Let’s Get Smart About Classroom Technology

Published July 19, 2016

Online retail giant Amazon established itself more firmly in the education technology market this week by introducing Amazon Inspire, an online resource that will offer teachers and students free instructional materials. Amazon Inspire is set to launch in the fall, just in time for the upcoming school year.

The debate over whether the use of technology in U.S. classrooms advances student achievement or hinders it is a persistent one. Tech supporters contend the virtual world offers nearly limitless opportunities for students to learn in ways the physical world can’t. Proponents of “old-fashioned” learning, on the other hand, say there are advantages to the traditional system that technology can never replace.

Amazon’s online platform sounds promising. It’s a way for fellow teachers to share lesson plans, learning tools, and materials, which will be helpful considering, as TechCrunch reports, “Amazon estimates that teachers spend around 12 hours a week looking for course materials.”

Is it just me, or does 12 hours seem like a lot of time? Teachers put in long hours as it is preparing for classes, creating assessments, grading assignments, and often helping with extra-curricular activities as well.

With such an abundance of classical literature and brilliant human thought to explore, you’d think “looking for course materials” would be the least of a teacher’s worries in the modern, tech-savvy world. Many teachers probably spend as much time searching for online materials and learning how to use ever-evolving technology as they do using it to teach. Research by Virgin Media Business, released in 2015, found only 15 percent of teachers are confident using technology, despite a large majority using technology in most of their lessons. How much time is spent training and retraining qualified teachers to use a computer to do their job for them?

And let’s not forget the time and money spent to install, upgrade, and repair these technological tools. School districts feel pressured to supply students with the flashiest, most state-of-the-art equipment, because the more money you spend on students, the more you care about them, right?  Tech companies — which, according to the New York Times, receive “more than $8.3 billion annually on educational software and digital content” — approve of this logic. But last time I checked, the $6.85 Penguin paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice didn’t require a complete system reboot.

My sister Rebecca, a teacher in New Jersey, experiences what many fellow teachers complain of: technology distracting students. According to CampusTechnology, a study published in the Journal of Media Education earlier in 2016 found research shows “students spend a fifth of their time in class doing things on their devices that have nothing to do with their school work.”

My sister outlawed her students’ laptops, because, as surprising as it sounds, teenage girls tend to be more interested in online shopping, checking social media, and instant messaging each other on their tech devices than they are in declining Latin nouns on a blackboard. Imagine!

Teachers aren’t the only ones burdened by a tech-heavy classroom. Students aren’t learning as well as they used to. Many studies have found traditional methods of learning — with pen, paper, and textbook — improve students’ cognitive abilities.

Scientific American reported on a 2014 study that found students “who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who took notes with their laptops.” The authors of the study, which is titled “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard,” found because students who are taking notes by hand can’t possibly write down every word of a lecture, they “instead … listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.” Taking notes by hand, the article says, “forces the brain to engage in some heavy ‘mental lifting,’ and these efforts foster comprehension and retention. Students who type their notes can do so very quickly, without processing what the words mean.”

Many other studies have also found “old-school” methods of learning, such as writing things down by hand and drilling kids in math facts, are better for retaining knowledge, memorization, and developing motor skills.

The allure of technology in teaching children is understandable. Technology is entertaining. Like a video game, there are moving pictures, interesting sounds, and fun colors. It gets a kid’s attention, but what holds it? A 2012 Pew Research study found 87 percent of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers thought the Internet and digital search tools created an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”

Let’s also consider students’ abilities, or lack thereof, to look outside of a screen and be stirred with a healthy curiosity about humanity and the world around them. A well-rounded education should encourage inquisitive minds to use their brains rather than rely on a personal digital assistant to find answers. There will be times when the GPS won’t work, “autocorrect” won’t know how to spell a word, and nothing but good, old-fashioned problem-solving skills will do.

Technology in itself is not bad. It’s an exciting and valuable instrument that allows us to do amazing things. But when it comes to educating young people, it should be considered a supplementary tool used to enhance the learning experience and reinforce traditional teaching, not replace it.

[Originally published at the American Spectator]