Technology in Schools: Not a One-Time Fix

Published December 23, 2011

Critics from right and left have jumped on the “education-industrial complex” for promising quantum leaps in national academic achievement if schools (and taxpayers) just “invest” in shiny new tech gadgets. This is one of several (minor) topics on which teacher unions and many conservatives agree.

Of course, simply handing a computer to an unmotivated learner or hungry child from a broken home will do nothing for her intellect. An Arizona school district that has spent $33 million on computer technology but seen no boost in student test scores is one of many with such experiences. Several studies demonstrate that, as “just add water” doesn’t automatically produce the best mac ‘n’ cheese, “just add technology” doesn’t automatically create the best learning environment.

But most of these critics and their challengers highlight the least important parts of education technology and nearly ignore the most important promise it offers for benefitting students. The promise of education technology lies not in outfitting every student or teacher with an iPad or spreading graphically intense video curriculum. It lies in technology’s ability to push aside many of the nation’s inefficient and dysfunctional education structures.

Technology does this primarily in three ways: by allowing personalization and flexibility, expanding options for poor and high-risk students, and reducing labor costs.

It’s easy to understand how incorporating technology allows personalized instruction–just think of how mp3 players individualized radio. Khan Academy’s math tutorials are a good example of this, as they move students through concepts at the student’s pace, testing frequently and automatically assigning more work on weak spots and less on already-mastered material. Good teachers attempt the same, but software is often more accurate and doesn’t get tired or stuck repeatedly using class time on the three worst students.

Technology can fit into any schedule and accommodate students’ limitations, working well for kids with serious illnesses or those engaging in high levels of sport or music performance. It allows rural students to take a class their school can’t offer because it costs too much to hire one teacher for three students, and it can enable students to do college work (and even gain college credit) in high school.

Technology can bring these benefits to the neediest students by offering them great instruction they wouldn’t otherwise receive and at low cost. Inner-city and largely low-income schools often can’t hire the best teachers away from more comfortable suburban and private schools. But they could take advantage of online and technology-blended options to tap into great teachers who live far away, thus spreading these teachers’ reach to disadvantaged classrooms and giving on-site teachers more time to spend one-on-one with targeted instruction.

Finally–and especially important when governments and taxpayers are broke–technology greatly reduces labor costs. Education and health care are currently the driving forces of the U.S. labor market and are highly inefficient, as Nick Schulz and Arnold Kling documented in National Affairs. A central reason for this weakness is that both are deeply labor-intense and difficult to streamline or outsource.

That doesn’t have to be so in education, at least. Although it’s highly unlikely and undesirable to axe teachers in favor of software and video lectures, such tools do reduce the need for so many mediocre teachers by allowing the best teachers to teach more kids.

Technology isn’t perfect, and it isn’t everything. Using it as a powerful, transformative tool instead of plunking it atop existing structures, however, means lower costs for taxpayers and a better education for more children.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.