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High Tech Classrooms

The lackluster performance of students in this country on tests of international competition is used as evidence of the need for better instruction. I'm not going to explain once again the difference between an exam meritocracy and a talent meritocracy in addressing the issue. Instead, I'm going to examine what is already known about technology and its effects on learning.

Despite claims about originality, technology-centric classrooms already exist ("In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores," The New York Times, Sept. 3, 2011). For example, the Kyrene School District in Chandler, Ariz. has invested $33 million since 2005 in "laptops, big interactive screens and software that drill students on every basic subject." Nevertheless, scores in reading and math have stagnated in the same period of time that statewide scores have improved. How is this possible? I think the answer is that far too much faith is placed in technology. On paper, proposals are seductive. But in reality the results are disappointing. That's because the human connection is erased, and creativity is stifled.

There will always be exceptions, of course. For example, the Mooresville, N.C. school district has seen its test scores rise from about average to a tie for second place among the state's 115 districts ever since every student from third grade through high school was given a laptop computer ("A High-Tech Fix for Broken Schools," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 15). But remember that there is more to a quality education than standardized test scores.

Not to be deterred, David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, presents a new proposal in the form of local Internet schools ("The Friendly, Neighborhood Internet School," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 9). He writes that students can learn a "whole curriculum's worth of learning online, at the computer." Gelernter asserts that this is possible because students follow canned courses on-screen most of the time. But they also are in touch one-to-one over the phone or videophone with a tutor for one hour each day. Moreover, they have access to a teaching assistant on an open phone line throughout the day.

It's to Gelernter's credit that he concedes "in-person education will always be better than online teaching - if the teacher is any good." It's the latter qualification that probably accounts for technology's appeal. School boards know that teacher quality varies enormously. As a result, they're eager to find a way of hedging their bets on outcomes. But no matter how much money they invest in buying the latest learning technology, it can never replace the importance of the relationship between student and teacher.

I think that technology can play an important role as an adjunct in learning. (The estimated $2.2 billion spent on educational software annually is evidence.) But just as patients respond best to face-to-face contact with their doctor, rather than solely to medical software, the same holds true for students in the classroom.

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