Saturday, December 10, 2011

Investigative Article (Final)

Facing the Struggle to Balance Technology and Education
Maria El-Abd

In the era of technology, headlines such as the ones above are a practically daily occurrence. The issue of technology’s role in education is heavily charged, with numerous aspects to consider. While some news articles focus on the shortcomings of technology in the classroom, others showcase schools and districts that have decided to take the plunge and go digital, while still others highlight the continuing struggle to balance technology and traditional teaching methods.
The debate itself is roughly divided into two sides. The opponents of technology in the classroom argue that school districts as far as Munster, Indiana or Kyrene, Arizona are spending too much money on technology despite the lack of evidence to support its effectiveness. Meanwhile, on the other side, the supporters of educational technology believe that it helps students become more engaged in school and, consequently, perform better.
But the problem is not just philosophical; it is also financial. According to the New York Times, this classroom software boom is estimated to cost school districts throughout the nation $2.2 billion a year. A more recent report by the Software and Information Industry Association estimates that the U.S. market for educational software and digital content is worth about $7.5 billion. Taking into account the nation’s economic state and what billions of dollars could do to improve underfunded schools that are often struggling to stretch their budgets to underpaid teachers on a pay freeze and a lack of supplies, the decision to spend billions on unproven technology appears to many to be unwise.
For fifth-year students in the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program at Sweet Briar College, this focus on technology in education is one they can’t ignore. This past May, Sweet Briar received a grant from the Verizon Foundation to integrate technology in K-12 classrooms. As part of the two-year pilot, MAT students are provided with iPads to use in their student teaching experience.
In the grant proposal, Holly Gould, Department Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Sweet Briar, and her colleagues wrote, “[t]he increased prevalence of mobile devices in use by the learners mandates that teachers develop lessons and learning objects accessible to their students in forms they prefer. The end goal is to enhance the classroom experience and, ultimately, the achievement level of the students they teach.”
Asked about the benefits of technology in the classroom, Sweet Briar President Jo Ellen Parker said, “[t]his is one of the most challenging and important educational issues of our day: for which students can what technologies support what learning outcomes?”
As the many articles on this topic prove, the answer to this question is far from being found.

            In order to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of using technology in the classroom, it is first necessary to have access to that technology, and this step can often prove to be a problem.
            Samantha Benito is a graduate student currently enrolled in Sweet Briar College’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program. One of her classes, “Instructional Strategies for the Differentiated Classroom,” requires a field experience placement in a local Amherst, Campbell, or Nelson county school.
            “My current placement [at Amherst High School] only has a projector and a document camera,” stated Benito. “I feel like the main reason I have a hard time incorporating [technology] is because of the limited access.”
            The problem of accessibility is not limited to the classroom. Teachers in rural areas, such as Linda Zabloski at Amherst Middle School, face similar problems if they want students to be able to use technology for learning at home.
            “I would love to see each student with their own laptop to download lessons and then have the ability to review them at home,” said Zabloski. “[But] internet access is a huge barrier to students in this rural community; only about 1/3 of my students have computer/internet access at home.”
            Within the classroom, though, some schools are willing to do what it takes to ensure they are technologically in sync, no matter where the budget cuts are made.
            When interviewed for the New York Times, Nicole Cates, Co-President of the Parent Teacher Organization at the suburban Arizona elementary school, Kyrene de la Colina, stated “[w]e have Smart Boards in every classroom but not enough money to buy copy paper, pencils, and hand sanitizer. […] You don’t go buy a new outfit when you don’t have enough dinner to eat.”
            Teachers who try to avoid this issue by allowing students to bring their own technology devices to class may be inviting a new type of problem with them.
In a blog post on Education Week’s website, Patrick Ledesma, a National Board-certified teacher and School Based Technology Specialist in Fairfax, Virginia, questions whether or not students should be allowed to bring their own personal technology devices to school.
According to Ledesma, “[i]n this potential era of student devices, we could see classes in some schools where all students are focused on a single platform and organized for using technology for higher levels of thinking. We could see mixed classrooms with hodgepodges of technology where a teacher could potentially struggle to support multiple devices and software/operating system formats. And, we could see classrooms not using technology at all.”
But even when accessibility to technology is established, a new set of problems can arise.

