Out of Touch

Across the nation, elementary schools to universities are eager to join the classroom technology trend. Fuzzy overhead projectors and physical textbooks are being swiftly replaced by more effective document projection camera systems and interactive Web-based learning activities. The new equipment saves time and makes note taking easier, while websites such as Khan Academy and Connect are touted as the future of the education industry. This excitement, however, is too optimistic. While 21st century technology introduces new methods of teaching, the current usefulness of iPads and other technology is too limited for it to be a cost-effective solution to education.

According to an April 2012 article by the U-T San Diego, the San Diego Unified School District spent over $15 million in the 2012-13 school year outfitting classrooms with brand new iPads. Their intention is to augment the teaching experience with hands-on personalized activities and applications that will engage students, while doing away with outdated textbooks. Unfortunately, iPads grow obsolete after about four years, and need frequent software updates. E-textbooks for the iPad are about half the price of physical textbooks, but when combined with the price of $370 per iPad, pose a high cost to keep students engaged.

With that money, classes could engage in supplemental learning outside of the classroom, in the form of field trips to local museums or in hands-on lab exercises. Numerous studies, such as one from Harvard University, show that the added brain stimulation that comes from using different senses, such as mixing chemicals in test tube, is highly effective at developing well-rounded students.

Questions about the practicality and effectiveness of classroom technology have also arisen. The iPads and other devices have been slowly infused into classroom activities over the past decade, but expensive and fragile electronic devices are best kept out of the hands of energetic young students. USA Today reports that 20 percent of handheld devices issued to students needed repair after just one year.  In 2008, Texas’ Abilene Christian University had a pilot program in which they loaned some students iPhones or iPod Touches. While the majority of students said they benefited academically from better connectivity and communication with professors, these advantages could be easily achieved with use of personal computers, which are far more capable machines and can cost less than iPhones when cellular plans are taken into account.

The push toward self-guided tutorials on the Internet is also, at this point, premature. McGraw Hill’s LearnSmart online study aid is generally regarded as an effective supplement for in-class teaching because it allows students to target what they need to improve on. This success is contrasted, however, with its sister homework program Connect. The Connect system assigns students a sequence of questions or problems, but has an inflexible and draconian grading system that lacks the efficacy of an actual teacher. For example, in chemistry assignments the program deducts points for rounding, yet has varied standards of accuracy for each question. Incorrect answers receive little in the way of corrective guidance. For a product used by over 1.2 million students nationwide, Connect needs more polishing. Once it offers better explanations for errors and more reasonable grading, it will be an invaluable resource, saving instructors time and helping students learn on their own schedule.

The question, then, is how to ensure that American children have access to the best possible teaching methods. One need only look at other countries around the world. According to the 2011 article “Why are Finland’s Schools Successful?” in Smithsonian Magazine, the Finnish education system owes its success to the tremendous latitude teachers are given to craft a personalized education for every student. They use a “rapid assessment” method, in which students are quizzed two to three times a week in order for teachers to know what their students are retaining. Finnish teachers’ lesson plans are much more dynamic than those in America, because they pinpoint areas of student difficulty in tests and target weaknesses. This effective teaching method allowed Finland to ascend to third place in world education rankings.

As citizens in the world’s preeminent economic powerhouse, many in the U.S. may be tempted to jump for the latest and greatest classroom innovations. While some of this cutting-edge technology certainly helps productivity and is a natural component of technological progress, most are a superfluous waste of funding. Instead, our education system should look to the proven models of other successful nations and move to personalize education for students through enthusiastic teaching and hands-on participatory learning.