The United States has slid to "average" ranking in the new K-12 international assessment administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Results of this news are predictable. There will be a call for 'more rigorous' teaching, for 'higher standards,' for better resources, and a rush for quick-fix solutions.
An inevitable response will advocate increased technology in the schools to upgrade teaching and increase student learning. The Common Core Standards and Race to the Top are pushing this as essential. The belief among many is that it can ramp up student learning, provide the competitive edge students need for the international marketplace, and raise test scores. Some technology can, indeed, enhance learning experiences, and empower students, but looking to the digital world as a magic cure for schools does not work.
Effective use of technology is not that simple. Increasing its use in order to improve education has been popular since the 1980's when every school in California received free Apple2e computers. I was an elementary school teacher at the time and became the 'computer expert' in my school because I subscribed to a computer magazine for educators and knew that the on/off switch was in the back of the computer. One thing I learned, as I organized the sharing of one computer among several classrooms, was that even when teachers used computers at home, it was not obvious how to make use of them as teaching tools. How to integrate that one computer into their packed teaching days was a puzzle. And for those with little or no experience, the reality of learning to navigate a new technology while teaching five or so subjects a day meant inertia took over. More often than not the computers sat unused.
Times have changed. Computers are more integrated into classrooms. Teachers have taken courses and learned to use applications. It is common to see children taking their turns on a few classroom computers to learn targeted skills. But that's it. The disconnect between substantive student learning and computer technology is large. Most teachers did not grow up with computers integrated into their lives. Even those who are fluent technology learners at home have difficulty turning their knowledge into productive student learning. Studies recently reported at a Literacy Research Association conference in Fort Worth show time and again that if technology is going to be more than a disconnected add-on for remediation or word-processing, thoughtful planning and support are essential. Teachers need time to learn how to integrate it into their teaching.
Teachers need both substantive professional development about the possibilities of technology and they need an on-going opportunity to assess and improve what it is accomplishing in their classrooms. Researchers from England, Ireland, and the United States, who spend many hours in K-12 classrooms, stress the need for teachers to have time to collaborate with each other and develop the new strategies that will enable students to make effective use of programs and techniques. One study found, for instance, that although students are savvy about social media use such as text-messaging, their knowledge does not transfer to classrooms. Teachers needed to take these 21st century students step-by-step through how to craft well-supported papers using computer applications and multiple information sources. They needed to teach them how to find in-depth material on the Internet and assess its reliability. They needed to help them navigate the vast amount of information available to them, learning how to select what is reliable and appropriate for their topic. None of that came with the students' social media facility.
This takes time in class and time for teachers to learn how to do it well. If computers are to be used for more than skill practice, remediation, or entertainment, there needs to be substantial and on-going professional development to this end.
In addition, it is essential to find means for tech support. Too often district administrators spend quantities of money so classrooms have computers, but provide no follow up for teacher support. One school delivered laptops to all the teachers, but had no means for projecting material onto screens so students could benefit and no Internet connections. Another proudly provided teachers laptops, but would not allow them to take them home or work at the school on weekends so they could generate lesson plans that included computer use. The support structures necessary -- Internet accessibility, maintaining access, troubleshooting software glitches, and more -- are also low on the list of district priorities, often leaving teachers with inoperative computers for weeks at a time.
Much too often the view is that having the computers or learning programs delivered to the classroom is enough. Why they are there and how they can be successfully integrated into classroom learning is ignored. Learning can be enhanced considerably through technology, but purchasing hardware and software are only the first step.
There are no magic bullets in teaching, including in the use of technology. Without supporting the teachers in substantive and long-term ways, expensive computers will be relegated to simplistic tasks.