A Balanced Examination of the Controversy Over Technology in Education

From 1981 to 1991, the percentage of schools with computers increased by over 400%. In that same time period, the use of computers for instructional purposes increased by an even greater amount, and the ratio of students to computers dropped from 125:1 to 18:1 (Cuban 186). Since the popularization of the personal computer in the early 1980s, there has been a push by lawmakers, administrators, and the general public to introduce more and more technology into the classroom faster and faster. Less commonly remarked on is the trend of some educators to resist the implementation of all this technology: “Although the economic and political forces that drive technology into the classroom appear to be an overriding trend, there is a concurrent trend to not let technology drive educational needs” (Goddard 22). In fact, in 1999 only 33% of public school teachers felt that they were well prepared to use computers and the internet (“Public School Teachers’ Use of Computers” tbl. 39-4). So how do we find a balance between the effective use of technological innovation and the preservation of traditional educational forms and goals in order to provide the best possible education for our children?

Both sides have the best interest of our children at heart, and considering that motive, it seems wise to examine the thought processes and worldviews of both sides. Since technology is already a fact of life in many educational settings, a good starting point may be an examination of the reasons for the adoption of technology in schools and the benefits that the increased use of technology offers to students and the educational system. These reasons and benefits fall into three categories: increasing workplace preparation, enhancing traditional education, and overcoming the challenges of special needs students, both those with learning disabilities, and those with economic disadvantages.

One of the first facts pointed out by proponents of increasing the technological factors in our schools is the trend outside the educational system to increase the level of technology, from homes to businesses to government. As our society becomes more and more technical in its social, business, and political functions, computers and technology become an increasingly important factor in the success or failure of students after matriculation. Gernot Böhme even suggests that computer literacy represents a fourth cultural competence in addition to the traditional 3 R’s of reading, writing, and arithmetic:

Internet competence is a prerequisite for practicing an increasing number of professions. It looks as if it will not be long before one will no longer be competent to take part in social life if one has not mastered the use of computers, just as up to now a competent participation in social life was not possible without the ability to read, write and do arithmetic. (203)

According to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey of 1997, 49.8% of all workers use computers on the job, and that number goes up to the 70% range when the field is limited to executive, managerial, professional, and technical jobs–the ones with the highest salary potentials (“Percent of Workers” table 426).

With computers taking such an increased role in every aspect of post-educational life, administrators are concerned that the educational system may fail to adequately prepare our young people for the world of business, sending them off into the computer savvy business world without even a modicum of computer training. They would argue that computers are needed in our schools not just as a supplement to traditional teaching methods and traditional subjects, but also as an object of training in and of themselves: “the computer is not currently perceived simply as an aid to acquiring other knowledge content more quickly, easily, or enjoyably” although that is the case “but is perceived as an area of instruction in its own right” (Böhme 204).

But this is not the only reason for the importance of increasing the computerization of our schools. Yu-Mei Wang notes the value of increased technology use in previously traditional classroom settings and subjects: “Computers facilitated more independent learning. Students assisted each other in completing the learning task and solving problems collaboratively, often with their teachers as partners” (151). In other words, the proper application of computers and other technologies can help to shift the education process from a teacher-centered approach to a more constructivist, student-centered approach. While constructivism itself is not a new concept, tracing its lineage to the ideas of psychologist Jean Piaget, it has been increasingly recognized by professional organizations, administrators, and educators that “although constructivism is a philosophy of learning, not teaching, understanding [and applying] constructivist learning can make us more effective teachers” (Inch 111). Goddard agrees, commenting, “An educator who combines technology with engagement can create an atmosphere of student collaboration.[. . .] If technology is used as a judicious tool that fosters creativity and communication[. . .] learning is enhanced” (24). Computers have also long been touted for their information gathering and collating functions when used in conjunction with the Internet. Students at primary and secondary schools, who in times past would have had little or no access to scholarly journals, are now just a click away from reliable and erudite sources. While access does not guarantee understanding, lack of access will almost certainly guarantee lack of understanding. However, computers are not just valuable as information gathering tools. They are just as valuable for engaging students through the production of multi-media presentations and other electronic projects in which students are creatively involved, thereby heightening their learning.

