One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

10/10/2011 10:37 am ET | Updated Dec 10, 2011

In a world where technology evolves every second, it is a constant struggle to keep up. School administrators and big companies work hard to bring the newest gadgets into classrooms in order to harness the power of technology and promote more innovative learning styles. You would think that if people had access to these resources, they would take every opportunity to use them, right? Well, maybe not. It takes more than getting high-tech gadgets into the classroom for them to make a difference.

Back in 2008, my school system installed 3,300 Promethean Boards in classrooms around the county. For an annual lease of $3.3 million a year, the boards essentially work as interactive projectors that can be written on using a special pen and play sound using built-in speakers. I'll be honest, they are pretty cool. There are many ways that they can be used to enhance and spruce up otherwise ordinary lessons. With the most basic application of ActivInspire, the program created for the boards, one can take advantage of handwriting recognition, turn a blank board into a grid perfect for graphing, use onscreen protractors and compasses, and get up close and personal with the periodic table of elements -- all with minimal effort.

But in spite of all of the potential benefits that Prometheans offer, I have not seen the boards be adequately utilized. At first, both teachers and students detested the boards. They were big, the fans inside of their projectors were loud, they were installed right on top of perfectly good white board space and nobody knew how to use them. Now we're used to the size, we've learned to talk over the noise, whatever white board space that remains is used as efficiently as possible and teachers now know how to use the pen and "freeze" the screen.

This last adaption is exactly the problem. We are degrading these powerful machines to their rudimentary function as a projector on a slightly more interactive white board. That's not to mention all of the add-ons -- ActivWands that act as extended pens, ActivRemotes that have voting features for simultaneous class voting and other activities, and ActivTablets that make writing on the boards portable -- that teachers have access to and still aren't using. Why did administrators spend money on these features without making sure that students and teachers have the motivation to use the boards to their fullest potential? Half-baked implementation is sending the money spent on the Prometheans down the drain, and is hindering any educational advancements that were sought by purchasing these technologies.

Another ineffective attempt at enhancing learning through digital technology are the online databases that school systems provide to students. These databases, such as ProQuest, eLibrary, SIRS products and JSTOR are made available in order to encourage scholarly research, but are blatantly neglected by students who would rather just use Google. I admit that I am one of these recalcitrant youths. As an avid Google user, I find Google Scholar, Books and even search as perfectly suitable means of finding reliable information. According to one of my school's librarians, my school is doling out $15,652 of database subscriptions for this school year alone, and that does not even include the cost of some that are covered by the county.

However, unlike with the Promethean boards, teachers and especially school librarians have been pushing students to make use of the array of subscriptions that our district makes available to us. Most of the in-class projects in subjects such as History and English require us to cite sources found exclusively through these databases -- at least while we're at school. But the minute a project is brought from school to home, do students continue to use these resources without the vigilant watch of a nearby teacher? Definitely not. Once at home, Google reigns supreme. In this case, the technology's downfall isn't a lack of implementation, it's both a lack of discipline and a matter of convenience.

Companies such as ProQuest and SIRS make an admirable effort to scan, transcribe and upload millions of pages of reliable information, and the fact that this is even possible is pretty amazing. But until students willingly utilize these resources, the money spent on these subscriptions is being squandered.

Are these well-intentioned investments being wasted because users do not have the motivation to make the best use of them, or because they are not practical enough to encourage wider use? Maybe they were not needed in the first place.