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Educating for Democracy: Is Online Learning Learning? ll

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In my last blog on Huffington Post, "Is 'Online Learning' Learning?", I questioned the extensive use of online learning and other technological approaches to teaching as a panacea for improving the education of young learners. Several respondents questioned my assertion that unless there are teachers in the classroom who are actively involved in student learning, no amount of technology will be able to properly substitute for their absence. A recent New York Times article by Matt Richtel, "In Classroom of the Future Stagnant Scores," (9/3/11) describes a state-of-the-art educational technology school in Kyrene, Arizona and its results:

Classrooms are decked out with laptops, big interactive screens and software that drill students on every basic subject. Under a ballot initiative approved in 2005, the district has invested roughly $33 million in such technologies. Hope and enthusiasm are soaring here. But not test scores. Since 2005, scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene, even as statewide scores have risen. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

In a response to the article, on his Center for Teaching blog, Robert Ryshke, an educator located in Atlanta, describes what is really needed to improve education:

First, schools need to develop interesting, compelling and relevant curricula that focus on engaging learners. Efforts in these areas are most important and totally independent of the integration of technology. Second, schools should guide and support faculty becoming masters of different teaching pedagogies that will engage diverse learners. Efforts in these areas are another important task of schools and again independent of the integration of technology. Great teachers make the most difference when it comes to improving student achievement. The research on this is fairly clear. Third, schools should promote the effective integration of tools that help teachers teach and learners learn. These tools could be books, supplies, audiovisual aids, and advanced technologies. The purpose of these tools is to give teachers and students more flexibility to access the wealth of knowledge at their disposal

Although I take exception with Ryske's notion of "great teachers" -- there are few "great" in any profession; "competent" teachers should be sufficient to help students learn -- I believe his basic analysis of what is needed for good teaching and good learning is right on the money. I will grant that there are many positive things that can be said about the judicious use of technology in enhancing engaged students' learning, but there has been little research to prove that by itself, heavy dependence on technology leading to the marginalization of the teacher is the answer to learning problems. There are students who might be entertained by technology, and might find it engaging for a while, but the lack of learning progress in the school district in Kyrene, Arizona, illustrates the point I was trying to make in my previous blog. It is irresponsible, harmful and counter-productive to put an enormous amount of money into technology in schools without first addressing the needs of the students to have an environment where they can explore their individualized styles of learning or at least leave teachers in a position to find out how best to teach them.

The one-size-fits-all mentality that standardized testing and even standardized technological tools will be the cure-all for young learners that are faced by profound social and economic problems will continue to mislead the public into thinking that some of the fundamental obstacles to learning are being addressed when they are really being ignored. To try to find the "exact" method of teaching students, especially the reluctant and learning disabled, is as fruitless as trying to find a thumb print that is an exact match for everyone.

What seems to be clear to me is that scarce educational funds are being spent on technological solutions to human problems while many of the human problems are being dismissed as technological. Nurturing a child who has been abused and discarded by her society so she wants to learn can never be accomplished by relying on a technological solution when what she needs is someone who makes her care enough about applying herself to become a successful learner: and that person is a teacher, not a computer.