From digital readers to online platforms that aim to teach social-emotional skills, schools are increasingly relying on software and devices to try to enliven and enhance day-to-day lessons. But despite their growing use in K-12 education, online curricula, digital tools, and personalized learning programs deliver mixed results.
Some show evidence of success, like digital math games that raise student achievement and engage students. But many others still have significant shortcomings.
Do digital tools simply need better instructional design for easier implementation, or should educators consider dramatically scaling down their use of tech? Two experts debated this question Wednesday in an Education Next forum on the best use of technology in the classroom.
“Googling can tell you billions of facts, and adaptive software can coach you to shore up your gaps in algebraic skills, but it is in conversation and community that we wrestle with the real questions of humanity,” wrote Daniel Scoggin, co-founder of the GreatHearts classical charter school network.
Scoggin’s charter network aims to “cultivate the hearts and minds of students” through a classical, liberal arts curriculum. GreatHearts isn’t against the use of technology, Scoggin wrote, but they “believe in putting reflection and conversation first.” Everyday, students engage in a two-hour Socratic discussion on literature, philosophy, or history.
Technology enriches lessons for Scoggin’s students when they research in preparation for a seminar or digitally share their writing. Students in science classes have watched hi-def videos of volcanic eruptions and have seen cell structure under a microscope at high resolution, technologically-enhanced experiences that bring them “closer to the mystery and beauty of reality,” he wrote.
But Scoggin believes that the challenging conversations at the core of his curriculum—about the meaning of humanity, justice, and duty to community—need to happen face-to-face, without screens. These in-person debates foster critical thinking and push students to reconsider their assumptions, requiring nuance and judgment that can be lost in virtual interactions, he wrote.
Tom Vander Ark, the CEO of learning advisory firm Getting Smart, offered a counterpoint. He agrees that indiscriminate use of screens isn’t an educational strategy, but he thinks that deep inquiry, debate, and critical thought can also take place in a digital space. Vander Ark is also a blogger for Education Week at Vander Ark on Innovation.
The push to get ed tech into schools over the past 25 years coincided with, and eventually fueled, the movement for standards-based accountability, Vander Ark writes. This movement “bred a narrow focus on testing and compliance, often driving out creativity and collaboration rather than encouraging them,” he argues. As a result, tech has too often been used for information consumption and rote skills tests—not sparking student innovation.
Tech is a tool, Vander Ark argues—not inherently good or bad—and only valuable if there’s a motivating pedagogical strategy behind its use. It can, he wrote, open more pathways to “create and invent, launch social movements, and even contribute to solving global problems.”
He cites examples of personalized learning programs that integrate project-based learning, like New Tech Network, and points out that tech offers unique access to learning coding and data analysis, skills that are increasingly valuable in college and the workforce.
For all the potential reasons ed tech doesn’t fulfill its promise to further learning, one likely reason is teachers’ lack of comfort with digital tools and the lack of professional development that meets their needs.
Schools’ ability to train teachers in implementing technology is also sharply divided along economic lines.
Students in high-poverty schools are less likely to have teachers who have received training on how to use technology effectively in the classroom, Education Week reported, as part of this year’s Technology Counts report.