Dare We Question Technology in the Classroom?

I was teaching high school social studies in 1990 when "Channel One" arrived on the scene.  Promised free TVs and satellite dishes in exchange for broadcasting a 12-minute news and advertising program every day, our district was one of those enticed by the offer.  Free TVs in every classroom sounded good.  Current events programming sounded good.  A couple minutes of advertising seemed trivial compared to all the ads kids were exposed to during their day.

I remember writing letters in opposition and attending school board meetings in three local districts.  In every case, superintendents, curriculum directors and board members listened politely and then voted to sign the contracts.  We adopted a current events curriculum controlled in a Nashville corporate office with no curriculum adoption process.  For the next 10 years, 7000 students spent 12 minutes every day watching TV at school, the equivalent of 350 hours of instructional time. (Double that if you consider the extra 5 minutes before and after each broadcast that was also lost.)

This was my first exposure to technology seduction.  Since then, our schools have embraced technology, online student record systems, smart boards, laptops, online assessments...if it's been promoted somewhere, we had to have it.  I spent a few hours trying to find our total expenditures as a nation for computers and related technology in education.  The most recent data I could find was a national estimate of $6 billion in 2000.  I was able to identify for my previous district $1.3 million for computers and another $.7 million for tech support and "media services" last year.  This represents 5% of the total budget or the equivalent of 30 classroom teachers.

Technology in education seems to have waned as a topic of interest in the news.  Yet our spending and dependence on computers only increases.  In a previous post, I discussed some privacy concerns.  Let's look seriously though at its use in instruction, specifically for student research, instructional presentation and creating products.

Internet Research

I do it.  You probably do too.  We search for information about topics.  That used to involve a trip to the public library or at least to the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the bookshelf.  When we used print sources, there was SOME level of quality assurance.  Publishers were careful about what they paid good money to put into print.  Locating information in a library took some specific skills, like using the card catalog or Reader's Guides. Teachers taught how to take notes from text, record references and use index cards.

Most classroom research projects today take place in school computer labs.  Students search for information, browse and check out links and print volumes of paper.  Some teachers include lessons in how to search; others assume students already know how.  Some classes learn how to evaluate the credibility and bias of sources; others do not.  Most instruct students about plagiarism though may not teach students how to generate original material from information gleaned.  Plagiarism is rampant now with the ease of cutting and pasting.  To meet it, teachers subscribe to websites like turnitin.com

On the positive side, students have much easier access to original sources and the internet has opened up vast research opportunities.  But unless students learn critical evaluation skills, the availability of garbage sources can undermine the academic gains.

Instructional Presentation

I have seen some exciting uses of technology for presenting material.  Interactive smart boards, group response systems, embedded animations and videos to illustrate concepts and unlimited image and data access for lectures.  But add all of that together and it does not equal the amount of time still spent on Power Point presentations and full-length films that run bell to bell.  Power Point is easy and a great way to structure information delivery.  But it's really just a note-taking tool for lectures.  Full-length films are time wasters.  Though I've watched some master teachers use film excerpts for effective discussion tools, more often I've seen heads on desks while a video runs and not even the teacher is much interested.

Video conferencing hasn't worked well for instruction either.  Online courses open up opportunities but the student failure rates are much higher than through traditional classrooms.  Perhaps in a remote Alaskan wilderness area, computers mean the difference between some education and none.  But by and large, instruction has not improved with the use of computers.

Great teachers are great teachers with or without technological tools.  In fact, they can be a distraction.  Take away the computers, the textbooks, the chalkboards, the classroom posters and maps.  A great teacher will still teach and students will still learn.  We have a tendency to overemphasize the tools -- particularly textbooks and computers -- and under-emphasize methodology.  It's still the inspired, workaholic, master teacher who matters.

Student Products

The one area that has shown real gains is the availability of computer-generated projects.  Students doing presentations with power points are better organized and more poised.  Student-made videos range from passable to outstanding.  Students working with databases and spreadsheets learn analysis and synthesis of information.  Graphic artists and musical composers have exploited technological tools well.  When I compare the old plaster volcano models and sugar cube fortresses to computer-generated projects kids are producing now, it's hard to be too critical.  The products are better, the learning deeper and student interest has exploded.  Yet for all of that, I don't see students creating those products for the most part at school.


I don't advocate tossing our computers and smart boards in the trash bin.  But I would question whether they merit the value many in education have placed on them.  Like Channel One 20 years ago, those of us attracted to stuff  are fascinated and enthusiastic.  But the amount of time and expense may not be justified.  I would ask these questions of those promoting more technology in schools.

  • What evidence do you have of enhanced student learning through technology?
  • Do you know what kids and staff are doing with the equipment you already have?  (Walk through your open labs and check out the screens.  Video games, random surfing and email or academic work?)
  • Read a few randomly chosen research assignments from your school.  Are they better because of access to information?
  • Walk through the school and in one hour, log the frequency and types of technology instruction in each classroom.
  • What problems has technology raised in your school?  Hacking?  Plagiarism?  Pornography?  Cyber bullying?
  • What are you spending (total -- equipment, software, tech support, training, infrastructure, space, supervision, lab furniture) for technological tools?  How do you know if you're getting your money's worth?

In 2011, we should be more concerned with overexposure to media rather than underexposure to it.  A recent New York Times feature  reports an average of 7 1/2 hours per day of technology consumption  for our kids.  Just as "more TV" was not the prescription kids needed in 1990, "more Internet" is probably not the solution to what ails us in 2011.

There's a good deal of research about what works in schools.   None of it requires computers.  Just as effective current events instruction has never come from television, effective math, science or Spanish instruction probably does not come from microchips.  Think before you spend and don't be dazzled by stuff.


  1. I remember Channel One too, and hated it for the couple minutes of ads and its questionable content in general. And all to have a free TV in every classroom so kids could watch more TV?
    I agree that inspired and workaholic teachers are THE most important "monitors" in the classroom.
    Learning to evaluate Internet sources and use source material without plagiarizing are skills that kids need to learn.
    Do teachers still show long videos? That was a pet peeve of mine as a substitute teacher, although videos were useful in quieting the students as most of them slept or did homework or otherwise quietly ignored the film. I could go on.
    I heard a radio report a couple months ago about students in a charter school voting to have designated "screen-free days"—no phones, computers, calculators, televisions etc. They ended up modifying or reducing those days because not being able to use the Internet for research was too inconvenient. But it's an interesting concept - screen-free days. We could all learn something by observing one every now and then.

  2. I like the idea of screen-free days. Maybe a day or two in nature as well.

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