            According to Zabloski, when it comes to technology, “[t]raining for teachers is an important aspect. [Amherst] County does offer training, but with little time for practice and follow-up. We only have one tech person to help for 3 schools; he is only in our building 1-2 days a week.”
            Jeff Frank, Assistant Professor of Education at SBC, believes that teachers need to be trained to use technology before entering the classroom. According to Frank, graduate students in the MAT program “are experimenting with, and learning the strengths of, the iPad while still in graduate school so that they can strategically use this technology to increase student learning when they graduate.”
            Emma Neave, a senior majoring in English at Sweet Briar who plans on entering the MAT program next year, believes that incorporating technology in the classroom needs to follow careful planning and pre-assessment to see what works and what doesn’t.
“Even then,” added Neave, “I think it can be trial and error—you may think computers will be great for your hands-on learners or that SMART Boards are great for your visual learners, but until you try it a couple of times, you’ll never know.”
            The time and cost involved in trial and error has some educators worried, especially when school districts are quick to make the digital leap in an effort to keep up with the latest technologies. In an article posted recently to Education Week’s website, Rob Residori, a technology coordinator for Chicago’s Striving Readers project, said “I sometimes question if everything has really been thought through. […] Is this the best use of our funds, or is it simply a tool to engage and motivate our students? Of course, technology has that capability, but is that always the best angle?”
            The school district in Munster, Indiana, a small town with roughly four thousand students enrolled in either public or private schools, recently went digital, replacing, over the course of several short months, all math and science textbooks with laptops and interactive computer programs. According to the article on The New York Times, despite the excitement, some teachers are feeling overwhelmed by the sudden change.
            “This isn’t stressing out students,” said Pat Premetz, chairwoman of the Math department at Wilbur Wright Middle School in Munster. “It’s stressing out teachers because of some of the technological problems, and parents who are wondering why their kids are on the computer so much.”
Whether or not they provide adequate teacher training, schools throughout the nation are increasingly tempted to turn to technology to reap the benefits it can help provide.

According to Anna Newberg, a graduate student in Sweet Briar’s MAT program, using technology in the classroom “makes education more personalized and less focused on the teacher. Students have the chance to be in control of their own learning.”
For future teachers in Sweet Briar’s education program, letting students feel they are in control of their own learning is an ideal goal to have. In fact, it is part of the philosophy of the education program at Sweet Briar, where the focus is on training teachers in differentiation, an educational philosophy that advocates for teachers to create lessons that match different students’ readiness levels, learning preferences, and interests. Ultimately, it rejects the notion that teaching is one-size-fits-all. To this end, lessons are often created that allow students to explore new material in small groups. As the students in each group enjoy a different activity created for how they learn best, the teacher serves as a sort of moderator or guide for the learning process.
According to some teachers, technology not only facilitates differentiated teaching, but it lends itself to it naturally by providing various new opportunities to access the same material in different ways. Additionally, technology can be useful in the differentiated classroom by allowing students to express what they’ve learned in new ways.
“I think offering students options in the types of products they can create outside of school—for example, digital stories—as a means of illustrating their engagement with the concepts of ideas they are learning in school is a great start,” Frank stated. “Students familiar with the technologies can grow in those technologies and in their understanding of the school subject.”
            Gabriella Muglia, a junior at Sweet Briar College, is a perfect example of how students can use technology to self-differentiate their learning.
“[Technology] definitely enhances my ability to learn, if used properly,” Muglia said. “I often use the translator app [on my iPhone] to look up words in Spanish class that aren’t in the back of the book. I’m a visual learner also, so text on the screen is more likely to be memorable than having my professor say the word.”
Neave agrees that technology can help teachers differentiate, if the technology is used to help students with particular needs. Struggling learners, for example, may benefit from using recorders, headphones, or various computer programs that give students better access to the material.
John Gregory Brown, Director of Creative Writing at Sweet Briar, has witnessed first-hand technology’s ability to personalize and simplify learning for students with specific needs.
“Our first experience with technology in the classroom was the result of our disabled daughter, whose fine motor skills are poor, needing a device to make writing easier for her,” recalled Brown.
At the time, which was more than ten years ago, the standard equipment for students struggling with writing was an Alpha Smart, a lightweight keyboard-like device. However, Brown insisted that his daughter be allowed to use a computer, which was easier for her to operate.
“It took a while,” continued Brown, “but the school finally understood that it didn’t make sense to prohibit a student from using a device that makes learning easier and leads to the student being more confident and accomplished. I think about that experience all the time when I’m confronted with trying to figure out how to make learning easier and more engaging for students.”
Sharyn Papet, Early Childhood Special Education Teacher at Central Elementary School in Amherst, Virginia, uses technology to enhance learning for children with autism.
For example, Papet lets students “write and spell their name with a computer if they have fine motor issues [or] communicate using a VOCA (voice output communication device) like the iPad instead of being frustrated, not being able to share feelings, [or] respond to questions.”
            Nirvi Shah, in an article for Education Week, wrote about the Fall River Joint Unified School District in California, which now provides one-on-one speech therapy online. In the article, she discussed how teletherapy is particularly useful for remote and rural areas in the country, where school districts struggle to hire speech therapists. Shah wrote, “[w]hen students work with therapists online, often with therapists located out of state, that challenge is resolved.”
            The statistics support the benefits of teletherapy. Shah cites “[a] 2009 study of 34 children in rural Ohio, in which half the students used online speech therapy for four months while the others used traditional face-to-face therapy for four months, then switched.” In the end, the researchers discovered that the progress of both groups was the same.
            Despite technology’s ability to meet individual student needs, not all teachers are quick to use it because they fear the stress that might come from trying to balance numerous forms of technology simultaneously in the classroom.
            Melanie Lewis, Instructional Technology Resource Teacher for Amherst County Public Schools, described one such class where various forms of technology could be used to meet student needs. For example, one group could work on a project that includes a narrated VoiceThread, a multimedia slideshow that lets viewers navigate through the slides and leave comments. Another group could create an online poster using Glogster, a website that lets people create interactive online posters, while auditory learners could listen and respond to podcasts.
For a teacher in a class of potentially thirty students or more, balancing these various forms of technology, while they may help with differentiation and student engagement, can be more stressful than teaching the same lesson to the entire class using nothing more than the whiteboard. Planning, according to Lewis, is key.
She said, “[d]ifferentiation, though it may be easier with technology, is not an automatic when using technology.  The teacher still needs to plan accordingly and respectfully while thinking about the student’s needs and learning styles.”

