Dear Commons Community,
Susan Pinker, a developmental psychologist and columnist, is the author, most recently, of The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter, has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, raising questions about the deployment of technology in our schools. Her basic premise is that research is tending to indicate that technology infusion may lead to a widening of the achievement gap between the rich and poor. Here is an excerpt:
“More technology in the classroom has long been a policy-making panacea. But mounting evidence shows that showering students, especially those from struggling families, with networked devices will not shrink the class divide in education. If anything, it will widen it.
In the early 2000s, the Duke University economists Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd tracked the academic progress of nearly one million disadvantaged middle-school students against the dates they were given networked computers. The researchers assessed the students’ math and reading skills annually for five years, and recorded how they spent their time. The news was not good.
“Students who gain access to a home computer between the 5th and 8th grades tend to witness a persistent decline in reading and math scores,” the economists wrote, adding that license to surf the Internet was also linked to lower grades in younger children.
In fact, the students’ academic scores dropped and remained depressed for as long as the researchers kept tabs on them. What’s worse, the weaker students (boys, African-Americans) were more adversely affected than the rest. When their computers arrived, their reading scores fell off a cliff.
We don’t know why this is, but we can speculate. With no adults to supervise them, many kids used their networked devices not for schoolwork, but to play games, troll social media and download entertainment. (And why not? Given their druthers, most adults would do the same.)”
Pinker concludes by commenting on the important of a teacher who is well-trained in using the technology:
“And, of course, technology can work only when it is deployed as a tool by a terrific, highly trained teacher. As extensive research shows, just one year with a gifted teacher in middle school makes it far less likely that a student will get pregnant in high school, and much more likely that she will go to college, earn a decent salary, live in a good neighborhood and save for retirement. To the extent that such a teacher can benefit from classroom technology, he or she should get it. But only when such teachers are effectively trained to apply a specific application to teaching a particular topic to a particular set of students — only then does classroom technology really work.
Even then, we still have no proof that the newly acquired, tech-centric skills that students learn in the classroom transfer to novel problems that they need to solve in other areas. While we’re waiting to find out, the public money spent on wiring up classrooms should be matched by training and mentorship programs for teachers, so that a free and open Internet, reached through constantly evolving, beautifully packaged and compelling electronic tools, helps — not hampers — the progress of children who need help the most.”