kitchen table math, the sequel: Is the Pope Jewish, II: classroom technology and the children of technocrats

Monday, October 24, 2011

Is the Pope Jewish, II: classroom technology and the children of technocrats

In a post I wrote just two weeks ago, I discussed two New York Times articles about the failure of technology in the classroom to raise test scores in Arizona, and the failure of one of the most acclaimed educational technologies, Cognitive Tutor, to raise test scores in general. I concluded by asking:
Will these recent exposés about the limitations of educational technology for subjects other than computer science have any effect whatsoever on the edtech bandwagon?...We might as well ask whether the Pope is Jewish.
Sure enough, just one week later (last Wednesday), yet another NY Times article on online education appears, this one discussing how the Munster Indiana school district has jumped on the bandwagon:
Laura Norman used to ask her seventh-grade scientists to take out their textbooks and flip to Page Such-and-Such. Now, she tells them to take out their laptops.

The day all have seen coming — traditional textbooks being replaced by interactive computer programs — arrived this year in this traditional, well-regarded school district.
Munster's technological revolution was particularly sudden:
Unlike the tentative, incremental steps of digital initiatives at many schools nationwide, Munster made an all-in leap in a few frenetic months — removing all math and science textbooks for its 2,600 students in grades 5 to 12, and providing a window into the hurdles and hiccups of such an overhaul.
But Munster isn't the first to go digital:
Schools in Mooresville, N.C., for example, started moving away from printed textbooks four years ago, and now 90 percent of their curriculum is online.
Munster’s is part of a new wave of digital overhauls in the two dozen states that have historically required schools to choose textbooks from government-approved lists. Florida, Louisiana, Utah and West Virginia approved multimedia textbooks for the first time for the 2011-12 school year, and Indiana went so far as to scrap its textbook-approval process altogether, partly because, officials said, the definition of a textbook will only continue to fracture.
The cost? Munster has paid $1.1 million for infrastructure while parents pay an annual $150 rental fee for laptops, Schools in general: are "spending an estimated $2.2 billion on educational software."

The benefits? No efficacy data is cited, of course. Students, to some extent, get to work at their own rates. And then there's this:
Angela Bartolomeo’s sixth graders spent a recent Wednesday rearranging terms of equations on an interactive Smart Board and dragging-and-dropping answers in ways that chalkboards never could. (In between, a cartoon character exclaimed that “Multiplying by 1 does not change the value of a number!” in his best superhero baritone.)
And this:
Ms. Norman, the seventh-grade science teacher, is using material from Discovery Education, which on that Wednesday included videos from Discovery’s “Mythbuster” series (commercial-free), an interactive glossary and other eye candy to help students investigate whether cellphones cause cancer. When Ms. Norman told the students to take out their ear buds to watch a video, two in the back yelped, “Cool!”
And this:
“With a textbook, you can only read what’s on the pages — here you can click on things and watch videos,” said Patrick Wu, a seventh grader. “It’s more fun to use a keyboard than a pencil. And my grades are better because I’m focusing more.”
Whether students are focusing on the right things is another matter. And wouldn't it be nice if there were explanations, rather than exclamations, regarding what happens when you multiply a number by 1? The basic problem with computerized instruction, as I noted earlier, is that it almost never provides perspicuous feedback. Answers are either right, or wrong, and that's it.

Perhaps no one knows the limitations of computer software better than computer software experts. Where are these people sending their kids to school?  An article in this weekend's New York Times provides a glimpse. Focusing on Silicon valley, it describes how the chief technology officer of eBay, along with "employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard," are sending their children to the area's Waldorf school:
The school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.
Noting that "three-quarters of the students here have parents with a strong high-tech connection," the Times observes:
Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy, where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix.
The article quotes Waldorf parent Alan Eagle, who "holds a computer science degree from Dartmouth and works in executive communications at Google, where he has written speeches for the chairman," and who "uses an iPad and a smartphone:"
“I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school... The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.”
Of course, there is one particular way in which computers could be highly effective teaching tools: for instruction in computer programming. But has there has been a rise, or a decline, in computer programming instruction in the decades since schools began jumping on the edtech bandwagon? We might as well ask whether the pope is Jewish.

(Cross-posted at Out In Left Field)


Bonnie said...

There has been a dramatic decline in the number of schools teaching programming. I can get you statistics. It is really horrifying. I actually believe that programming should be introduced, via Scratch or Alice, to middle school kids. My 11 and 9 year olds are quite proficient already.

What needs to be done away with - "technology" classes that teach Powerpoint. And computers in preschool. There is nothing a kid is going to learn from a computer at that age.

I am generally sympathetic to the high tech parents choosing Waldorf, although I disagree with the late introduction of reading. I would personally prefer a Montessori type school for my kids. Some of the larger districts have public Montessori schools, but our district is way too small.

Jen said...

Agree -- most of Waldorf is appealing, except for their reading stance. Fine for most kids, but if a kid is going to have a problem with reading, it's very late by the time they figure it out.

Some sort of Waldorf/Montessori/teach to mastery mash-up would be grand.

Katharine Beals said...

I'd love statistics on the decline of programming instruction. Can you link to some here?

Glen said...

We don't teach writing to prepare kids for careers as scribes. We don't put math in such a privileged position in education to prepare kids for jobs as mathematicians.

I teach programming and other computer dev skills (spreadsheet modeling, database use, etc.) to my own kids as the fourth "R", not to prepare them for careers as programmers, but to expand their power to think, understand, and make use of information.

It would be very short-sighted of schools to reduce their teaching of programming in an era where more and more computer power and information is becoming available to those who know how to make use of it. Those who can't make use of it will be lucky if they can work for those who can, because those who can will increasingly employ more computers and fewer people.

Bonnie, I'd be interested in those statistics you mentioned if it's not too much trouble.

Anne Dwyer said...


Do you have the link to the study on Cognitive Tutor? I would really like to read it.

Anne Dwyer

Katharine Beals said...


I don't have a direct link to the study, which was done by the What Works Clearing House, but the Times Article that references it is at:;sq=carnegie%20learning%20cognitive%20tutor&%2359;st=cse