Classrooms of the Future Are Here, But Results are Not
10.20.11 | The New York Times this week published a story on a well-regarded school district in Munster, Ind., that has, within the space of just a few months, removed all math and science textbooks for students in grades 5 through 12 in favor of using laptops with educational software for instruction.
Alan Schwarz provides an insightful look into the technical hurdles, parental complaints and student response to the move, which cost the district more than $1 million in new infrastructure. Here’s just a small excerpt detailing student access:
It was left to Maureen Stafford, Munster’s director of instructional programs and assessment, to convince skeptical colleagues (some of whom did not want to relearn how to teach) and parents (some of whom did not want their children to be exposed to the online wilderness) that the switch could be made in a matter of months. The town contributed about half of the $1.1 million to build the wireless infrastructure in the district’s three elementary schools, middle school and high school, with district funds covering the rest.
Each student was issued a laptop, with an annual rental fee of $150. The computers are cut off from noneducational Web sites, including social networks. The children are not allowed to use any other computer for their work because, she said, “kids on the south end of town will have Cadillacs and others on the north end will have eBay versions. That’s not equitable.”
Some parents balked at the expense and risk, even though the fee is the same as what the district had long been charging for textbooks, and includes insurance. Then there were the Luddites: one father sent so many nasty e-mails to Ms. Stafford that she reported him to the police for, fittingly, cyber-harassment. (He ceased and desisted.)
“You don’t want your child to have a laptop?” Ms. Stafford said. “What are we going to do? That’s our textbook! There’s nothing else.”
Nationwide, schools spent an estimated $2.2 billion on educational software last year—and the jury is still out on whether money spent on technology measurably increases test scores.
In fact, the Times is running an occasional series, “Grading the Digital School,” that looks at the intersection of education, technology and buisiness as schools embrace digital learning, and recent stories have been more critical. Earlier this month, in “Inflating the Software Report Card,” Trip Gabriel and Matt Richtel wrote:
The federal review of Carnegie Learning’s flagship software, Cognitive Tutor, said the program had “no discernible effects” on the standardized test scores of high school students. A separate 2009 federal look at 10 major software products for teaching algebra as well as elementary and middle school math and reading found that nine of them, including Cognitive Tutor, “did not have statistically significant effects on test scores.”
The first installment, “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores,” Richtel focused on technology-centric classroom in Chandler, Ariz., where students studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” were “bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.”
Some advocates see benefits from from these types of activities and interaction that may not be reflected on standardized tests:
Karen Cator, director of the office of educational technology in the United States Department of Education, said standardized test scores were an inadequate measure of the value of technology in schools. Ms. Cator, a former executive at Apple Computer, said that better measurement tools were needed but, in the meantime, schools knew what students needed.
“In places where we’ve had a large implementing of technology and scores are flat, I see that as great,” she said. “Test scores are the same, but look at all the other things students are doing: learning to use the Internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others.”
In his classroom in Munster, Ind., seventh-grader Patrick Wu says a laptop provides more information: “With a textbook, you can only read what’s on the pages — here you can click on things and watch videos,” said 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.”
Stafford, who is 62, acknowledges it would have been eaiser to stick with textbooks for the next couple of years until her retirement in 2013. But she took on the challenge, inconvenient as it was: “This wasn’t a technology initiative — this was a curriculum initiative,” she said. “The best programs out there needed the technology required to implement it. It was time.”
Plus: Odds are you may have already seen the video “A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work” making the rounds, but if not, it’s drawn both praise and criticism for claiming to show how print becomes irrelevant in a child’s life.
Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new policy statement this week on media usage. Here’s the abstract, full text (pdf) and press release (pdf). The recommendation that parents and caregivers “set media limits for children before age 2” is softer than previous recommendations but may be more realistic considering the number of computer/TV screens and mobile devices children that are exposed to.
The AAP still discourages media use for this age group and notes that there is no education value—even in programming labeled educational—because children this young do not understand the content or context. Sarah will have more on the recommendations and educational media aimed at very young children next week.
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