NY Times Reports: Schools Show No Progess

A number of folks are writing today about this report in the NY Times, which refers to a school district near to where I live in the Syracuse, NY area. Basically the district has decided to drop its laptop program b/c it hasn’t seen any signs of the devices improving education. Here are some great little lines from the piece.

The students at Liverpool High have used their school-issued laptops
to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local
businesses. When the school tightened its network security, a 10th
grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step
instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did).

Scores of the leased laptops

break down each month, and every other morning, when the entire school
has study hall, the network inevitably freezes because of the sheer
number of students roaming the Internet instead of getting help from

Imagine that… students choosing to "roam the internet" rather than talk to teachers–who da thunk?

Anyway, the article goes on…

“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact
on student achievement — none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board
president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State
to experiment with putting technology directly into students’ hands.
“The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship
between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a
distraction to the educational process.”

And a little later says,

school officials here and in several other places said laptops had
been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans, and showed
little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time
of increased pressure to meet state standards. Districts have dropped
laptop programs after resistance from teachers, logistical and
technical problems, and escalating maintenance costs.

disappointments are the latest example of how technology is often
embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only
to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets
into curriculums. Last month, the United States Department of Education
released a study showing no difference in academic achievement between
students who used educational software programs for math and reading
and those who did not.

So this is what I’m mainly getting. We couldn’t figure out how to incorporate the technology into the "educational process," so we’re getting rid of it. I agree. It is completely predictable. A microwave is not a toaster oven. If you want your microwave to make toast, you will be disappointed. If you hand students a laptop and then just keep doing what you’ve always done, you will be disappointed. If you say, last year we did A, B, and C, and this year we will do A, B, and C again, but with laptops sitting on everyone’s desk, the absolutely you will find the laptops to be  a distraction.

So basically the teachers couldn’t figure out how to use the technology in the classroom. Not surprisingly, as a result, the technology did not have much of an impact on outcomes. It is not surprising that the teachers have no idea what they are doing. Why would we imagine that they would?

Now I don’t know if these laptop programs are a great idea. They may be a technology that will be or are already being supplanted by other mobile devices. It may be a good idea to give up on laptops. It is not, however, a good idea to give up on teaching and learning in the context of mobile media networks. It is especially not a good idea to give up on this task by essentially proclaiming, "we couldn’t figure out how to use the technology."

As I’ve said before and will say again (here and later, no doubt), it’s not about delivering the same old curriculum with a new technology.

Why should I use books in my classroom? Lecturing works much better. Students hide magazines inside the covers of their books. They look at the wrong pages. They copy text out of the book and plagiarize. They can’t do any of those things when I’m lecturing. The book is just a box that gets in the way of my one-to-one relationship with my students.

Sounds pretty funny when it’s put that way, huh?

No obviously the point is that mobile media networks open new opportunities for the composition and sharing of knowledge. Yes, we are still working out the best way to make that happen. But then again, we are still working out the best way to teach with print as well. I’m not holding my breath waiting for answers to either of these questions.

No, the point is that our children will live and work, and yes, learn, in these networked environments. What this school and others need to understand is that addressing this fact is not optional for them. They don’t get to decide whether or not they are going to do this. They just have to figure out the best way to make it happen. Maybe it’s not laptops. Fine. But a school like Liverpool has been working with laptops for seven years. I hope they aren’t suggesting they’re going to turn back the clock on their curriculum seven years.

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One reply on “NY Times Reports: Schools Show No Progess”

There’s a crazy notion in education that the kids of today need years of training to deal with the technology of tomorrow (i.e., they may have to send an email someday). This is one of the big reasons behind the push for “technology” — not to use computing tools to teach, say, math, but to teach someone how to use Word, PowerPoint, and email. First of all, even the least competent kids (those who can’t multiply by ten without a calculator — I’m not kidding) have no problem with Word, PowerPoint, or email. Second, by the time these kids are adults a monkey will be able to send email (one used to have to know archaic command-line instructions to send and compose email, and some knowledge of boolean math for even the simplest searches). Yet we will have spent untold millions in this nutty pursuit to the neglect of far more basic skills.
It’s usually the education schools that are the source of the craziest ideas.


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