My wife, Shirley, wrote this op-ed for our local newspaper.  Her disagreement is not with any particular school.  It is with our society’s trendy embrace of technology as The Answer to our problems.  She is questioning our obsession with means while neglecting or forgetting the end.  One of Shirley’s sources is The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved by Todd Oppenheimer (Random House, 2003)  This is written about public schools, but I assume private schools and home schools are also susceptible to well-meaning but misguided fads.  -Jeff

Jacksonville, AL.   [ BY SHIRLEY TAYLOR ]   School has started, and students are again “cracking open the books.” Based on recent news reports, this expression may soon become as quaint as asking for a handkerchief.  It seems often there are stories about a new project or a federally-funded program which promises the way to increase student achievement is through the use of more computers.

This wave of technotopia reminds me of a quote: “In 10 years, textbooks as the principal medium of teaching will be as obsolete as the horse and carriage are now.”  Thomas Edison spoke these words in 1925 about the power of the motion picture as the new method of classroom instruction.  Eighty-five years have passed since this prediction was made by a very smart person.  Today, textbook publishers are going strong, students still moan under the weight of heavy backpacks, and curriculum committees pore over review copies.

The good news is that our embrace of technology has enabled researchers to gather data easier and faster than ever.  And guess what?  The data does not always support technology as the quick fix for academic achievement.  The Maine Learning and Technology Initiative in 2001 was the first statewide initiative, with a price tag of nearly $120 million.  Follow-up reports in 2005 stated that overall performance on the 8th grade Maine Education Assessments had not changed appreciably since the inception of the program.  The Journal of Technology, Learning and Assessment has a special issue on laptop programs, and while they mention positive results, they do confess that most programs show only “modest increases in student achievement.”

In June, scholars at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy found that efforts to put computers in every home would actually widen the achievement gap in math and reading scores.  The study included more than 150,000 students, and the data gathered allowed researchers to compare the same children’s reading and math scores before and after they acquired a home computer.  Students in grades 5 through 8, particularly those from disadvantaged families, tended to post lower scores once a computer arrived in their home, the study showed.  It seems kids are kids. They used the computers to play games and socialize, not study.  The researchers concluded that the presence of a parent who assisted the student on the home computer increased productivity.

A recent technology-immersion project in Texas was funded by $20 million in federal money to study comparison data over four years.  The study looked at 22 middle schools where teachers and students received laptops and 22 middle schools that did not receive laptops.  The study, released in January 2009, found that “across four evaluation years, there was no evidence linking technology immersion with student self-directed learning or their general satisfaction with schoolwork.”

Several times in the report, effects on aspects of learning were stated as “statistically insignificant.”  Technology-immersion schools had significantly lower school attendance rates in the first three years compared to students who didn’t have laptops.  I wonder if anybody checked the students’ Facebook pages and Twitter accounts on the days they were absent.  Evidence from the Texas classroom observations suggested that laptops and digital resources would allow students in technology-immersion schools to experience more intellectually-demanding work.  Nevertheless, results for all observed teachers indicated that lessons in core subjects generally failed to intellectually challenge students.

One area where students did make gains was in the area of computer skills.  Catherine Maloney, director of the Texas center, told The New York Times that the schools did their best to mandate that the computers would be used strictly for educational purposes.  Most schools configured the machines to block e-mail, chat, games, and websites reached through searching by objectionable keywords.  The keyword blocks worked fine for English-language sites but they didn’t work for Spanish ones.  “Kids were adept at getting around the blocks,” she said.  Did I mention kids will be kids?

I must disclose that all the studies showed some positive results.  Sometimes you will see results showing that students in laptop programs liked school more, or that discipline problems went down, and certainly that computer skills increased.  But if you wade through the reports and look for results on academic achievement scores, you will find that data is scarce.  You must also think about the researchers who are writing these reports and think about the tremendous pressure they are under to find data that supports spending millions of dollars on laptops, depending on who paid for the study.

It is important to make clear that I like computers. They are powerful and essential tools.  There are two computers in my home.  One of them is a laptop.  As a librarian, I cannot imagine working without an automated library system, Internet access, and online reference databases. I am particularly fond of the Alabama Virtual Library, paid for by our tax dollars.  I hope you visit that site after you finish reading the newspaper.