In addition to helping students with different needs, another benefit of technology in the classroom is its unique ability to help students build connections.
            According to Frank, “[t]he iPad can be a useful tool in building connections between students and the subject they are learning. […] If students know that their work will be made public—or shared with partner classes across the country or world, it might make the work more engaging, relevant or authentic.”
            On the benefits of having technology in the classroom, Brown noted, in addition to being more environmentally friendly, “[t]he best aspect of the shift to the web has been the class blogs. Students share their ideas and their writing not just with fellow students but with anyone who is interested in what they have to say, which has even included the author of one of the story collections we’ve read.”
Despite the numerous advantages of technology in the classroom, it can be, as Neave stated, a “double-edged sword.” Most commonly, a paradoxical disadvantage of using technology is that it can, in addition to help learning, distract from it. For example, Newberg said that although she would like to allow students to use personal laptops during class, she fears they could be distracting. Her solution is simple: “[t]hey need to be monitored.”
In public school classes that can contain more than thirty students, though, monitoring each student’s use of technology can be a real challenge for a single teacher, if not impossible.
            Muglia’s agrees; “Even though I am not the kind of person that brings technology to class to intentionally distract myself,” Muglia stated, “I do think that it is virtually (no pun intended) impossible for most students to exclusively use their devices for educational purposes; this is partially because of the fact that modern technology is built to be extremely dynamic, so you don’t get devices that have been manufactured for one exclusive purpose.”
She then added, “I’ve had moments in class where I have to actively focus on not looking at the ever-changing computer screen next to me that is triggering my brain to look at it. I get really frustrated when this happens because I want to be paying attention and am not even using my device, but can’t pay full attention because half of my focus is on trying not to focus on someone’s improper use of technology.”
Neave believes that although trust plays a large role in letting students use technology, “that temptation [for distraction] will always be there and you’ll have to be really observant and careful to make sure students stay on task. I think it differs based on age.”
Distractions aside, teachers have other concerns when it comes to technology, even those in Silicon Valley. The Waldorf School of the Peninsula focuses on learning through creative hands-on tasks and physical activity. Technological devices are neither allowed nor encouraged, not even at home.
Interviewed for The New York Times, Pierre Laurent, who has three children in Waldorf Schools, said, “[e]ngagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers.”
With the move towards technology, though, students may spend less time with their teachers and more with laptops and iPads. While the learning may still be the same—and some would argue better—when using technology, there is a fear that by losing human contact in the classroom, students are missing opportunities to interact and grow with others, as well as develop the necessary social skills.
More than five years ago, Marilyn Jones, an English teacher at Shelbyville High School in Indiana, wrote about this same concern in an article for TIME magazine: “[k]ids will be captivated by multimedia geography presentations and interactive math labs. But the old fundamentals will still apply. Students rely on compassionate teachers to guide, to tutor, to listen, to laugh and to cry with them. Teachers provide the most important link in the educational process—the human one.”
For that reason, some opponents of technology in the classroom believe technology, unlike social and emotional growth, can wait.
For example, despite holding a computer science degree from Dartmouth and working in executive communications at Google, Alan Eagle, like Laurent, sends his daughter to the Waldorf elementary school. He stated, “[a]t Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”   

