Technology Is Not a Cure-All Solution to Education’s Problems

Giving every student a laptop won’t close the achievement gap. Careful policymaking to make sure the tools are used to improve learning might.
March 2011
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter ignited controversy last year by winning approval of a sweeping plan to boost technology in schools across the state. The Students Come First initiative, backed by Otter and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, aims to increase the number of online courses taken by high school students, as well as provide a 1:1 computer-to-student ratio for all high school students in the state.

State officials say the initiative ensures that Idaho students are learning in 21st-century classrooms. Earlier this year, Luna told The New York Times that the state envisions the classroom teacher becoming less of a lecturer and more of “the guide and the coach and the educator in the room helping students move at their own pace.”

But critics, including teachers who picketed the state Capitol last year when the legislation was under consideration, contend that lawmakers pushed through the reforms without teacher input or proper training. (Some of them also were unhappy about a pay-for-performance system and other changes enacted by related legislation.) Opponents have qualified a referendum to repeal the measure on the November ballot.

Idaho’s classroom technology plan may be among the nation’s most comprehensive, but schools everywhere are grappling with the issue. And regardless of how things shake out in Idaho, more change is on the way.

“The horse is out of the barn,” says researcher Tracy Gray, pointing to data that shows online courses are now available in 48 of the 50 states. Gray, who is managing director of the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit that studies effectiveness and performance in education, says schools have been quick to roll out online courses, but slower to evaluate how well they’re working.

Delivering more educational content to students electronically -- via online courses or by blending online material into face-to-face classes -- surely is the future. It’s a cost-effective way for cash-strapped school districts to expand course content, especially in advanced or specialized subjects. Digital material also may prove to be more engaging to a student population that has grown up online.

But it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. As policymakers move in this direction, they need a better understanding of how to tailor online learning to a broad range of kids -- from high achievers to struggling or unmotivated students. “There’s a difference between really integrating the technology tools and enhancing instruction, and just replacing teachers by putting kids in online classes,” Gray says. “For whom does this work and under what conditions -- those are really the $64,000 questions.”

To answer those questions, schools will need to be extremely careful about monitoring student progress and outcomes as they adopt technology initiatives. They’ll also need to confront issues like professional development for teachers, bandwidth for delivering digital course material to students and technical support to keep these initiatives running.

Idaho, Gray says, is doing a good job of addressing these issues. “I think they have attempted to go about this in a very thoughtful and deliberate way.”

A thoughtful approach is what’s needed. Like most “technology” initiatives, online learning isn’t really about laptops or tablet computers. It’s about using these tools to create new learning models that improve education. Yes, moving more technology into classrooms is crucial to the nation’s future. But the devil, of course, is in the details.