Technology has also become invaluable in teaching special needs students and teaching specific skills to other students. Technology has increasingly been the deciding factor in enabling students, who might otherwise have slipped through the bulging seams of the educational system, to excel. Some of the techniques that have been shown to have significant success have been (a) affective computing techniques that overcome emotional and psychological communication difficulties in special education students; (b) the use of audio textbooks and digital books, such as those produced for DAISY to allow higher level cognitive learning for the blind, dyslexic, and special needs students; and (c) the use of various assistive technologies in support of traditional (i.e., non-special education) students, including Picture Communication Symbols, adapted books, and computers with Intellikeys, Intellipics, and Overlay Maker (Beck; Boyle; Steele). In the year 2000, over 58% of post-secondary schools offered some type of adaptive equipment or technology for disabled students (“Special Programs” 85). The value of technology in these types of auxiliary, assistive functions has been generally unquestioned, but it still represents an important argument for the importance that technology can have in the classroom.

Finally, technology provides help for economically disadvantaged students who traditionally perform below average in the American educational system. Indeed, a trial in a school with a disproportionately large disadvantaged student population (over 98% of the 850 “were in free or reduced rate lunch programs” [Garman 796]) has shown that the introduction of technology-based educational reforms induce a striking improvement in the performance of disadvantaged students, “contributing to a reduction of students reading ‘below level’ of 15.1%” and an astounding “36.7% reduction in students reading ‘3 years below level'” (Garman 795-96). Those students whose educations had suffered the most from economic factors received the most benefit from technological factors.

A less obvious use of technology in the aid of the disadvantaged is outlined by Catherine McLoughlin, who uses the internet and online technology to incorporate the “values, styles of learning, and cognitive preferences” of “disadvantaged groups living in rural and remote communities” in designing a university preparation curriculum (229). This second use is all the more convincing because it not only posits the use of technology to adapt to the needs of economically disadvantaged students, but also suggests ways in which technology can be used to provide education to students who might otherwise be unable to receive that level of education. Another way in which disadvantaged rural students are aided by the influx of technology is in the area of teacher certification and training in rural areas. Barbara L. Ludlow et al. report on the success of web-based instruction in teaching and qualifying special education instructors in rural West Virginia (33). By increasing the access to instruction in special education methods and concerns, this program increases the available teachers, the teacher-student ratio, and, by extension, the probability of student success.

Despite the aforementioned benefits, there are many who are nevertheless concerned with the prevalence of computers and technology in education. Proponents may tend to dismiss these concerns as being due merely to inadequate on-the-job training in technology, and indeed this issue is behind some of the concern, but there is more to it than that. There is also a school of thought that is actively opposed to what they consider to be the current overuse of technology in schools; people in this category are concerned that computers may be contributing to the very problems they are intended to correct. R. W. Burniske in his essay “The Shadow Play,” argues that computers have contributed to the continuing “death of dialectics” in modern education, contending that the blind acceptance of technology in the classroom has led to a consumer culture in which students are unable to think critically about the information available to them (323-25). Böhme, in a somewhat less strident tone, still contends that “a modern educational policy which prepares children and young people for this situation [the pervasiveness of technology in the social and business sphere] must stress the difference between information and knowledge and the difference between technical access to information and its appropriation and conversion into personal knowledge. This does not mean excluding the computer but it does mean using it rationally” (208). Three basic arguments against technology in education can be identified: Technology has been introduced solely–or at least primarily–to promote the interests of big business; technology does not produce the results that it claims; and the emphasis on technology will result in a lack of attention to more pressing issues in education.

The importance and influence of popular trends and fads and economic and cultural pressures in the development of educational curriculum and the choices in courses of study cannot be overemphasized. Throughout the history of public education, administrators have been forced to make concessions to the temporary social, cultural, historical, and economic needs of business and society (Goddard 20). This tendency to acquiesce to temporary external trends is no less true for the current influx of technology: “Concern for the development of young people is not, therefore, the fundamental motive for the forced introduction of the computer into schools. [. . .] On closer inspection the paradigm shift said to be taking place in the educational sphere consists primarily in the fact that this sphere is becoming a capital-intensive area” (Böhme 206). Todd Oppenheimer worries that “if business gains too much influence over the curriculum, the schools can become a kind of corporate training center–largely at taxpayer expense” (288). R. W. Burniske echoes this concern:

But what I’m certain they [elected officials] do know is that the ‘boxes and wires’ of telecomputing are manufactured by ‘Big Business.’ And Big Business fills those campaign coffers we keep hearing about. So if we keep Big Business happy by investing in its gadgetry, then Big Business will keep the politicians happy by spreading largesse–and occasionally donating hardware and software to schools and libraries. This, in turn, will get youngsters ‘hooked’ early, thereby oiling the machine that paves the Information Superhighway. (324)

The concern is not so much that technology is being introduced at all, as that it appears that big business is driving the speed, method, and amount of technological innovation in our schools, without regard for the needs of, training of, and compatibility with educators and administrators.

