WSJ: Does Technology Belong in Classroom Instruction?

In today’s (Monday March 11, 2015) edition of the WSJ, there is a Technology section with an article addressing the question “Does Technology Belong in Classroom Instruction?” with the Yes argument provided by Lisa Nielsen and the No argument provided by José Antonio Bowen.

Let’s reflect on this question in the YCISL context especially our problem (that schools stifle creativity) and our program emphasis areas.

The prime question is whether technology, as it is applied in schools, enhances creativity and provides opportunities to develop personal skills. Let’s focus on five electronics-enabled technologies that are in current adoption in schools:

1. Computers. Out of the five selected (electronic) technologies, computers have had the longest run in schools so far. Computers are major investments in terms of initial capital as well as ongoing maintenance. Early on, computer companies often donated computers to schools and parents volunteered to maintain them. Their impact on creativity is mixed. On one hand, they are big-pipe sources of knowledge and viewpoints; on the other, they have become tools on which we lay and express our thoughts and ideas as well as analyze data.

2. Tablets. Lighter backpacks are the main benefit of tablets. With respect to creativity, I think they are at a disadvantage to computers because of their smaller screen and higher difficulty in user input (much easier to swipe and tap, than to draw or type). Obviously so, they are handier for searching/researching big-pipe sources of knowledge and viewpoints; although not a particularly good solution as an alternative to printed textbooks because of their limited screen size.

3. Interactive Whiteboards. In concept, this technology certainly belongs in classrooms. However, their performance and ROI is so below potential. Remember “Under-promise and Over-deliver”? Compared to modern whiteboards which can be as long as the length of walls in a room, the limited screen size of interactive whiteboards is a disadvantage when it comes to promoting creative exploration in a classroom. Sure, interactive whiteboards are useful when putting up PowerPoint presentations and annotating them, but can they replace the analog alternative altogether? No, they can’t. So the result is an additional expense rather than an alternative expense, and a significantly higher maintenance cost – all with a limited lifetime and shorter replacement cycle. And there are the health issues.

4. Class Web Portals. As a parent of school children, I have used a few Class Web Portals before. I think they have gotten better in terms of learning curve. The early problem was that schools and teachers only half-committed to these portals so information was split and not replicated between paper and web. So students and parents had to check two sources of classroom information and collate on their own with no way of being certain of full-picture accuracy. So assignments were missed or students needed twice the time to get homework done. My guess is that the learning curve has gotten easier as more HCI technique is incorporated as well as teachers, parents and students becoming more accustomed to interacting with classroom web portals. I have also experienced Stanford’s Coursework portal which is quite good and useful; I especially like that students can upload assignments and the server clocks the time that an assignment was submitted. However, with regards to creativity, I have not yet detected any features that help educators or students interact creatively. Maybe in the future.

5. eBooks. There are eBook devices whose clarity and readability are great advantages. But these devices are not making headway into schools. Instead, tablets with eBook apps are common. eBooks as data downloads are also growing.  eBooks tied to publisher web portals are also an interesting concept and have potential to enhance creative and critical thinking. The barrier is the monetization: eBooks (especially textbooks) are not cost-effective and do not possess the advantages of printed books. Like tablets, their main advantage is lighter backpacks (and fixed space requirement) but they are not fully-competent replacements for printed textbooks. That is why I purchase the printed textbook (use at home) in addition to eBooks (use at school) for some school subjects such as history and biology.

In my view, technology will “belong” in the classroom – one day in the future when it is more mature. Presently, it has too many kinks and disadvantages and the expense is unjustifiable because product developers are in the early stages still. Remember when a 20 MB hard disk cost $1,000+? We can get a more reliable 120 GB solid state drive now for around $100.

Let’s gather educators to brainstorm ways to leverage creativity from classroom technology first then develop and reveal a true solution with the promise of replacing paper and pen, chalk and chalkboard, printed books and handouts. Let’s innovate.

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