Many in the anti-education reform camp like to poo-poo any attempt to bring 21st century technology to the classroom. This year Kafkateach has had a first hand glimpse of what technology can and cannot do to improve the learning experience for both teachers and students. Here is a quick run down of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the digital classroom:

The Good

  1. There are actually many positive aspects of bringing Wi-Fi and mobile devices to the classroom, of which my favorite is the ability to go paperless! I have always hated wasting my planning period standing in line at the copy machine only to have it break or run out of toner just as my turn is approaching. I have always hated the fact that after I have wasted my time and the school’s money making copies, half of the copies end up on my classroom floor when the kids leave the room. You may value the copies you made, but the students clearly do not. Yo teach! That ten page syllabus you made a copy of the first day of school usually ends up on the floor of some other teacher’s classroom. Do us all a favor and post it on your teacher webpage instead. Paper costs money, toner costs money, copy machines cost money, paperclips, staples, pens, pencils and everything else that goes with using paper instead of technology costs money. We may complain about the cost of those tech devices, but if we actually use those devices to cut back on our paper usage, we can save our schools a lot of money and we can save the lives of many trees as well (Kafkateach is a bit of a tree hugger).
  1. We can also save our schools money on scantrons and ourselves time at the teachers’ lounge running them through the machine. I will not miss the cacophony of wrong answers going off in the scantron machine. I will not miss hording scantrons because my school can only afford a certain amount. I will not miss students hounding me afterschool for what grade they got on a test. The new learning management systems automatically grade schoolwork assignments for you and give students an automatic score (except for essays and long response of course). Students cannot submit late work because the system will shut them out after the end time passes. I do not have to decipher student handwriting anymore! I love it!
  2. There are technological tools that help us reach our students in new ways. My ESOL students have been using Google translator to translate historical documents. Academic social media platforms like My Big Campus or Edmodo allow us to finally communicate with our students the way they communicate with each other. Social media in the classroom can be fun and a great way to personalize learning. (Warning: sometimes this can become too personal as I’ve noticed some of the boys trying to pick up girls during our online class discussions. Technology  may change, but the priorities of adolescent boys certainly have not). Our shy introverts in the back of the room are now on an equal playing field when it comes to participating in class discussions. Sometimes the kid that would never dream of raising their hand in class has the most profound things to say, while your extroverts and class clowns who like to listen to themselves talk are full of vapid statements.

The Bad

Of course, with the good comes the bad and in the case of technology in the classroom, the bad is atrocious. While I may be a fan of using technology in the classroom, I am not fan of the government corruption (see LA I-pad scandal) or district ineptitude (see my blog) that usually accompanies it. School districts across America are some how finding the money to throw shiny metal devices into classrooms but not finding the money to train teachers how to actually use them as instructional tools. My district invested millions in equipping every classroom with fancy Promethean boards that no one has been trained how to use. For now they function as a big fancy projector with a great sound system. The poor 7th and 9th grade Social Studies teachers were thrown a class set of tablet computers the first week of school and told to use them with no training. The tablets the district chose have major issues connecting to the new Wi-Fi the district spent millions on. The tablets also have major issues charging. Out of the original 30 tablets I was issued for my classroom in August, seven of them had to be taken out of use because of problems that a computer technician couldn’t even fix. That’s a rather high rate of malfunction. A $500 tablet that does not hold a charge or connect to the Internet is $500 of district money flushed down the toilet. And then they say they don’t even have the money to give us a $500 step increase! No wonder teachers feel resentment towards the tablets. I’m surprised teachers haven’t taken sledge hammers to the tablets or thrown them out the window (though they would have to be higher than twenty feet because of the fancy case designed especially for our district so the tablets won’t break).

Bottom line is that there is a finite amount of funds for public education (which actually happens to be quite large) and businesses are seeing technology in the classroom as a great way to increase their bottom lines:

“The Obama administration’s signature “Race to the Top” program, which provides states with large cash grants in exchange for changing how students and teachers are evaluated, is being viewed as a potential cash cow for education start-ups. In a blog post, Alex Hernandez, a partner with the Charter School Growth Fund, writes that school districts are “raising more money than you can shake a stick at” and the money granted to local school systems from Race to the Top may be used on the latest tech innovations. The most recent round of Race to the Top Funding, he adds, means districts “should be unwrapping new toys for a while.” 
http://m.thenation.com/article/181762-venture-capitalists-are-poised-disrupt-everything-about-education-market.

The Obama administration has been key to enabling the corporate takeover of public school funds. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/obama-connected_n_3392817.html

There is even a new pledge on the Department of Education’s website asking Superintendents to promise to bring Wi-Fi and wireless devices to their schools

http://tech.ed.gov/pledge/.

Of course, the Department of Education is not offering to provide funding for the school districts that sign on to this pledge. I know this because I got an email from the Alliance for Excellent Education (a Jeb Bush baby) in my district inbox asking me to ask my superintendent to sign this pledge (me thinks he already has). When I replied to the email to ask if districts would be receiving any money to implement this rather costly initiative (it will cost large districts billions), I received a curt replay of “No.” Why would any teacher ask their superintendent to sign this pledge if it means spending billions on technology while they see ever increasing class sizes and no increase in pay already?

Instead of funding costly, cumbersome, and invalid teacher evaluation systems, perhaps it would have made sense for the Obama Administration to fund the Future Ready pledge instead? Perhaps they could encourage private businesses like Google, Apple and Microsoft to donate devices and software to school districts in exchange for major tax write offs? Sillicon Valley tech billionaires seem so concerned with public school education that they are willing to fund baseless lawsuits against teacher tenure (see Vergara trial) but they concerned enough about public school students to actually  donate software or devices.

The Ugly

There is nothing uglier than the district designed protective case for tablets in my county. It’s a big, black, clunky eyesore. It easily adds two pounds to the weight of the tablet. I know this because I dropped one on my foot the other day. The tablet was fine. My foot almost required medical attention. Students are not dumb, but apparently whoever decided on that case for my district has never instructed a teenager. Teenagers sense the extra weight, the ugliness, the socio-economic stigma attached to the district tablet. Kids with money opted to bring in their own shiny, colorful, sleek and compact devices. Kids without money were stuck with the heavy, black box with bulky accessories that scream “only a public school district would purchase this piece of crap.” My conspiracy theory is that the district purposely made the tablets as unattractive as possible so students would opt to bring their own device instead. But some students don’t have that option and are struggling to come up with the $5 to rent the device. They figured out in about two seconds how to take the tablet out of the protective case so it’s lighter and looks more like an Ipad. So in the end the district spent money on protective cases that the students took off as soon as they were issued the device. Any classroom teacher would have told them this would happen. But who cares? Somebody got paid. My fear is that the public school market will become the dumping ground for the worst products that are sitting in Chinese warehouses because no consumer would ever buy them. What if the private sector donated the devices instead of making a profit off a bad product that they would otherwise have to pay money for someone to dispose?

  1. Almost as ugly as our district device, is the online textbook someone (obviously not a teacher) selected for our world history classes. The online textbook has no page numbers, which makes assigning homework a pain in the wazoo. The online textbook has so much interactive media being shoved on one screen that it’s too much of a hot mess to make any sense out of. I tried to use the online textbook to make an assessment and the system was so slow and counterintuitive it took hours to make one test. I’ve basically been creating my own curriculum this year because the text is so poorly designed. Corporate curriculum tends to be lacking because it is designed by people who are not actually using it the classroom.

Ultimately, corporate curriculum and technology in the classroom will always be plagued by the underlying impetus of profit. When dollar signs win, students and teachers tend to lose.

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