What we’re getting wrong about the technology in schools debate.

What we’re getting wrong about the technology in schools debate.

There has been a fair amount of discussion recently about the role of technology in schools. I say recently, but this seems to be something that flairs up quite regularly – certainly, for as long as I’ve been teaching there have been interminable debates about the value of technology and how it should be deployed in schools, and what role it should play in children’s education – I can remember far enough back to when laptop programs were seen as innovative and new, or when digital projectors and interactive whiteboards were going to change teaching and learning as we knew it.

Recently, a principal at an exclusive school in Sydney, Australia recently made headlines when he announced that he was banning laptops from classrooms in his school (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/education/computers-in-class-a-scandalous-waste-sydney-grammar-head/news-story/b6de07e63157c98db9974cedd6daa503). He argued that they were distracting students from learning, and there was no place for them in the normal life of the school. Students could continue to use them in computer labs or at home, but in normal classes they were of no benefit. In fact, the principal, Dr Vallance, suggested that vested interests in the form of technology companies were the ones driving educational technology policies and not educational academics and policy-makers.

Is there some truth in his argument? Probably. Certainly, the literature about the benefits of educational technology is mixed. Laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards and everything else have not proved to be the silver education bullet that everyone hoped they might be. In this respect, they join a long line of promised solutions that ultimately have fallen by the wayside – television, radio, ballpoint pens all offered similar promises at some point.

I have no intention of wading into the argument about the educational benefits of technology more than I have above. I am certainly going to go to great lengths to avoid arguing about whether using computers improves test scores, or increases literacy, or boosts mathematics achievement. Well, you might ask, if you’re not answering those questions, what’s the point of having a conversation?

The point is that we’re having the wrong conversation about technology in schools – whatever we might mean by that term. For the most part, teachers are still discussing whether technology should be a part of school, as if it is something that teachers have some level of control over. The way I see it, that argument has already been well and truly lost: in most of our towns and cities, technology is ubiquitous. We have come to rely on it. Children spend a lot of their free time staring at screens. And so do their parents. While watching TV. While standing in line at the store. While waiting of the bus. Our phones and our tablets and our laptops have become another appendage to our busy 21st century lives.

The argument we should be having is not whether technology should have a place in schools. To argue that it doesn’t is irresponsible and short-sighted. Instead, the argument is about what place technology has. In other words, in what way do we use technology? If technology has become an ever-present constant in our lives, then surely one of the most important things that schools must do is teach students how to use it effectively and meaningfully? After all, we have road-safety classes because cars and traffic are everywhere. We have swimming lessons because too many kids drown. We teach students about

But I’m not just talking about cyber-safety and digital citizenship. No, I think that we need a much wide remit: young people are already part of the 21st century, in ways that many adults and even some teachers are not. If we are to help them to become active and engaged learners, and capable and committed citizens who are literate and numerate, then we need to ensure that we help students to develop their skills in this area. Just like the teaching of literacy and numeracy can take many years beyond acquiring the basic skills, so too should the teaching of technology-related skills develop well beyond the basics of word processing and website exploration. To do otherwise is to risk abandoning our students to a world that they are poorly-trained to navigate.