On Leveraging Technology: part two of several–does it really help?

To leverage is to use the power or force of a lever in the literal sense, and in the figurative—to advantage for accomplishing a purpose. This is a great educational word.

I once had a mentor tell me I should teach every day as if a parent were standing in the doorway demanding excellence for their child. This is a great educational standard. It is also a recipe for failure, which I’m ok with (as I’ve blogged about before, twice). The truth is, the days I really use technology in the classroom are the days I would never want a parent standing at the door.

A newsletter comes home every week from my children’s teachers. Lately, they are full of pictures. The most recent newsletter is full of pictures of students “doing science.” 50% of the pictures are of kids looking at screens. It is not an image of kids doing anything observable.

The image of my classroom or my children’s classroom should not trouble me if the technology is being leveraged, if the technology is being used to advantage to accomplish a purpose. I teach English and sometimes students are staring at books in my classroom, and other times computer screens. I completely get it is part of the fabric of a class. The trouble I have, more often than not, is with the word advantage. An old French word, advantage means a positon in advance of another. It means profit or superiority. It means before. More often than not my lessons that use technology could be carried out on paper. What advantage is the technology? It saves me deciphering handwriting. It is faster, mostly. This begs the question—why is speed something to value in learning?

My son has a lesson on water, and the way it forms land. The class starts on the computers looking at photos of Mars. Amazing. They observe how the land is shaped, determine there is sedimentary rock in a channel (full disclosure I don’t understand how they determined this) and deduce it was shaped thus by water. The homework is to look around their neighborhood, or town and describe land formed by water. This strikes me as odd, it seems the reverse path practicing scientists take. Don’t practitioners observe their world around them and then make connections to new discoveries and distant objects? My son can describe how water forms land, but does he understand how science works? How scientists have used observation since Galileo? He’s 13, what lesson is the most valuable? It didn’t take long for him to learn how water forms land, but did he miss out on a larger, more important understanding? It is possible I’m being persnickety, but I can’t shake the feeling the technology was used to be used and not necessarily used to the advantage of student learning. I’m not so much questioning a colleague’s choices here, as playing the role of parent in the doorway.

What advantage can these machines provide? How do I, as a classroom teacher, rectify the research showing the use of computers does not help much? It seems computers do not increase understanding any faster than any other educational innovation. The results of a seven-year study of the most scrutinized laptop 1:1 program showed laptops allowed test scores to raise at about the same rate as other counties without them:

“Test scores did go up a lot in Mooresville after 2008, when it started handing out laptops. But Hull calculated that test scores also soared by about the same amount in neighboring counties, which didn’t give laptops to each student.”

Additionally, Jill Barshay notes that the computer implementation had a negative impact on how much time students read books:

“From student surveys, the researchers found that Mooresville students reduced their time reading books by more than four minutes a day, on average, to roughly 40 minutes a daily in 2011 from more than 45 minutes daily when the laptop program was introduced. Meanwhile, kids in neighboring counties increased their daily reading by two minutes.  Four minutes might not sound like a lot, but over the course of a year that adds up to more than 25 fewer hours of reading, which is substantial. Unfortunately, the state stopped administering that survey after 2011 and it’s unknown if book reading rebounded.  But if time spent reading continued to deteriorate, that could partially explain why reading scores didn’t rise as much as the math scores did.”

I suppose this is natural, the new technology will eclipse the old. As mentioned above, I’m a bibliophile, so this sort of news is personally heartbreaking, but I recognize it is not for everyone. But even the lightest research yields rafts of studies where brain researchers are determining that, at best, the results of reading from a screen are only equal to reading from the page. The screen offers no advantage. The more troubling problem arises when one notes these even results occur when testing for basic comprehension not more complex understanding. Even then, the device sometimes can get in the way of the content. Students often report on how they use the device, and then on the content the device provided. The larger problem is, when asked more sophisticated questions, as described in Naomi Barron’s New Republic article, Why Digital Reading is no Substitute for Print, print wins every time. So, the clearest conclusion here is integration of technology succeeds most clearly in pushing out a more successful technology.

Barshay again:

“Students continued to spend as much time on homework as before but spent more of their homework time on a computer.”

The New Republic findings indicate this homework time is less productive, less focused, and equally concerning is this conclusion from Barshay:

“… the highest achievers and lowest achievers didn’t benefit more from the laptops than average students. One of the arguments ed tech advocates make is that educational software can help slower learners review material while quicker learners jump ahead to new topics, with each student learning at his own pace. But the researchers didn’t see stronger test score gains among the bottom quarter or the top quarter of students relative to students in the middle. They did notice, however, that higher performing students were more likely to increase their time on computers.”

The device succeeds most at encouraging more time on the device. A New Jersey school district (also reported on by Barshay) ditched the 1:1 program altogether. The device has some advantages, and is more popular, yet brain research holds with paper. This is not just the preference of luddites and bibliophiles. The long term scientific brain studies are continually reaching the same conclusions previously reached by authors such as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Sven Brikerts, and Nicholas Carr in their fiction and memoirs across nearly 80 years. How do we leverage something not offering a clear advantage? Huxley and Neil Postman would argue that what we love will destroy us. Birkerts and Carr posit our love of technology is leaving us with a lack of depth. I suppose I’m arguing that we’re missing the important points. My son misses out on a clear experience of the scientific process, my students type drafts and feel they are done because they look done (all typed up neat and clean), and when we read from the screen we receive diminishing returns. I find irony in the fact that the term “leverage technology” comes out of a program adopted by my district titled “deep learning.” It seems technology is great for many things, but depth is not one of them.

So, in addition to my previous questions, we’re left with this: technology is here, and it will remain. How do we leverage it both in the classroom and in personal space so it works to our advantage and does not inhibit our learning and engagement with our lives? I’ve found some terms and am reading some research I will parse in my next post that attempt to offer some possible answers to this troubling situation.


2 thoughts on “On Leveraging Technology: part two of several–does it really help?

  1. Mark

    “The device succeeds most at encouraging more time on the device.”

    …is the absolute truth. We just finished a unit in my Critical Media Literacy class that examined the fact that tech/app designers focus solely on increasing “engagement,” which is simply the amount of time an individual spends on the device/app.

    The other challenge I’m starting to see: budgets for books and copier paper are shrinking because “they can just do it on their chromebook” or “you can pass the directions out in Google Classroom.”

  2. Lynne Olmos

    Jeremy, I like how you are challenging my thinking here. This year I finally have full-time access to Chromebooks in my classroom, and my writing units have been very productive for my seventh-grade classes- more writing, more willingness to rewrite and edit. Also, we have had a noticeable uptick in asking the teacher for input. I’m loving that! However, I have also personally witnessed the downside in the ways you have outlined. Additionally, I love physical products of learning, like the poor, maligned poster. Teachers in my social network keep pushing digital products, like slideshows and videos as visual representations of learning. While these are great, so is a wall full of posters we can evaluate as a class and leave up for other students and faculty to see.

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