No magic bullet: Technology has much to offer in the classroom, but it can’t fix everything


I’m sold on technology in the classroom. I really am. I mean, books, paper and pens are a form of technology — they’re just a comparatively inert and messy form. 

I’m not sentimental about physical books. I’m sure when they came around, some poor slob was sitting in a corner crying because reading would never be the same without handwritten scrolls, and a few centuries before that, when the scrolls came around, some sad shmo was tearing his hair out and wailing that you’d have to pry his stone tablets out of his cold, dead hands.

But I’m not ready to hand the keys over to Apple yet. The fact that new technology is available does not mean we know how to use it. The really cool thing about most of these netbooks, laptops, tablets and e-readers is that they are adaptive to our needs, and if the software is smart, it’s adaptive, too.

Technology is not static. High-tech tools are not shovels; they aren’t created for a single purpose and used that way forever. In fact, it’s my impression that iPads were created because they were cool and Apple figured, correctly, that users would figure out what they were good for through trial and error. Google is now doing the same with Google Glass. God help us all.

But currently we are not talking about technology in schools this way. What I see instead is an approach to technology as if it were a solid, unchanging, one-size-fits-all answer. In my opinion, this way of thinking is a mistake — a very, very expensive mistake. This mistake has two aspects:

1. Top-down, large-scale, prepackaged “solutions” 

Right now, superintendents and schools, terrified of seeming out of date, are investing enormous amounts of money in prepackaged technology without regard to its usefulness in the context of the very different classrooms in which it will be used. The most glaring example is the recent fiasco in which Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent John Deasy pushed for $1.3 billion to purchase iPads for every single student in the district — with such blind enthusiasm that the original plan was to offer above retail for each and every tablet. Are your ancestors spinning in their graves? Mine are. 

The district also failed to ask whether any teacher actually wanted to use these tablets; as of this year, 80 percent of the high schools that received the iPads reported that they rarely use them. As for the expensive Pearson software “curriculum” purchased for the devices, sight unseen, less than half of 1 percent of all teachers surveyed had ever used it. 

2. The delusion that technology and “blended learning” will allow us to cut back on teachers, saving us money 

This is a fantasy I hear promoted by many blended-learning advocates whose dream, at least as I’ve heard it, was that in the future, classrooms would have 60 or more kids. Here’s how the dream goes:

Each class, divided into three groups of 20 pupils, will have a “master teacher” in charge of 60 kids per class period. One group will be led by the teacher and be focused on discussion or direct instruction. Another group will be divided into small groups who work together on a project. A third group will work independently on computers to do individualized lessons guided by software to meet their needs.

A third of the way through the class, everyone will rotate to a new station. By the end of the class, each of the pupils will have been in a class discussion, participated in a group and done an individualized lesson.

Final result: We save a ton of money. 

The teacher is then carried away on a stretcher.

Actually, that last sentence is purely hypothetical. It’s also the only part I actually believe. Seriously, can you imagine actually teaching a class like this? I mean, for more than an hour? Without being on a Xanax drip?

Let’s get real. Blended learning is a cool idea, but it is not going to allow us to fire half the workforce as if on an assembly line when you upgrade your machinery.

So what can blended learning do? I have now seen blended learning in action at a few sites, and I’m here to tell you that — done thoughtfully, in an organic way that proceeds from a teacher’s needs and with a class size small enough for the teacher to have an individual relationship with students — it looks promising. 

But when class sizes balloon to more than 30, things get much, much dicier. I recently witnessed a really excellent teacher leading a blended-learning English class with 37 students. With this number of pupils, due to funding cuts, the small-group work aspect was not possible because kids just wouldn’t focus without a teacher’s supervision. 

But the biggest issue is sustainability. The teacher I observed was essentially teaching two simultaneous classes; she had to plan the discussion and personally design work for the students doing the individualized lessons, because as far as I know there is no really good software for 11th-grade English — how could there be once you got past basic grammar and vocabulary? The kids not sitting in front of her were filling out worksheets or chatting. Every so often, she’d stop her lesson to redirect them, at which point the other group would drift off task. Just watching her gave me a headache.

Like so many educational innovations I read about, large classrooms and rotating workstations might work in a class of high-functioning, confident students, but in an underserved community where you have a lot of kids coming in far below grade level, with low confidence and a history of negative experiences with school, many students need more individual attention than this. 

And yet, ironically, I only hear people talking about saving money by using technology to allow enormous classes when they’re talking about students of color in high-poverty communities. I never hear people talk this way about saving money on affluent white students. So before we implement the technology “solution,” let’s be honest about which students are being treated as objects on an assembly line and which are being seen as human beings in our educational system.

Technology is a great tool. We are going to be able to do a lot of cool stuff we’ve never dreamed of. But as a society, let’s let go of the delusion that technology is going to replace teachers or allow enormous class sizes.

It’s going to take time. And patience. And that most outrageous of luxuries, human conversation. 

I know, I know, we can’t afford human conversation. We need to spend a billion dollars to gear up for the billion dollars’ worth of standardized testing coming at us.

That, we can afford. How else will we be sure our children are learning?


Ellie Herman is an award-winning writer, teacher and life coach in Los Angeles. She blogs about education, learning and life at GatsbyInLA.wordpress.com.