I have previously expressed my concerns regarding Diane Ravitch’s denigration of the power of digital technologies for learning and teaching. Her blog gives her a very visible online platform and I think that she should be a little more careful with her wording and claims, particularly given her self-professed lack of computer fluency. Although she’s been relatively quiet on the technology front lately, I believe that a couple of her recent posts about digital learning tools are worth responding to…
Tablets are not real computers
Diane labels a post from Red Queen as ‘one of the best posts ever.’ She quotes Red Queen:
We all know this about tablet “computers”: they are not real “working” machines. When I proposed buying a tablet for my student the dude behind the counter told me: “Don’t do it. You’ll have to buy a keyboard, it has way less memory and no ports, a smaller screen and slower speed: it’s just not what a serious student needs. By the time you’re done adding on, you’ll have a machine almost as expensive as a real computer with far less functionality”.
Any parent will have received that advice from just about any computer salesman. And while there are a few serious students out there who no doubt feel otherwise, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that the word on the street is: tablets are no substitute for a computer; students need computers.
Red Queen goes on to say that tablet computers are ‘frivolous electronics‘ and Diane includes that quote too.
Of course this belies actual reality. Tablets and smartphones continue to become both more powerful and more popular with every iteration. It is projected that sometime this year total tablet shipments will begin to surpass total PC shipments. Schools and educators that are using tablets are finding that they are quite robust computing machines, often able to do things easier or better than is possible with the larger, heavier, and often clunkier form factor of a laptop or desktop. While many people still may prefer a more expensive and robust computing device, it is ludicrous to say in September 2014 that an iOS or Android tablet isn’t a ‘real computer’ or that ‘serious students’ only should use laptops or desktops.
Finland and South Korea and Poland don’t have digital technology in their classrooms
In another post, Diane cites excerpts from Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World:
The anecdotal evidence suggests that Americans waste an extraordinary amount of tax money on high-tech toys for teachers and students, most of which have no proven learning value whatsoever. . . . In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms.
Old-school can be good school. Eric’s high school in Busan, South Korea had austere classrooms with bare-bones computer labs. Out front, kids played soccer on a dirt field. From certain angles, the place looked like an American school from the 1950s. Most of Kim’s classrooms in Finland looked the same way: rows of desks in front of a simple chalkboard or an old-fashioned white board, the kind that was not connected to anything but the wall. . . . None of the classrooms in [Tom's] Polish school had interactive white boards.
There are numerous issues with these types of quotes. For instance…
- The unstated assumption that performance on standardized assessments of low-level thinking is how we should judge educational success. I agree that if our goal is better bubble test achievement, we can drill-and-kill kids all day without any technology whatsoever. We’ve had over a century to perfect the numbing of student minds in analog environments. But if we want to prepare students to be empowered learners and doers within current and future information, economic, and learning landscapes, it’s impossible to do that while shunning technology.
- The disparagement of digital technologies as ‘toys.’ Digital tools and environments are transforming everything around us in substantive, transformative, and disruptive ways. They are not mere toys unless we choose to only use them in that way. It’s a sad indictment of us as educators and communities that it is taking us so long to awaken to the educational possibilities of learning technologies and the Internet.
- The equation of interactive white boards (and, in a later quote, student response systems) as the sum and substance of educational technology. Those of us who decry such replicative technologies agree that those are insufficiently empowering of students and thus unlikely to make much of an impact. But putting powerful digital tools into the hands of students that let them create, make, connect, collaborate, and make an impact, both locally and globally? That’s a different story. We need a different vision, one in which we don’t merely use digital technologies – and rows of desks in tight formation – to broadcast to students while they sit passively and watch or listen. And we need to stop pointing at those lackluster wastes of learning power and saying, “See? Told you technology doesn’t make a difference.”
- The nostalgic yearning for the simple classrooms and schools of yesteryear, uncomplicated by modern learning tools (or, apparently, grass in the schoolyard). Ah, yes, remember when life (supposedly) wasn’t so complicated? Does anyone really want to return to 1950s beliefs and worldviews about learning and society? And if they do, what disservice do we do our youth when we prepare them for 60 years ago rather than now and tomorrow?
So, to sum up, so far Diane appears to be against online learning and digital educational games and simulations, and she shares posts that are against tablet computers or paint all technologies as disruptive and distracting. And that’s dangerous because people listen to her. She and many of her fans seem to ignore the fact that it’s awfully difficult to prepare students for success in a digital, global world without giving them access to digital technologies and Internet access. Railing against computer expenditures and Internet connectivity for our children is irresponsible, especially when those funds come from different sources and thus can’t be spent on teachers, support staff, professional development, or educational programming.
Now, to give Diane some credit, there are a few concerns raised in these posts that are worth noting:
- It’s a reasonable question to ask whether school equipment and construction funds would be better spent on upgrading facilities or purchasing computers for students, particularly given the time horizons of both construction bonds and technology obsolescence. That’s a difficult decision and I’m glad that I don’t have to make it at the scale that the L.A. Unified school district does.
- I, too, have grave misgivings about the Amplify tablets that are being used in Guilford County, North Carolina, but not just because they’re tablets.
- When Andreas Schleicher from OECD is quoted as saying that ‘people always matter than props,’ of course that is dead on. The success or failure of learning technologies in schools always will depend more on us as educators than on the tools themselves.
- Diane quotes Carlo Rotella, who says that “if everyone agrees that good teachers make all the difference, wouldn’t it make more sense to devote our resources to strengthening the teaching profession with better recruitment, training, support and pay? It seems misguided to try to improve the process of learning by putting an expensive tool in the hands of teachers we otherwise treat like the poor relations of the high-tech whiz kids who design the tool. . . . Are our overwhelmed, besieged, haphazardly recruited, variably trained, underpaid, not-so-elite teachers, in fact, the potential weak link in Amplify’s bid to disrupt American schooling?” Leaving aside the false dichotomy of ‘we can strengthen the teaching profession or we can give students computers but not both,’ this is a pretty insightful statement. As I noted in an earlier post, we have an appalling lack of technology support and training for our educators. We have to stop pretending that if we insert computers into the learning-teaching process that magic will happen and start doing a much better job of helping educators empower students with potentially-transformative digital tools.
These concerns, however, are more specific and nuanced and aren’t painted with an extremely broad anti-technology brush. If Diane typically discussed learning technologies in thoughtful and careful ways like these, I’d have much less concern. Loyal readers here know that I myself often express misgivings about ineffective technology integration and implementation in schools. But to say that there’s no educational worth whatsoever in online learning, educational simulations, tablet computers, or whatever Diane rants against next is patently false.
Whether we like it or not, digital technologies in education are here to stay. As I said in my earlier post,
the issue is not – as [Diane] seems to believe – that [digital tools] never have any value. The issues are 1) Under what circumstances do these new learning tools and spaces have value?, and 2) How do we create learning and policy environments in which that value is most likely to be realized?
I’ll keep wishing that Diane one day recognizes this. I’ll also keep wishing that Diane one day recognizes the irony (hypocrisy?) of decrying students’ use of digital technologies while simultaneously employing those tools herself to great effect to further her goals and increase her visibility.