Technology’s Potential In Schools

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The findings of the recent OECD report, New Approach Needed To Deliver On Technology’s Potential In Schools, is concerning, but not unexpected.  If computers and tablets are being used to present ‘gamified’ worksheets or as passive ebook readers, then it is not surprising that they fail to make any positive impact on students.

Once upon a time, there were two schools. In one school students used slates and chalk, while the other school advanced to paper and pencils. The students in the slate-and-chalk school learned how to solve interesting problems and prove logical propositions; the students in the paper-and-pencil schools learned how to play games like tic-tac-toe and draw nice geometric figures. After comparing the academic performance of both schools, a distinguished panel of experts reported that “the use of paper and pencils did not improve academic performance; in fact, it seems to have made matters worse”.

The penetration of technology into schools is a one-way high-speed train that can be stopped by no committee or report. If we can no longer envision businesses without computers, homes without Internet connections, and teenagers without smartphones, then surely we cannot bury our heads in the sand and assume that schools will somehow escape this inevitable transformation. Just like paper and pencil, tablets and smartphones are here to stay in all schools, until a better technology is invented for mediating educational contents.

Therefore, the question is not how to avoid technology, but rather how to use it effectively for educational purposes in classroom and home settings. We don’t need scholarly reports to tell us that students who use computers for chatting and mindless “interactive” mathematics drilling will do worse than students who don’t use computers. This is just plain common sense.

Said otherwise, the question is not what hardware one uses in school, but rather what software these tablets and laptops feature. If students are allowed to chat, tweet, and browse the web aimlessly during precious school hours, then surely no good will come of it. Likewise, if schools are investing in mathematics software that merely amplify what we can do with paper-based textbooks and worksheets, then negative attitudes toward learning will only intensify. The same is true for software that uses infantile and slipshod games that undermine mathematical intuition rather than hone it.

I am a computer science professor, author of a bestselling textbook published by MIT Press, instructor of two Coursera MOOCs, and co-founder of the company that developed Matific — a comprehensive portfolio of games and activities that help teachers teach, and students learn, elementary school mathematics. Together with my colleagues — other professors, teachers, and gaming experts — we strive to use computers to turn classrooms into engaging and empowering learning spaces. Since Matific has just gone from pilot mode into full production, we don’t have evidence yet to gauge its academic impact. But, the proof seems to be in the pudding: in schools that use Matific consistently, students show greater curiosity and interest in mathematics. In fact, they are eager to put their hands on the tablets and use Matific to immerse themselves in Geometry and Algebra. Any teacher and parent who knows how children can resent mathematics will appreciate the extent of this revolution.

As Bill Gates once said, “content is king.” Schools that wish to improve their academic performance should focus less on which tablets and how many laptops to purchase, and much more on what contents and software they make available for their students. I am at heart an old school fellow who likes nothing more than reading a paper-based book and playing my acoustic guitar. But, I am equally fascinated by how digital technology can empower teachers and students and bring high-quality learning to every corner around the world. There is no doubt in my mind that once we learn how to use this technology effectively in classroom and home settings, it will cause a dramatic revolution in the quality of education, worldwide.

The train has left the station and is moving fast. Every educator should ask him or herself: do I want to stand on the rails and wave my hands, stand on the sideline and watch it gallop who knows where, or hop on the locomotive and take the train to where I want it to go?