Another argument for technology in the classroom is that students are more engaged in the learning process when they can use technology than they would be otherwise.
For example, Neave acknowledges the widespread influence of technology and believes it’s a strength teachers can use in their favor.
In the last lesson I taught,” Neave recalled, “I had my students use [a] PowerPoint presentation to transform instances of figurative language into a literal format. This made a subject that is often very cut-and-dry much more interactive and real for my class. They weren't just reading similes and metaphors in a book; they were able to visually interpret precisely what those similes and metaphors meant, and they enjoyed it so much.”
A recent article by Mary Beth Marklein on USA Today described the story of Brianno Coller, an engineering professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. In an effort to “throw away the textbook,” Coller created a video game that allows his students to build virtual race cars which they then test, learning computational math, a building block of engineering, along the way. In his research, supported by the National Science Foundation, Coller discovered that students who used his video games “spent roughly twice as much time doing homework and demonstrated deeper learning compared with students who learned through traditional lectures and textbook.”
According to Frank, there is a common assumption that students enjoy or are engaged by personal technologies, such as phones, video games, and online social networks. Coupled with the general belief that students find school uninteresting, some people assume that if school was to imitate personal technologies, it would become more engaging to the students.
However, Frank added, “I don’t think things are so simple. Like other things that students are interested in—say rap music, or comic books—a rap version, or a comic book version, of Shakespeare more often than not is bad as rap, or as a comic, and bad as Shakespeare. So, forcing emerging technologies to do old things and believing that that will make schooling better seems off to me.”
The overwhelming lack of statistical support for technology’s effectiveness in the classroom seems to second Frank’s beliefs.
            In The New York Times article about the Kyrene School District in Arizona, Matt Richtel notes that, since 2005, the district has invested nearly $33 million in technology. Despite the investment, though, scores in reading and math have remained unchanged in Kyrene, while Arizona state scores have risen.
Richtel wrote, “[t]o be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many education experts, something is not adding up—here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.”
            In another article, Matt Richtel and Trip Gabriel discussed a 2009 federal study that looked at “10 major software products for teaching algebra as well as elementary and middle school math and reading [and] found that nine of them, including Cognitive Tutor [a software designed by Carnegie Learning to improve standardized test scores] ‘did not have statistically significant effects on test scores.’”
            According to their reporting, the lack of statistical data supporting technology in the classroom is hidden by companies like Carnegie Learning, which advertises their products in such a way to attract teachers and administrators, gaining additional followers by hiding discouraging statistics.
They noted, “[a]t Dundalk Middle School in Baltimore County, Md., for example, Carnegie Learning says that Cognitive Tutor led to an increase in the passing rate of a state assessment, to 86 percent in 2004 from 49 percent in 2002. What it does not say is that the rate remained at 85 percent last year [2010], even though Dundalk dropped Cognitive Tutor in 2007 because of difficulties arranging lab time.”
And as schools face budget cuts while still expanding their technological resources, one effect, expressed by Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher at Aprende Middle School in Arizona, reinforces the worry that students are spending less time with their teachers. According to Furman, “[y]ou can’t continue to be effective if you keep adding one student, then one student, then one student.”