It is certain that enough data is not yet in on the results that technology may produce in the classroom; however, it is just as certain that the sweeping claims made by politicians, officials, and businesses are not justified by the existing data. While there may be success stories here and there, there are many reasons to believe that technology may not be producing the results that are desired. For example, many students who have learning disabilities, language deficiencies, or reading comprehension problems may not be able to benefit from technologically based course-work because of deficiencies in background knowledge and basic skills (Westby 81). It is somewhat ironic that, in the appropriate setting and implementation, technology can be so beneficial to this group, yet when integrated with traditional students, innovative technology uses may pose problems.

Another problem is in the adoption of technology in paradigm shifting ways by individual faculty. In a survey of pre-service teachers conducted by Wang, almost all believed in a balanced approach to teaching between teacher-centered activities and student-centered activities; however, when asked about their uses of computers in computerized classrooms, “the comparison showed a significant difference (t=9.7, p<.05) between the pre-service teachers’ choice of teacher-centered computer uses (M=4.0137,SD=.677) versus student-centered computer uses (M=3.3659, SD=.718)” (153-54). In other words, the introduction of a computerized setting was likely to unbalance the teaching approach, and put an undue emphasis on less progressive, teacher-centered activities. Wang concludes, “Reform in education must begin with the type of educator in the classroom. All of the dollars spent on resources and equipment will do little to alter the day to day realities of the learning process” (158). Before the promise of technology can be realized, we must have teachers with the right training, the right mindset, and the right goals. Until that happens, technology will not realize its full potential.

But even more fundamental is the question of whether, assuming that technology is properly implemented and well taught by competent teachers, it will be of value to the students after matriculation. Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist, suggests that it may not: “Learning to use a computer today is a poor guarantee of a student’s future, since workplace equipment will have changed dramatically for all but our oldest students” (357-58). While learning an outdated technology may not detract from students’ ability to adapt to newer technologies, it may not be as beneficial to students adaptive abilities as a through grounding in logical thinking, spatial reasoning, math, science, and other traditional subjects would be. So between the failure of technology to adequately address the needs of special education students, the inability of even the most recently educated teachers to effectively implement technology in a constructivist way, and the dubious value of technology for future job prospects, we must question whether technology can fully live up to its promise.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, we must examine the effects of the shift in focus that an over-emphasis on technology inevitably engenders. Computers and similar technologies are expensive propositions, and even with the occasional assistance–usually only in the earliest stages of implementation–of big business, they will lessen the funds available for other important educational goals: As Böhme argues, “It is nevertheless inevitable that immense pressure will be placed on personnel costs in the education budget, and that a reduction in class size–a demand made by all educationalists for decades–will be rendered permanently impossible” (207). Are we willing to live with classes in which a single teacher is responsible for the education of hundreds of students, even if that responsibility is shared with any number of machines? For the unmitigated technophile, the reduction or elimination of human teachers is actually one of the goals of increased technology. Yet studies and statistics show that smaller class sizes (i.e., lower student-teacher ratios) increase student performance more than almost any other factor, including greater access to technology and computers (“Teens” 3; Hofkins 12).

What will the increased focus on technology do to the transmission of other more basic skills? For instance, the intuitive faculties that are developed during early childhood are negatively affected by the introduction of technology and “must be consolidated before children are confronted with computers” (Böhme 208). But the intuitive faculties are not the only skills affected by introducing technology too early: “For younger children, too much electronic stimulation can become addictive, replacing important experiences during critical periods of development: physical exploration, imaginative play, language, socialization and quiet time for developing attention and inner motivation” (Healy 357). Obviously, it is extremely important that for very young children especially the amount of technology and electronic stimulation be limited to that amount which can be absorbed without damage and addiction.

Furthermore, the problem is not isolated to younger children. Older children too may become “dependant on the support of information technology” (Böhme 209). If technology becomes so important that traditional subjects and skills are not taught outside of the technological paradigm, students may end up merely “digitally literate, in that they feel at home with joysticks and remote controls and are perfectly capable of absorbing the sights and sounds of multimedia entertainment,” but without a thorough grounding in the subjects that provide functional literacy, students “chances of getting a significant piece of the cyberspace pie are slim” (Burstein and Kline qtd. in Healy 358). Without a thorough grasp of the basics, we run the risk of producing Eloi–parasites that live on the technology without the ability to control it.