I would not want my children to go to a school that did not have computer technology. But I also do not want my children going to a school where computer technology is the “answer” to student achievement.  I hope my children’s educational experience will include a wide variety of tools that increase student achievement.  One of those tools should be computers.  But the most important element in student achievement is a quality teacher and supportive parents.

I also think computers in homes are great.  How could a person create a resume without a computer in today’s world?  With a typewriter?  That is in the attic with the box of handkerchiefs.  When applying for a job you may find that many companies only accept online applications.  Certainly, most employers are looking for employees with computer skills.  This is an area where the real digital divide affects low-income homes.  Here I must plug the free computer resources provided by local public libraries.  Stop by your library and you will see the bridge spanning the digital divide.

I even think it is alright that federal money is spent on technology programs as long as there is data gathered to measure the programs’ effectiveness.  How else can we determine if other schools should try similar programs or what to expect for a $20 million price tag when the results on student achievement are “statistically insignificant?”

If a school wants to provide laptops for students, okay—but don’t sell it by promising higher test scores.  The data is just not there.

Shirley Taylor has worked in public and school libraries for 16 years.  A native of South Dakota, she has a Secondary Education degree and a masters in Library Science.

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  1. Thanks for posting this piece. The most recent study I’ve come across also fits the pattern highlighted here: some positive results, inconclusive academic benefits.

    It was a study of the Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative that equipped middle schoolers and their teachers in five western Massachusetts schools with laptop computers. Teacher and student surveys reported higher rates of student engagement and interest, but in the end, when other variables were controlled for, it was unclear whether the laptops accounted for either the gains in Language Arts or the losses in Math on the Mass. Comprehensive Assessment System.

    You can find the report at

  2. Running across this post six weeks after the date it was first offered, I find only one comment. That’s disappointing. It deserves more attention, and is probably of more significance than the latest nit-picking about evolution. (Honestly, I love debating evolution, but it doesn’t really matter that much to how I live my life or whether I’m going to get mugged the next time I step out the front door, or even how I will pay my bills this month).

    Sometime after I graduated from high school (1972) educators and concerned parents and a variety of officious government employees determined that the way to produce a well-educated population was to cram more and more advanced subjects into children’s heads at an earlier and earlier age. To some degree, the computer has become the latest magic mushroom to this end. When I started volunteering in the library of a local boys and girls club, I observed that first graders are given homework which requires comprehension of written instructions. (I never had homework until 4th grade, although I did in 2nd and 3rd grade have to spend time out of school memorizing addition and multiplication tables). My question was “How do you expect them to read the instructions, when you haven’t taught them how to read yet?”

    We need to relax, in many ways, which is not to say, there is no hard work to be done. Working at the pace that one human being can transmit a body of knowledge to another human being is not a bad idea. It is even more likely to result in thoughtful, reasonably well informed adults who want to learn about what is going on around them. Two brains working through transmission of knowledge in the manner human brains internalize knowledge is different from one human mind staring into a computer which mindlessly regurgitates what it has been programmed to regurgitate.

    To put the computer in its proper perspective as a tool, rather than mislocating it as the New Learning Environment, I advocate that children need to learn without tools first, then learn how to use tools to speed up the process and free their minds up for higher levels of analysis.

    No calculator until addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are instant reflex in the mind and memory. OK, now use the calculator to do algebra and geometry. No computer to graph paraboloid equations on a screen, until the mind grasps the relation between the equation and a physical shape on paper. OK, now use the computer to work out the trajectory to get Apollo 13 home again. (That required some human thought outside the box – the computers didn’t have the program to handle it in full).

    First, learn how to read a book. Now, e-books have their place. Google Books can find references to a search term that no library catalog, not even the computerized versions, could ever locate. I love downloading complete PDF copies of out-of-print biographies from the early 19th century. But I have a shelf lined with books too.

    If the electricity goes out, for an hour, a day, a week, a month, several years, every child, and every adult they grow up to be, should be capable of carrying on without the computer. Further, every teacher should be able to continue teaching, without missing a beat, in every classroom.

    I remember a young lady named Tinika who came in with a page of subtraction homework, and no clue how to do it. After a while, I realized that the homework had been issued, without ever explaining to her how to do subtraction. I spent four hours with her finishing two pages. The next day, Ms. Lequettia spent two hours doing the same work with her. The third day, Tinika breezed in announcing “I did it already.” It was all done correctly too. Maybe her teacher thought that the computer was going to explain subtraction to her. It didn’t.

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