Everything Old Is New Again

A post on the Facebook group for Illinois Raise Your Hand exploded into a debate about EdTech yesterday. It started with a question about an online math program and the challenges it posed for a tech-deficient population, and quickly turned into a veritable rehash of education reform ideas from the past century, all dressed up in today’s shiny new best: EdTech.

Leaving aside the tech resources imbalance for a moment, I’m sad (but not terribly surprised) to see that another CPS school implemented EdTech without considering, let alone consulting, its parent-student population. To quote a friend, “After a 7-hour school day, part of which is spent on electronic devices, time spent outside of school on electronics/digital media deserves a lot of scrutiny—especially for elementary-aged children.”

The research on this is clear: tech exposure is not a magic bullet to solving education’s crisis du jour. In fact, tech can be harmful to learning and development.

Frequently, parents (and educators) say that tech is important to remaining competitive in a global economy. You know what the global economy is also called? The knowledge economy. And according to this 2014 Harvard Business Review piece, the knowledge economy is a human economy.

The skills and abilities that will make our children competitive in a global economy and successful in life are the same skills and abilities that made their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents successful: the ability to use one’s brain, to think, reason, and manipulate information. These aren’t skills acquired by learning how to make a Google Slides presentation in 2nd grade. These skills are taught and learned through interactions with peers, teachers, mentors, and the natural world.

Anyway, my kids learned how to make a Google Slides presentation in 2nd or 3rd grade. Hoo. Rah. What does that really give them? Um, not much. Yes, it’s using a tool. Yes, the tool is kind of cool. But, knowing how to use an online computer program doesn’t make children more competitive in a global economy. It doesn’t add to their understanding of the way that the technology works. It doesn’t bring them closer to coding in C++. It doesn’t teach them a skill that they couldn’t pick up in 9th grade (or 12th grade). It doesn’t make them globally competitive. What will make them globally competitive and ultimately able to get and hold a job is their ability to think, reason, and communicate effectively with other humans.

And let’s not forget that being able to have the attention span to read a book or journal on paper is important. The tactile factor of books is important. I could say more on this subject, but Anne Fadiman did it so much better in her little book of essays, Ex Libris. (Do I know you? Then you probably already have a copy.)

Books, it seems, are another victim of the rise of EdTech. I took a MOOC last fall (America’s Poverty Course) and when the optional textbook arrived in the mail, my children were completely flummoxed by its appearance and usage. “What’s a textbook?” they asked.

They don’t know what a textbook is because their school doesn’t have any (that I know of/have seen). Why is that? Chicago Public Schools now requires its vendors to provide electronic versions of all textbooks, which might account for some of this. Some people say that the information contained in textbooks becomes obsolete and out-of-date.

Would I rather have an out-of-date textbook or EdTech? That depends on three things: (1) whether the book is so outdated that the information contained therein or the way it is presented is harmful to students; (2) who’s paying? CPS, the school, or in my case, parents via school fees; and (3) how old is out-of-date? 10 years? 20 years? 40 years? Longer? Modern algebra was invented in the 16th-19th century; is a textbook from 2007 outdated? I’m not sure I really believe that books still hanging around the system in 2017 on subjects like history, science, literature, and math can be outdated.

Are textbooks generally harmful to students? They could be, but we know that EdTech is harmful to students. “Research indicates that exposure to screen imagery is actually dulling our very senses.” Not only does it change the educational experience for students, but it also invades their privacy in a way that little else does. And no, it’s not the same as my using Facebook or WordPress or any other free online service for which my data is ultimately the price.

Why not? Because I’m an adult and a known entity. I get timed math anxiety, but I learned my multiplication tables 30+ years ago. My children are still literally in-development. I do not want to pay for EdTech companies to mine my children’s data while they teach themselves geometry proofs on bright, flashing SaaS programs.

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