Neave observes, “I may not be teaching full-time yet, but I think how we are going to use technology in our classroom is something we need to start thinking about and planning for, because it's changing all the time.”
            President Parker agrees that technology, at least for the time being, is unavoidable. She said, “[m]ost academic disciplines these days rely on new technologies. Students need to be able to use and understand the tools that are shaping their disciplines in order to use and understand current scholarship.”
            As technology develops and is integrated more into school systems throughout the world, Brown expressed doubt that it would ever fully disappear from the classroom. “Since technology will clearly remain the means by which students access, gather, and analyze information,” he said, “it makes sense to have the use of technology be one component of a class.”
Because of the constant changes in technology, Frank believes the focus for teachers should be on something more than the technology itself. He said, “[i]t is important that teachers are trained well in technology before entering the classroom. But, it is also important that teachers are trained well to know the subject that they are teaching. And, it is important that teachers are trained well to understand the needs of the students who are in their classrooms.”
The emphasis here is on the needs of the students; unless technology helps support those needs, its role in the classroom is questionable at best and damaging at worst.
Similarly, Neave believes that using technology simply for the sake of technology overlooks a basic point. According to Neave, teachers need to “make sure it's right for the lesson and for your students, and that it will add something greater to their understanding of the material.”
And even if technology is proven to support learning, the unavoidable truth is that technology is continuing to change, and quite rapidly.
For that reason, Frank continued, “instead of focusing on instrumental things […] teacher education programs need to prepare students for uncertainty, because change is integral to what it means to teach. Technology is just one more added layer. It is an important layer, but it is no more important than the other types of changes that teachers will manage and respond to from year to year.”

Reference List
Davis, M. (2011, Oct. 17). Schools seek the right mix of digital computing devices. Education Week. Retrieved from
Gabriel, T., & Richtel, M. (2011, Oct. 8). Inflating the software report card. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Jones, Marilyn. (2006, April 13). Teacher’s view: The human touch. TIME. Retrieved from
Ledesma, P. (2011, June 28). Should students bring their own technology devices to school? Education Week. Retrieved from
Marklein, Mary Beth (2011, Nov. 29). College’s latest thrust in learning: Video games. USA Today. Retrieved from
Quillen, I. (2011, June 15). Educators evaluate learning benefits of iPad. Education Week. Retrieved from
Richtel, M. (2011, Oct. 22). A Silicon Valley school that doesn’t compute. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Richtel, M. (2011, Sept. 3). In classroom of future, stagnant scores. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Schneider, J. (2011, Oct. 4). Questioning our mania for education technology. Education Week. Retrieved from
Schwarz, A. (2011, Oct. 18). Out with textbooks, in with laptops for an Indiana school district. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Shah, N. (2011, Oct. 11). One-on-one speech therapy goes digital. Education Week. Retrieved from
(28 Nov. 2011). SIIA estimates $7.5 billion U.S. market for educational software and digital content. Software and Information Industry Association. Retrieved from

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Local Teacher's Perspective

I recently heard back from an interview with Sharyn Papet, M.S.Ed., an early childhood special education teacher. One of the questions I asked her yielded a great response about specific ways in which students with different learning needs can use technology to meet their educational goals; here's what she said:

"Students can best use technology:
a. to write and spell their name with a computer if they have fine motor issues limiting their use of a pencil (more traditional form of writing)
b. to communicate using a VOCA (voice output communication device) like the I-PAD instead of being frustrated, not being able to share feelings, responsd to questions, etc.
c. to increase attention of some students with special needs as their is instant gratification, multi-sensory programming, immediate feedback, visual stimuli, one-on-one learning opportunities, as well as rote-drill and instruction available with both the I-PAD and the Smartboard."

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Re-assessing the stakes

In the process of revising my rough draft, I was looking for more sources to cite in my article. I came across a more recent estimate of how much educational software and digital content--excluding hardware--is worth: $7.5 billion. This estimate, mentioned in a report  by the Software and Information Industry Association, is astounding.  Compared to the $2.2 billion estimate I had been using earlier, based on an article in the NY Times, this new estimate takes the stakes even higher than they were before. I mean, if we're willing to spend $7.5 billion on technology in the hopes that it helps learning, shouldn't we at least check that it's doing what we want it to?