CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee.
An update on pre-election jitters in Kenya is coming up a little later in the show as well as the last installment of our Three-Minute Fiction selections. But first, this.
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HEADLEE: This hall at Westlake High School in Maryland is just like thousands of other school hallways all around the country. Kids milling around, laughing, chatting on their way to class. And there's nothing remarkable about the door where 30 kids file through to take their seats. The room is pretty unexceptional as well. Sky blue cinder blocks on all sides, no windows, rows of desks.
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HEADLEE: But in the front of this classroom, there's a podium and no chalkboard. There are two enormous flat-panel screens. There are thin white microphones hanging in four rows across the ceiling, and this is the only room in the high school that's fully carpeted. That's for sound control because the lectures that happen here are not your normal high school lectures.
KENNETH C. DAVIS: Good morning, everybody.
HEADLEE: A dapper bearded man in a brown vest greets the students, but this isn't the teacher. This is a historian speaking from his apartment in New York via Skype.
DAVIS: But if you look at this period in American history after the death of Abraham Lincoln...
HEADLEE: Schools are spending billions on educational technology without knowing whether or not it helps kids learn. And that's our cover story today: Is the tech worth the cost?
Kenneth C. Davis is the author of "Don't Know Much About History." The AP history teacher at Westlake asked Davis if he could talk to his students about America in the late 19th and early 20th century. So Ken encourages the kids to ask questions, speaking clearly into the mic.
ELIZABETH REVANCHO: Hi. I'm Elizabeth Revancho(ph). And I was going to ask you about Grover Cleveland and how he was the only president to not have a consecutive term and why you thought he went back and tried for presidency again.
DAVIS: OK. Grover Cleveland, I spoke about him very...
HEADLEE: The kids are made attentive for the entire hour of the lecture, but are they learning more than they would from their teacher? Although Davis doesn't charge for his time, this room costs Westlake High School tens of thousands of dollars.
James Mascia teaches English at Westlake. He says it's worth it because he's been able to bring in all kinds of interesting people digitally to engage with the students.
JAMES MASCIA: We've teleconferenced with Dave Barry, which was a lot of fun.
HEADLEE: Senior Jayla Briscoe was there when that comedian and author Skyped in to talk to kids.
JAYLA BRISCOE: I didn't even know who he was before then. I didn't really know much about him at all. Actually, he got me more interested into writing.
HEADLEE: Mascia's class also spoke over Skype with poet Nikki Giovanni. And next week, students will watch the live dissection of a cadaver, safely at a distance through the big flat screens and the digital microphones.
Historian Ken Davis has given many of these lectures for schools all over the world. And though these are only virtual appearances, Davis says he doesn't feel removed from the students.
DAVIS: In fact, I've been amazed at how really truly immediate it is. And obviously, this does enable me, as a writer based in New York, to go to places I would otherwise never get to. This isn't just about the Skype. This is about grassroots movement of teachers to use this new technology to open up their classrooms to a much wider world. I call it the connected classroom.
HEADLEE: But technology is just a tool, Davis says, and it has its limits.
DAVIS: I've seen teachers completely dedicated to making their students interested, enthusiastic, energetic learners. And using this technology is just one of the tools to do that. This isn't, you know, this is not the panacea, and I don't want to present it that way.
HEADLEE: That sentiment is echoed by James Mascia, the high school English teacher at Westlake. He says Skype lectures work because the teacher still has control, and it's still a communal learning experience.
MASCIA: I probably wouldn't want to give every kid a laptop in class. It's not as controllable, I should say, as something like our tele-presence center. You know, you'd have to monitor the kids a lot more.
HEADLEE: However, schools across the country are spending billions on various kinds of technology. Kristen Purcell is with the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. She just co-authored a new study on technology in the classroom and says schools aren't just investing in computer stations and keyboards.
KRISTEN PURCELL: I think what did surprise us, though, was the extent to which mobile tools have become a part of the learning process. Seventy-three percent of the teachers that we surveyed told us that cellphones are now either part of their classroom experience or their students' classroom experience. Tablet computers and e-readers are being used by more than four in 10 of these teachers.
HEADLEE: But so far, there's been no good way to measure how effective all this technology is and whether or not it's actually helping kids learn. In some districts where schools have invested heavily in computers and e-readers, test scores have remained the same or even fallen.
Dr. Howard Pitler is a former high school principal and is now the chief program officer at McREL, an education research and development group. He explains the challenge of measuring the change in student engagement while learning with tech in the classroom.
