Murdoch’s tablet ambitions for U.S. classrooms in spotlight

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The current edition of the New York Times Magazine features a lengthy story about the mass adoption of tablet devices in education.

It focuses on Amplify, Rupert Murdoch‘s for-profit technological education company led by Joel Klein, the former head of New York City’s public schools, and its first paying company, the Guilford County, N.C., school district. All students and teachers in the 18 Greensboro-area middle schools, 15,450 people, are being handed tablet computers for lessons, homework and educational games.

“I don’t want this thing to take over my classroom,” a veteran social-studies teacher says at the story’s outset — an apt beginning for an article that depicts the advent of classroom technology as a struggle between traditional teaching and the attention-grabbing inducements of digital gadgets.

Our non-profit, Innovations for Learning, believes this is a false dichotomy.

“Good teachers and good technology are not mutually exclusive — in fact, just the opposite,” says Seth Weinberger, Innovations’ founder and executive director:

You don’t spend all of your money training an army but then fail to equip them with the most modern weaponry.  Like just about anything else, a good system requires good teachers, good training, good methods, good tools, good content, good management support, etc.

The author of the Times’ piece does a great disservice by pitting one element of a good system against another.

And by focusing just on Amplify, the big gorilla in the room, the author fails to take notice of organizations like ours who have been doing R&D for 20 years on how to integrate technology in the teaching system in ways that best leverage the teachers.

Even with those caveats, the story by Carlo Rotella, Boston College’s director of American studies, is well worth reading, primarily for the close-up scenes of sometimes-baffled teachers being trained on the devices and for Joel Klein’s blandly confident answers whenever he’s asked a troubling question about the profit or privacy impacts of Amplify on public education.

Rotella worries that face-to-face teaching will become marginalized if technology blankets classrooms.  “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?” he asks.

But technology has a powerful role to play — and as Innovations has shown, it can make teachers more effective. Perhaps the best perspective in the article is provided by Greg Anrig, vice president of policy and programs at the Century Foundation. As Rotella writes:

The research on successful schools and good teaching, [Anrig] said, highlights the importance of relationships among the people in a school: administrators and teachers and students.

“None of these studies identify technology as decisive.”

Where technology makes a difference, it tends to do so in places with a strong organization dedicated to improving teaching and where students closely engage with teachers and with each other.

“A device that enhances such interactions is good,” Anrig said. “But kids focused on the device, isolated, cuts into that.”

Photo via Flickr / Brad Flickinger
Post by Howard Goodman

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