Technology Vs. Learning: False, Tiresome Either/Or Debate

TB

Last week, we saw two completely different ways to cover technology in schools in the New York Times.

On Tuesday, Alan Schwarz wrote a fair and balanced article about an Indiana school district that's transitioning to digital textbooks. In the story, we heard from a veteran teacher, who said it's “the most exciting thing to happen in my 40 years of teaching"; from another who said, “This way I can give my time to the kids who really need it. And it’s a lot more engaging for the kids. They’re actually doing their homework now.”

We heard from Tony Bennett, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction, who said, “I believe in local control, and we don’t have the ability to be the keeper of knowledge we have been in the past. We’ll be better off if we uncuff people’s hands.” Even a student's perspective made it into the

story: “With a textbook, you can only read what’s on the pages — here you can click on things and watch videos,” said Patrick Wu, a seventh grader. “It’s more fun to use a keyboard than a pencil. And my grades are better because I’m focusing more.”

We read about the fees associated with the computers, parents worrying about exposing their kids to the "online wilderness," as well as the realities of technical glitches that come with transitioning an entire school district to a digital curriculum: disappearing assignments, unsaved tests, and network failures.

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This article makes sense. After reading it, we can see the whole picture.

But Sunday's article by Matt Richtel, "A Silicon Valley School That Doesn't Compute," left many more questions than it answered. One of the big questions for me was why Richtel chose this school to write about. California is full of Waldorf and Waldorf-inspired schools. One of the main tenets of the Waldorf philosophy is not to use technology. So why single out an education philosophy that's long been known for not using technology ... for not using technology? Where's the news there? Headline: Waldorf Schools Eschew Technology! Great!

The fact that it's based in Silicon Valley can be construed as a bit of irony, I suppose, but that's the only hook he uses to anchor an entire Sunday's front-page article.

There are many other arguments to make about this article, and in fact the entire series, Grading the Digital School (also read "In Classroom of Future, Outdated Testing Can't Keep Up, Deconstructing What Works in Education, and Why Should Schools Invest in Software? for rebuttals to Richtel's stories).

But the question that keeps coming up is why this writer continues to take the black-and-white, either/or approach. It's far too simplistic a view for the newspaper's sophisticated readership. No one believes that learners don't need teachers. No one believes that engagement can only be found on a gadget. So why make that false distinction? Why portray technology as an all-pervasive evil force that's either shilled by greedy corporations, used by unsuspecting school administrators, or feared by parents who are just trying to protect their kids?

We are smarter than that, and we deserve better coverage of this topic. And here I thought we're starting to shift the dialogue for the public.

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