The Crisis of Gadget-itis

There’s a standard litmus test for technology use in education. What does the technology give us that can’t be done in other ways? If I’m going to spend all of the time and money needed to implement a technology initiative, there should be some reason for it. Let’s face it: technology is expensive. The hardware is expensive. The software is expensive. Maintenance, wiring, utilities, support, and professional development are all expensive. The peripherals (printers, paper, ink, batteries, cables, power strips, furniture) are expensive. If we’re going to bother, there has to be some outcome — some result — that’s powerful and useful and unachievable in other ways.

Photo credit: sridgway @ flickr we see a lot of technology being used in education to automate much simpler processes. Take the interactive whiteboard, for example. Over the last three years, we’ve installed more than 200 SMART Boards in classrooms in this school district. They’re now in about 75% of our classrooms. The boards have the potential to transform the way teaching and learning happens in the classroom. They can help make learning a truly interactive experience. They can help engage learners. They can make things much easier for the teacher. But in many classrooms, we’re using them the same way we’ve been using overhead projectors in the classroom for a generation. The teacher writes notes on the SMART Board instead of the chalkboard or overhead transparency. Maybe she saves the file and shares it with students who were absent or want an additional study aide. Sometimes, she’ll scan a workbook page, put it on the SMART Board, and then complete it as a class. Sure, the interactive whiteboards have the potential to change teaching and learning, but for the most part, we don’t use them like that.

I regularly hear from software vendors who want to sell us the latest, greatest technology in reading and math instruction. For only $30/$100/$1000 per student, we can get software that will teach them letter sounds, or will help them practice their math facts. Take Scholastic’s Fastt Math, for example. A site license costs $9,000, and will cover an entire school. The software helps students practice their addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. It keeps drilling them until they achieve fluency (defined as the ability to answer in 0.8 seconds or less). We used to do that with flash cards and timed tests. We could buy 3,000 sets of flash cards, or print 300,000 timed tests for the same price as Fastt Math. And, we wouldn’t have to buy any computers.

Last night, Dave and I talked about student responses systems on EdTechWeekly.  Basically, the idea is this: each student has a device the size of a remote control. At key points in the lesson, the teacher asks a question. The students respond by pressing one of the buttons on their remotes. The teacher immediately gets feedback, and knows whether to go back and review, pick up the pace, or continue the lesson as they have been. It allows the teacher to regularly get feedback from the class on how the lesson is going.

This may sound like a wonderful, innovative use of technology. But the teachers in the chat room weren’t impressed:

[19:40] <jackiegerstein> They can raise their hands to do the same thing
[19:40] <mrsdurff> those are meant for whole class instruction – industrial age classrooms
[19:40] <jackiegerstein> Loses its novelty fast too
[19:41] <cyndidannerkuhn> I have a set of 32 Quizdoms I won at Necc a couple years ago, they just sit in my office!!  Just don’t need them, they would not enhance what I teach.
[19:41] <jackiegerstein> yes durff – my point -thx for the clarification
[19:41] <mrsdurff> just not worth the $
[19:42] <mrsdurff> why use whole class instruction anyway?
[19:42] <jackiegerstein> agreement

It’s another gadget being sold to the schools as a necessary component of the “21st Century Classroom.”  And so it continues. We need netbooks. We need e-book readers. We have to have wireless networks. We have to find a way to use cell phones productively in the classroom. Every teacher should have a laptop. We need more technology, more infrastructure, more support, and more professional development.

But what we really need is more innovation.

Take Russell Stannard, for example. He uses screen-recording software when grading student work. He records a little video as he goes through the student essays. He can use his mouse to highlight sections and just talk about them. He can give general feedback orally. There’s no need for him to write out comments on a paper document and return it to the student. For the learner, this type of personal feedback is much more valuable than a few notes scribbled in the margin. For the teacher, it doesn’t take any more time than grading the traditional way.

What would it cost to do this? The software is free. All you would need is a headset ($12 for a reasonably good one, $8 for a cheap one). You’d also need a way for students to submit their work electronically (also free).  But take this a step further. If you’re grading this way, it doesn’t necessarily have to be an essay you’re evaluating. It might be a movie, or a slideshow, or an animation. Maybe you’re not the only one evaluating it. These tools could also be used by students as part of a peer review process. Now we’re starting to get closer to the area where these things are really hard to do without technology.

Take a look at Mr. Noon’s blog, Tell the Raven. This is a student writing project for sixth graders in Fairbanks, Alaska. Almost all of the content is written and posted by students. A student-run blog is not exciting or flashy or new anymore. They’re a dime a dozen (less than that, actually, since the software is free). But this teacher is encouraging his students to write, edit, revise, and post their stories. Yes, they have a global audience. Yes, anyone, anywhere might read what they’re writing. Occasionally, someone might comment on a post. But the point, I think, is not so much that people will read their work online as much as the fact that people can read their work online. They want their very best writing to be out there. They’re working hard to hone their storytelling skills.  They’re improving their writing because they have the potential of an authentic audience.

Sometimes the innovative things aren’t the expensive novelties that we see in the exhibit areas of technology conferences. We need to spend more time focusing on the changes that will make a difference and a little less time buying stuff.

What are some other examples of teachers using technology in innovative ways?

3 thoughts on “The Crisis of Gadget-itis

  1. Just as vote of support- as a mom of a 4th grade, gifted BBHCSD child- they love the Fastt Math program and has asked to log in from home to practice. Do any of these companies offer remote capabilities?

  2. Some do, but Scholastic is not one of them. Fastt Math (and the companion programs, Read 180 and System 44), require both a server within the district and a client program on the computers. So it’s not something that could be made accessible from home.

    In my house, the most effective computer-based tool for math facts has been Timez Attack . It’s only for multiplication, but it’s very engaging (we’ve even “allowed” the kids to practice math facts as a reward).

    I really should to a series of posts about free online games and practice activities for the various subjects. There are so many resources out there, it can be a bit overwhelming.

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