HOWARD PITLER: It is a matter of engagement, and standardized tests, as we know them today, don't measure engagement. If we're doing, for example, a Skype conversation and all we're doing is talking to an expert who's doing a talking head lecture, that's not going to really increase engagement. But if, for example, we've got an advanced Spanish class in the high school, Skyping with video pals in Spain or in Mexico and they hear the accents and the inflections and have Spanish conversations, that changes the engagement. It shows them a reason for learning.
HEADLEE: Isn't there a danger here, though, of increasing the gap for kids in poor districts as opposed to wealthy districts? I mean, there are some districts that simply can't afford the Skype lecture or the laptops for the kids or the Smart Boards. Are they going to get left behind?
PITLER: There's a gap now. There will probably continue to be a gap. However, the technology itself has changed so substantially that a Skype lecture is something within the realm of every single classroom. A teacher with a smartphone and a cord to a projector can do a Skype lecture or a FaceTime lecture using their own phone.
HEADLEE: Pretend that I'm a schoolteacher and I have a Smart Board in the front of my classroom, or I have a chance to use Skype technology or some of these other techs that schools are investing in, what would you tell me?
PITLER: Doing what you've always done and just putting electricity behind it isn't going to change things. When we see a school that's brought a one-to-one iPad initiative in, for example, and all the kids are doing on their iPads is taking notes, then they probably would've been better off investing in more spiral notebooks. But if what they're really doing is investigating, using simulations, going out and participating in real-world projects, then we see a real change.
Recently, while we were watching kids do simulations at the atomic level, they were taking simulations of atoms and molecules, they were able to manipulate them, tear them apart. In the classroom without technology, they would either be watching a video of this, that the teacher was showing or they'd be looking at pictures in their book. But now, they can actually have that in their hands on their iPads.
There's a company that sells a microscope, a USB microscope, that broadcast its signal to all the iPads in the classroom on a closed network for that class. And so the kids actually see what the teacher's doing up front, and they're able to record and manipulate what the teacher's doing. So it changes from a teacher-based to a student-learner-based environment.
HEADLEE: How receptive are school districts to investing when parents are saying, look, there's 31 kids in this class. You need to bring down your class sizes. Or when parents are saying, you're losing music class. Why would you invest in a projector?
PITLER: You said something about the digital divide, and the real digital divide is between us adults and the kids because the kids look at this environment and say, that just is the way we operate after the bell rings at the end of the day. Why would you take that away from me at school? But teachers and administrators that are running the schools oftentimes don't understand the technology. And so they're afraid of it.
When you think about it, though, most preteens and teens have Skype or FaceTime accounts. They go home and getting on a webcam and talking to friends is a normal thing for them. We look at it as this new innovative strange thing because we haven't quite figured out how to leverage that. And it's possible that if you just ask kids at a high school, so here's what we're going to be learning about in physics. How can we use webcams to help us with this?
HEADLEE: Does that turn the kids off when suddenly this technology that they enjoy so much at home becomes part of their educational experience?
PITLER: I think it's quite the contrary. It's when kids are told, and here's exactly how you have to use this technology. I want you to go to this website. I want you to click on this picture. Then it becomes more of open this textbook, read page 47.
What I believe the teachers have to be in control of is the content, the learning objectives that kids need to meet. We don't know as adults near as much about the technology and what's out there too often as the kids do. So we try to build walls around it and restrict it.
What we really need to do is define what the end needs to look like. Kids, this is what we need to learn, know and be able to demonstrate. Here is some technology ideas that'll get us started. Now, let's build a Wiki or a Google site and share additional ideas, share our work and maybe involve a school in another state or another country to share our work and grow as learners.
HEADLEE: That's Howard Pitler of McREL, an education research and development group.
The digital divide between school districts with greater access to funds and those with less is still a major issue. Kristen Purcell of Pew Research points out that low-income schools are lagging behind.
PURCELL: Teachers who were teaching the lowest-income students were more likely to tell us that they do not receive formal training in the use of digital tools in the classroom. They also express less satisfaction with the support and resources provided by their schools. And they're much more likely - they're three times as likely to say that their school is behind the curve when it comes to using the newest digital tools.
HEADLEE: And that, she explains, makes the real difference in the classroom experience. Both having the technology available and training the teachers in how to use it, so it becomes a learning experience and not just an expensive distraction. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.