Shawn Douglas

Thursday - Oct 27, 2011

Education technology is moving quickly into US classroomsIt’s easy to see how reading the daily headlines would lead someone to believe that incorporating technology into education is a vital maneuver in modern education reform. “Technology in the classroom aids in learning,” “Technology sparks learning,” and “Technology changing how students learn” are some of the resounding refrains heard across the news wires, praising the adoption of education technology.

But not everyone is buying into the idea, with some likening the infiltration of computers, tablets, and other mobile devices into the education sphere to a colorful Band-Aid on an unduly large problem.

Take for example the authors of a recently released National Education Policy Center report, one that paints a picture of the failings of online schools due to lack of oversight, lax accreditation, and greedy commercial and corporate interests. With “nearly one in every 50 students in the U.S.” obtaining all or some of their education from online sources in 2007, and 27 U.S. states hosting online schools (which get most of their content and services from five private companies), the report’s authors claim that more must be done to ensure the quality of online education, especially in the face of rapid ongoing change.

At the end of the report the authors make four key recommendations to state legislatures:

1. Authenticate the source of students’ work using in-person exams or more rigorous credentials.
2. Apply fiscal and instructional regulations to K-12 virtual schools, focusing for example on teacher certification status and adjusted accounting practices.
3. Conduct audits to ensure actual costs are reported, providing a more accurate funding system by the state.
4. Create and maintain a list of agencies that give accreditations to K-12 virtual schools, ensuring the accreditation process is vigorous.

The National Education Policy Center’s recommendations are welcomed by many in the education industry, including those who question whether the traditional classroom setting should be hastily abandoned for the virtual school.

“We are concerned that in their eagerness to embrace the virtual school model, policymakers and some educational leaders are overstating its success and ignoring the tremendous advantages a classroom environment provides for students,” said David R. Colburn, director of the Reubin Askew Institute, and Brian Dassler, KIPP Renaissance High School principal, in an opinion piece for the St. Petersburg Times.

“There is no question that technology can be a great asset to students with learning deficiencies and an excellent supplement to classroom learning for all students,” they said. “As the technology is refined and expanded, virtual learning may offer more substantial advantages to students and teachers.”

Despite their optimism, they went on to caution state legislatures and school policymakers about buying too deeply into the hyped promise of the online learning environment.

This line of thinking falls in stark contrast to the methodology of a school in the United States’ Silicon Valley, which is home to numerous technology corporations. Last week the New York Times highlighted the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, one of many such schools that questions the idea that technology will save the modern classroom.

Far from taking online classes, the Waldorf schools don’t even incorporate technology, focusing instead on more traditional low-tech instructional methods. The fundamental belief stated by the school is that kids will easily learn how to use technology later in life, so why not focus on the more human and engaging elements of personal teaching.

Granted, this sort of take on technology in education seems almost as extreme as one that endorses stuffing every bit of tech possible into a class. Like most things in our lives, approaching some sort of balance seems like a more reasonable approach. The authors of the NEPC report subtly preach this balance by offering realistic suggestions on how to better a growing online education industry, despite believing that same industry has “zero high-quality research evidence” of being an “adequate replacement for traditional face-to-face teaching and learning.”

Even higher education students like Kinsey Streib at Purdue University are being realistic about the role of technology in education.

“Admittedly, some technology inhibits the learning experience,” Streib recently told the Exponent. “However, it is a pertinent teaching tool in modern education.”

In the end, diving head-first into technological classroom solutions — or shunning them completely — doesn’t seem like an appropriate education solution. State legislatures should make some conservative reforms, while at the same time scientists should do more quality research on learning methodologies that include technology. From there we can evaluate in what ways educators can best integrate technology into the classroom and better gauge the effectiveness of privatized online education, all without tripping over ourselves in a mad dash to educational uncertainty.

Photo via popofatticus, Flickr Creative Commons