The Value and Limits of Technology

Kentaro Toyamo worked briefly as a tutor at the Lakeside Academy in Seattle, which is richly endowed with technology. He observed that what students needed most was adult guidance.

In this article, he discusses both the value and limits of educational technology. It may be used for education or for distraction.

But there are some systemic problems that technology can’t fix. Like inequality.

He writes:

In America, much of our collective handwringing about education comes from comparisons with other countries. In the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American students ranked twenty-seventh in math and seventeenth in reading. But while the United States as a whole may be losing its competitive edge, stronger students aren’t sliding. At the annual International Math Olympiads, for example, where countries send their six best precollege mathematicians to solve problems that make SAT questions seem like 1+1, the United States regularly places in the top three.

“But as data from PISA show, high-scoring countries emphasize high-quality education for everyone, not just the elite. America, unfortunately, does poorly here when compared against thirty-three of the world’s wealthiest countries. We have the third-lowest school enrollment rate for fifteen-year-olds (nearly 20 percent of our kids are not in school!), and we’re ninth worst in educational disparity—scores vary particularly widely between well-off students and low-income ones. We all know that our schools are unequal. Less acknowledged is that this inequality is responsible for our lack of global competitiveness.

If educational inequality is the main issue, then no amount of digital technology will turn things around. This is perhaps the least-understood corollary of technological amplification. At a talk Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave at the South by Southwest conference, he pressed the case for more technology in education (mentioning “technology” forty-three times, and “teachers” only twenty-five). He claimed, “Technology can level the playing field instead of tilting it against low-income, minority and rural students—who may not have laptops and iPhones at home.” But this is wishful thinking; it’s misleading and misguided. Technology amplifies preexisting differences in wealth and achievement. Children with greater vocabularies get more out of Wikipedia. Students with behavioral challenges are more distracted by video games. Rich parents will pay for tutors so that their children can learn to program the devices that others merely learn to use. Technology at school may level the playing field of access, but a level field does nothing to improve the skill of the players, which is the whole point of education. Mark Warschauer, a professor at University of California, Irvine, and one of the foremost scholars in the field of educational technology finds that “the introduction of information and communication technologies in … schools serves to amplify existing forms of inequality.”

How many times have you heard Secretary Duncan say the word “inequality”? He has often said the opposite–that poverty can be overcome by “no excuses” charter schools, pointing to schools with high graduation rates and high attrition rates (“same school, same students, different results”). How’s that theory working out?


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