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The Role of Technology in Learning

Just as a drowning person reaches out in desperation to anything that offers the possibility of rescue, so too are many financially strapped school districts spending heavily on software and hardware that offer the possibility of improving learning. According to a front-page story in The New York Times, sales of computer software to schools in 2010 amounted to $1.89 billion and spending on hardware was five times that amount ("In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores," Sept. 4).

At the heart of the debate is whether these expenditures are justified today. If standardized test scores are the sine qua non of learning, the evidence is mixed. Some school districts report improvement in certain subjects ever since they equipped classrooms with the latest technology. Others have seen declines. Nevertheless, evidence takes a back seat in decision making to marketing, politics and personal preferences, according to Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University ("Inflating the Software Report Card," The New York Times, Oct. 8).

Teachers point out, however, that technology keeps students engaged. That's no small thing. It's hard for even the most inspiring teachers to compete with the hold that computers have on the younger generation, which has grown up with the latest in software. Moreover, using standardized test scores as the basis for learning overlooks essential skills that are not measured, such as collaboration and research.

There's also the question of replication. As a former English teacher, I remember vividly how difficult it was to deliver the same quality instruction during the last class of the day as during the first class in the morning. Computers never get tired, but teachers do. For this reason alone, I think it's important not to dismiss them out of hand. But at the same time, it's the teacher-student relationship that matters the most. It's always been that way and always will.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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