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Sep 9, 2019

It’s not a given that tech in the classroom improves learning

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While some teachers use tech effectively, it's often as much about their skill as it is about the tech's benefits.

Everyone wants the best education possible for kids. And for a long time, tech has held the promise to revolutionize and improve classroom learning. As school districts have incorporated more devices into their curricula, though, it hasn’t always correlated with gains in learning. In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out falling test scores in Baltimore County, Maryland — a district that jumped into digital. Nationwide, some parents are even pushing back against too much screen time in class.

I spoke with Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who researches how we learn. He said balancing tech’s promise and its realities has been a learning experience of its own. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Daniel Willingham: About 15 or 20 years ago, there was enormous optimism about the use of technology in classrooms because it obviously enabled things that you just can’t do with a typical blackboard alone. Or if kids are working on individual devices, the software can tune its progress to how fast or slow the child is learning. So you should be able to pitch practice to the child that’s at exactly the right level. It sounds a little funny now — in retrospect, we were all naive. Now it’s become plain: You can write bad software for learning and software where kids would be much better off without the technology.

Jed Kim: When it comes to the promise that tech gives, and what it delivers, how do we strike the right balance?

Willingham: This is still in its infancy, and people are working feverishly trying to figure it out. One lens that’s useful to think about is the extent to which tech loses the human interaction element. A lot of times when people were evaluating what technological solutions to learning could do for us, they were really underestimating the human touch of the teacher. They were thinking, “Someone’s sitting in front of the screen, and all they’re doing is absorbing information. So if it’s presenting information, then you’re good to go.”

They were losing sight of the fact that it’s different when you’re learning from a person and you have a relationship with that person. That makes you care a little bit more about what they think, and it makes you a little bit more willing to put forth effort. All that gets lost when you’re just working in front of a computer. People have been thinking more about mixing things up more frequently. And rather than having a 45-minute session in front of a computer, it’s going to be more where the students are bouncing back and forth between an activity or two on the screen, and then they’re going to interact with the teacher again, and then back to the screen, and so forth.

Kim: Is there software that you’ve seen or a tech usage that you think, “They’ve got it figured out, it’s working”?

Willingham: Yes, but not one that I would go on record as saying, “This is fabulous.” I’ve been in classrooms where I’ve seen teachers using technology effectively — frequently, I’ve seen teachers using smart whiteboards effectively. I’ve seen bits of software that seem really engaging. But again, it’s all piecemeal at this point. As a researcher, I’m always looking for consistency. If it doesn’t work in all contexts for all kids, I want to be able to describe which context it works in for which kids, and we’re not there yet for anything.

Kim: What about the flip side of it? Have you seen any software that you thought, “Oh, my God, this is terrible”?

Willingham: Yeah … mostly! A lot of times what it is is the frills, it’s the bells and whistles. It’s basically a fractions worksheet, and it’s got a dancing hamster on it and a little mouse in the bottom with a cowboy hat going, “Yee ha.” There’s plenty of stuff like that that’s not enriching, or interesting, or any different than you could do on paper, except for some trivial bells and whistles.

A boy uses a digital whiteboard during a geometry class on symmetry at the Vande Borne primary school in Jette, Brussels, in 2008. (HERWIG VERGULT/AFP/Getty Images)

Related links: more insight from Jed Kim

By the way, Willingham said the impetus to get tech into classrooms is parents often pressuring districts because they don’t want their kids getting left behind. I just know I’m going to be one of those parents.

A Wall Street Journal story looked at parents rebelling against tech, notably in some Maryland school districts. With so little research showing benefits, many saw harm in the extra screen time. One mother even chose to home-school her kids to keep them away from iPad-focused free time. Interestingly, only 22% of apps for one school district had yet been vetted by teachers and administrators.

Meanwhile, an op-ed in EdTech makes the case for incorporating technology as a part of “blended learning.” The writer said artificial intelligence, virtual reality headsets and augmented reality could make blended learning even more successful. The piece didn’t point to research into benefits of tech but did highlight some schools that appear to have boosted test scores as a result.

In Princeton Alumni Weekly, one student takes on the question of whether laptops are a distraction in the classroom. It reminded me of my East Asian civics class at the University of Chicago, where there was a kid who’d sit in the front row — right in front of the professor — and play “Super Mario” all class long. He probably got a better grade than I did, too.

For a different take on tech in classrooms, let’s travel across the ocean to Nanjing. According to the South China Morning Post, facial recognition cameras have been installed at the China Pharmaceutical University. The aim is to prompt better performance from students. It’ll help instructors track who’s attending, who’s sleeping and who’s paying attention. The program has been piloted in two classrooms and has been criticized for taking images of students without their permission.

The team

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