ping.  One, then another and still one more parent of children in my school were all forwarding links to Matt Richtel's New York Times article on the failure of digital classroom initiatives to raise test scores in Arizona.  (Note to self--leave BlackBerry off next weekend!)  By sunrise, I had collected a few more replies.  No surprise.  My parent body is pretty well connected to digital media.  Lots of them work in Silicon Valley for firms that range from Google, Microsoft or Apple to small tech start-ups that they have invested blood sweat and tears to launch.  But the most important reason for the emails was a series of public statements that I made during our back to school night as we announced the largest investment in educational technology by my school in the last decade.

I'm planning to send out a detailed response to Richtel's superbly written article by this coming Friday, September 9, 2011.  For the full piece, stay tuned to this blog or follow me on Twitter @SPHDS_DrSelis.  In the meantime, a brief preview of my replies to important issues that the New York Times article raises.

1)  The ideal deployment of educational technology is in addition to, but never instead of, appropriate investments in core program.  Richtel's article is striking for its discussion of how the Kyrene School District froze teacher salaries and reduced investments in facilities and textbooks at the same time as it purchased millions of dollars of new technology.  No surprise that their test scores are stalled.

2)  At some point, Larry Cuban is certainly right.  It's all about metrics--so just where is the evidence that educational technology improves learning outcomes?  Well, to take a poke at the chicken-or-the-egg side of this question, let's start by getting a clear fix on what our students will need for the coming decades.  Skills like creativity, adaptability, entrepreneurship and inventiveness.  If you've not had a chance to look at Dan Pink's A Whole New Mind, then drop everything and have a look.  These are critical skills that our children will need for the future, in addition to the four classical skills that standardized tests measure such as math, reading, composition and how to negotiate cultural differences in a global landscape.  Oops, sorry, make that "the three classical skills..."  If you get the joke, then you probably get the point.  If not?  Well, have another look at Pink, OK?

3)  Ultimately, good teaching is always going to depend upon good pedagogy and quality educational design.  How so?  If you were to visit a great classroom in the Kyrene School District as well as an outstanding Montessori classroom, you would find very few aspects of the learning experience in common, with the following exceptions:  Teachers create challenges and let students grapple with them.  Students are independent learners, charting their own course for how they will engage materials.  Students are given a large degree of responsibility for their learning.  Students have the opportunity to express themselves and communicate what they have learned within a wide range of venues.  The bottom line:  Nine times out of ten, a great teacher and a great curriculum matters more than the specific technology that he or she uses.

So, then, just why is my school so excited to invest nearly a quarter of a million dollars in educational technology over the next three years?

Stay posted.  See you in this space or up on my Twitter feed this Friday.

Dr. Allen Selis is the Head of School of the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, CA.  He can be reached at allen.selis@sphds.org.

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