The Real Cost of Classroom Technology

The headline in the December 12, 2012 edition of The Calgary Herald reports “Alberta’s Grade 4 reading scores stumble in international test“. While embarrassing for some officials, the headlines belie the fact that this meager decline, a barely noticeable 0.3%, is really only notable if we look at rankings: We use to be first in Canada, now we are on the heels of British Columbia and Ontario. If you consider we are still in very good company worldwide, 12th overall and not far behind Hong Kong, the academically strongest region in the world, perhaps we can forgive our slight drop from 2006.

While the dip in reading is not in itself a problem, aside from hurt competitive pride, it is an indicator or symptom of something else that is likely to become a real monster over time.

The article refers to one teaching expert who argues the cause is likely increasingly “complex Alberta classrooms, with greater numbers of special needs students and pupils learning to speak English”, but there is no reference to the fact that classroom demographics have not significantly changed in the last 6 years, nor have student learning needs.

Jim Dueck, former assistant deputy minister in charge of assessment, is quoted saying “Alberta has always been the top in Canada and very close to the top in the rest of the world… Ramped up spending on education over the past decade has failed to deliver better results…” This is getting closer to the real issue. He continues, “The problem … is small class size has been overemphasized, while attention to accountability and assessment has declined.” While this last statement inadvertently and incorrectly suggests small class sizes are not important, it does reveal that attention to monitoring outcomes has declined. This during a period of record investment in classroom-based computer technology.

Other than ensuring good health and physical readiness for classroom learning, the single best investment in a child’s education is in time with a creative, competent, and knowledgeable teacher.

We have seen a steady movement away from traditional means of instruction, and increased reliance on and use of computers. This has been in parallel with the continued intrusion of computers in our home lives, especially with the highly distracting influences of small devices and social media. Our children might well be the unwitting academic victims of our relative prosperity.

Other than ensuring good health and physical readiness for classroom learning, the single best investment in a child’s education is in time with a creative, competent, and knowledgeable teacher. Mainstream Alberta schools have a long history of high standards for teachers and great academic outcomes nationally and worldwide. This combined with excellent curriculum means that we can rest assured that our graduates are well prepared to support a healthy and strong society down the road.

Meanwhile, the province’s teachers and government are at again at loggerheads regarding contract negotiations. As always, there never seems to be enough money to go around. It makes perfect sense, then, to invest our money (my money, your money) in areas that bear fruit in measurable ways, not simply based on assumptions of what is worth while. As a teacher/technology expert, I could never drive the lessons of chemistry home virtually quite as effectively as through a little flash, pop, and fizz in the real world, but this all takes time and support. Teaching in any context is challenging, and anything that distracts from time in preparation and delivery of effective lessons should be strongly questioned. In short, we need to invest more in teachers than in tech, more in reality-based learning strategies and less in virtual means.

The GatewayGazette.ca (December 22, 2012) reports from the Foothills School Division’s board meeting December 19, 2012 where a Learning Technology Review report provided “a very in depth study of the current position of technology in our schools. It also focused on where the Board and Division should go from here.” One student is quoted as saying, “We are headed into a technology-based era and if we don’t learn how to use technology in everyday life, then how are we going to live in the technology era?”

We love our computers, euphemistically and collectively referred to as ‘technology’, to the extent that if a classroom is without a SmartBoard or iPads, we feel our children are surely to be left behind. Schools feel parents’ anxieties will be assuaged if they can see what plug-able or battery-operated toys are employed in the classrooms.

…there is no evidence to show that increases in computer spending in schools actually leads to improved outcomes… the reverse might well be true.

Regardless of the rationale, there is no evidence to show that increases in computer spending in schools actually leads to improved outcomes. As the results of recent reading score would indicate, the reverse might well be true. There is plenty of evidence to show that children who learn more through computer displays than through physical play and interaction are not only worse off academically, but they also suffer more medical concerns including behavior issues. Furthermore, the increasing reliance on computer displays for reading and writing widens the proverbial cracks in the system for those children who are already struggling with difficult vision.

In both the Herald and Gazette articles, the one element that is glaringly absent is the failure to report on the cost-benefit analysis of our addiction to next wave tech. For all the money spent on new toys, interactive projection systems, software and hardware upgrades, we simply have no indication that this is leading anywhere positive. The latest numbers combined with the fundamentals of learning principles would suggest the overemphasis on ‘technology’ is walking us down the garden path, both fiscally and academically.

We are infatuated with computer technology, but this love affair is blinding us to the real costs – not that the current cost tallies are not high enough already. It would at the very least be nice to see some sort of positive return on investment for the increasing reliance on and costs of computers in schools. We could adopt the view that the current negative return on investment in technology is worthwhile because, as the hopeful student said ‘… if we don’t use technology in everyday life, then how are we going to live in the technology era?’. While hopeful and fully supportive of school-based technology, the statement is fallacious on several counts. Not the least of which include:

  • We have been living in a ‘technology era’ for some time, and children are most often the first to adopt and implement new commercial technology, in spite of the status of technology in schools.
  • The computer technology implemented today in schools does nothing to prepare for industrial and commercial applications of 10 – or 20 years hence. In a sense, it is rather wasteful to approach things this way.
  • Employers generally provide training for their technical infrastructure.
  • The only relevant computer technology that students need to learn to maintain a position in a ‘technology era’ is that which is taught in technical schools and universities, and this curriculum is constantly updated – there is no need for this training in primary school.
  • There is NO technology that is required for elementary education success, that is, nothing you need to plug in.

There ARE better ways to teach, but in terms of child developmental needs, computer technology will be not be on the short list at the Elementary level. In a Province where 1/5 children in mainstream schools and 1/3 kids in reserve schools struggle with basic vision needs, it would be nice to see some of the money wasted on shiny gadgetry channeled into solutions that actually work, starting with the basics of physical needs. In the US, it has been shown that simply attending to vision care alone raises learning outcomes across the population by 5-7% within 7 years.

We, as a Province, are in the business of teaching our children to support our communities down the road. We have every right, as business owners, to expect the money spent on our behalf is well used and invested in ways that can be proven to yield positive outcomes. We cannot and should not rely on an elementary analysis of ‘why’ we need to invest further in computer tech, and look at research and clinical knowledge of ‘what’ really works.  Our children are real and not virtual, and the way they learn has not changed in thousands of years.

Our children are real and not virtual, and the way they learn has not changed in thousands of years.

It is a mistake to think that computers can and will provide the necessary foundation to learning that real world experiences provide. We must let teachers be teachers and return to effective learning strategies and student support, not simply some virtual simulation of it – at least until Junior High when children have a strong foundation in language. The real irony is that more effective solutions require no batteries or power, and show clear positive outcomes: Our history of education excellence over the last century proves this.

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