What else may be crowded out in the push for technology? Teacher education, curriculum revision, visual and performing arts, shop classes, and early childhood educational programs are just a few of the many programs that have already been pushed aside to one degree or another (Healy 354-55; Oppenheimer 283). What will be left? In the most extreme scenario, not much except for technology itself, and a generation of illiterate, but computer savvy youngsters. In more realistic assessments, we may end up suppressing educational alternatives and electives that have been critical avenues of self-expression and self-determination for students in an otherwise rigid educational system. We need to look closely at what we give up to support ever rising levels of technology.

There is no question that technology has something to offer education, that it is, in fact, a necessary component of a well-rounded education in today’s society. However, serious thought must be put into the ways that it is implemented, because it has the ability to cause as many problems as it fixes. We need to find a balance that will allow educators to take advantage of the benefits that technology has to offer without introducing changes that are detrimental to students long-term educational well being, unawares. The goal of those on both sides of the issue is the same: Increasing the quality and availability of education for all students is of the utmost importance, as is the necessity to prepare students for the quotidian world outside of the educational preserve. So where do we begin to compromise?

In the case of assistive technology for the disabled and adaptive techniques for those in special education environments, technology has proven itself time and time again. The validity of the studies showing this is not in dispute. Even those who are most concerned with the influx of technology do not suggest that its application in these particular areas be curtailed. In these areas at least, then, we must allow technology a free hand to produce the results that it invariably has.

When it comes to the traditional student and classroom, we must proceed with more caution, to ensure that technology fulfills its promise, and not its threat. Let us acknowledge the validity of the concern that technology may become a crutch that replaces the need to learn traditional subjects with an everlasting dependence on technology in a generation that does not understand its workings. First, we must ensure that all students receive a thorough grounding in English, math, and science. Second, when we do introduce technology, we must ensure that we provide students not only with the skills to make use of it, in traditional coursework, but the ability to have mastery over it, in computer science curriculums that focus and enhance students’ critical thinking, math, and logic.

Closely related to the issue of proper grounding is the question of age. Except in a few rare cases of children with disabilities, the positive effects associated with technology primarily benefit older children. Let’s give our children time to ground themselves in traditional physical and mental skills before introducing them–in any significant and persistent way–to technology. This is not to say that we should shield our youngsters from any exposure to computers whatsoever, but merely to suggest that computers and technology not be integrated as part of the basic curriculum for children below mid-elementary school (e.g., grades 5-7), the point at which Jane M. Healy suggests they begin to be able to make use of the multi-media and symbolic aspects of computer use (357).

The final step is to enable teachers to make the leap to the positive employment of technology for the benefit of students. If we want our young people to have the benefit of technological advancements, we must have teachers who are capable of implementing technology in a way that leverages its benefits without succumbing to its faults. To accomplish this, the anti-technology viewpoint would argue that the rate of flow of technology into the classroom be reduced to the rate at which it is accepted and implemented into the curriculum by the teachers and administrators, while the pro-technology viewpoint would simply demand that teachers “pick up the pace” and begin using technology. Neither viewpoint, taken to the extreme, is a valid solution, but a middle ground can be found. It begins with in-service training and acclimatization for teachers. Second, to accommodate this, some technology funds might be diverted to allow for the faster inculcation of technological values. Administrators should be given the control to fine-tune this ratio to produce the fastest and most effective and efficient use of resources. Finally, rather than praise the indiscriminate use of technology, administrators and technologists must find the shining examples where computers have allowed for a paradigm shift that has resulted in better performance and learning, and then recreate those successes on a national scale.

It is important to remember, as we discuss these possibilities, that technology has already been placed into our schools. It is no longer a matter of debating the value of technology, but the appropriate implementation and use of the existing technology (Burniske 325). Educators’ current situation is accurately summed up by Goddard: “The teacher’s responsibility lies not in staring at a blank computer screen while lamenting the changes that have been imposed, but to reach up and turn the computer on. The teacher’s responsibility is to discover the judicious use of technology as another tool in the arsenal of teaching that will guide students to exploration, discovery, practice, appreciation, and wonder at the world they inherit” (26). When the type of model for compromise outlined above is followed, we will hopefully be able to reach a point where we have the benefits of technological implementation without having to worry about negative side-effects, where we will be able to avoid the both the danger of conceiving of technology as a panacea and the danger of viewing technology in and of itself as a threat. We will, through compromise be able to provide our young people with the skills to survive, thrive, and even excel in an increasingly technological world.

Works Cited

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