Technology doesn’t just mean more screens. It means a new kind of learning altogether—including outside the classroom. By Chester E. Finn Jr.
Not long ago, I doubted that computers, cell phones, and the Internet would make any more difference in American education than television had. Ringing in my ears was a comment by the late Ralph Tyler that the sole technological advance in a century that had really affected classrooms was the overhead projector because, he wisecracked, it was “the only one that the teacher could use while still keeping an eye on her students.”
Computers, I figured, would continue to be useful to scientists and engineers and others with complex calculations to make. Cell phones would function like traditional telephones, only portable. The Internet (whether or not Al Gore had anything to do with it) was for e-mailing and such. And “information technology” was sort of like engineering, a field for wonky college students wanting to write computer code. K–12 education might benefit marginally from bits of all this but mainly would sail on like a clipper ship of yore, powered by the same winds that had always propelled it.
Well, I was wrong. But this confession isn’t just another paean to the potential of online learning. That’s real, of course. What has struck me is the sheer number of contemporary education problems to which technology offers at least a partial solution—but only if we can picture it holistically, not simply as a tool for doing one thing or another.
Let me illustrate with five major-league challenges in today’s K–12 reform world, noting in advance that this could easily be a list of twenty-five.
Computer-adaptive assessments combined with computerized scoring, including open-response and even essay-type questions, could go a long way toward salving all those bruises.
Technology, however, makes it possible to record, retrieve, and evaluate entire portfolios of student work, daily and weekly learning outcomes, and a host of teacher practices and behaviors, all of them able to be analyzed, reviewed, and discussed at multiple points during the school year—indeed over multiple years.
Technology can’t solve all those problems—deciding what weight to assign to which conditions, for example—but it can surely simplify the managing and tracking of dollars, the amalgamation of amounts from different programs, and the budget challenges that arise at every level.
Technology doesn’t guarantee that good information will lead families to make educationally sound school choices, but at least it removes the “how was I to know?” excuse for bad choices. It can beam lessons to kids who live on mountaintops or accompany their parents to Thailand. It can be accessed around the clock. It can augment the course offerings of brick-and-mortar schools. And it creates the possibility of changing schools just by typing a different URL into one’s browser.
One could go on, as these examples are just slices of the possible. I didn’t even go into individualization of instruction, special education, ways of saving money, or myriad other potential benefits of technology when used properly in the K–12 context.
Note, though, that pulling off this kind of transformation isn’t like adding a new program to school as we know it. It’s no bandage; it’s more like a heart-lung transplant. Which is exactly how we tend not to think about education reform. And this is exactly what engenders fear and loathing among traditional educators, whether because major surgery is scary, or they’re worried about their jobs, or they’re just not that comfortable with technology.
Realizing the promise of technology for American K–12 education will be hard. Misused, technology could even worsen some of today’s education woes. But if we approach it comprehensively, the payoff will justify the struggle. With apologies to Ralph Tyler, it will make the overhead projector, with all the change it wrought, look like a paperclip.
Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and chairman of the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education. He is also president and trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Previously, he was professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, founding partner with the Edison Project and legislative director for Senator Daniel P. Moynihan. He served as assistant US education secretary for research and improvement from 1985 to 1988.
Author of more than 400 articles and 18 books, Finn's most recent books are Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut (Hoover Institution Press, 2009) and Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik.
Reprinted from Education Next (www.educationnext.org). © 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All rights reserved.