Saturday, May 5, 2007

What technology can and cannot do

The New York Times (hat tip: SlashDot) noted that some schools are not going to continue to give laptops to students. Says the Times:

Many of these districts had sought to prepare their students for a technology-driven world and close the so-called digital divide between students who had computers at home and those who did not.

“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool....

Yet school officials here and in several other places said laptops had been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans, and showed little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time of increased pressure to meet state standards. Districts have dropped laptop programs after resistance from teachers, logistical and technical problems, and escalating maintenance costs.

There is no way that laptops or any technology is going to magically solve the problems in education today--or the problems in the workplace, the home, the church, or in politics.

We seem to think that technology can do all sorts of wonderful things, and it can--when someone designs the technology to do that. The downfall of the program here in Liverpool is that the lesson plans were not updated to reflect the use of technology. Just sitting a student in front of computer without instruction or a plan leads to the disaster shown above. But the same thing happens at work, at church, and at home: dropping a computer in the environment without having a plan for training the people to use it and having a plan for what software to use is a recipe for disaster.

And just installing software to block pornography wasn't enough:

Soon, a room that used to be for the yearbook club became an on-site repair shop for the 80 to 100 machines that broke each month, with a “Laptop Help Desk” sign taped to the door. The school also repeatedly upgraded its online security to block access to sites for pornography, games and instant messaging — which some students said they had used to cheat on tests.

No plan had been put in place to support the technology. It was, in short, a disaster waiting to happen.

The sad part of this is that computers can and should be used in school, but they shouldn't be included in every class. They are tools that have more ability than a typewriter, so just teaching a keyboarding class is not enough. But it's up to each school district to decide what skills students need to have in order to succeed.

In churches and businesses, the focus should be on answering this question: What can the computer help us do to make our focus easier, better, or faster? Some businesses frankly cannot benefit from a computer, or if they do it is simply as a type of high-expense frosting.

Technology cannot replace face-to-face communication (although videoconferencing software can facilitate it). Technology cannot replace teachers (although you can share a teacher via online courses). We know this. So why do we continue to make these assumptions that we can simply drop money on a problem, throw a computer at it, and fix it?

Frankly, I think it's a desire by people to feel like they're doing something. They want to use up their budget money so they won't lose funds next year. They want to look like they are solving problems--without expending the brain power to come up with a complete solution.