Technology has infiltrated every part, and practically every moment, of our lives. As I type these words on my laptop, I’m also streaming the Bill Evans Trio wirelessly from my iPad to a bluetooth speaker, checking my email on my iPhone, and downloading an e-book to my Kindle. (I am, however, currently using natural sunlight and not electricity to see where all these devices are!) While I spent ten minutes this morning reading an actual newspaper, all the rest of my reading today will be done on electronic devices that can link me to other sites which have even more information about a subject I’m interested in, a dictionary that can instantly define a word I’ve read and don’t know, or a “store” where I can buy products I’ve researched online (to be delivered to my door).
Technology has also transformed what it’s like to be a child. The days when moms told their kids to go outside and be home by dinnertime are long gone. Today kids find televisions and telephones passé, preferring the flat screens for video games and their smartphones for texting. Teacher Meryl Ain says technology has even taken over the classroom:
Technology is now changing at a dizzying pace, and parents and educators have to decide what’s best for our children. It’s a difficult conundrum with dueling points of view.
On one hand, most schools have embraced technology, spending huge amounts of money on upgrading electronic equipment that soon becomes obsolete. First it was the installation of computer labs, then the purchase of laptops, followed by iPads. I admit, I drooled when SMART Boards were installed in a district in which I was working as a central office administrator. I secretly wished I could be a high school social studies teacher again, and with the touch of a finger take my students to sites that would propel great class discussions.
Ain asks: “Do our children have to be tethered to machines 24/7?”
Apparently, some people in the computer industry don’t think so. A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that some of Silicon Valley’s technology leaders send their children to schools without computers! They think it’s easy enough to pick up computer skills, and that what’s really important is great teaching that actively engages kids in learning. Engagement is really the issue. Does technology foster engagement or inhibit it?
G. Jeffrey MacDonald says that recent studies point to inhibition:
For all the schools and parents who have together invested billions to give children a learning edge through the latest computer technology, a mammoth new study by German researchers brings some sobering news: Too much exposure to computers might spell trouble for the developing mind.
From a sample of 175,000 15-year-old students in 31 countries, researchers at the University of Munich announced in November that performance in math and reading had suffered significantly among students who have more than one computer at home. And while students seemed to benefit from limited use of computers at school, those who used them several times per week at school saw their academic performance decline significantly as well.
Alfonzo Porter thinks all this technology may have unintended consequences on students:
A Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 90 percent of teachers believe that digital technologies were creating an easily distracted generation with short attention spans. About 60 percent said it hindered students’ ability to write and communicate face to face, and almost half said it hurt critical thinking and their ability to do homework. Also, 76 percent of teachers believed students are being conditioned by the internet to find quick answers, leading to a loss of concentration.
But what about the more than 10-15% of American students who don’t learn as efficiently as others — not from a lack of intelligence but, rather, from a shortage of executive functioning skills and specific learning disabilities? Can’t technology in the classroom and at home help a child with dyslexia learn to read; a boy with dysgraphia to write his ideas on the page; a girl with dyscalculia to understand and use money effectively; a child with dyspraxia to learn just where to start? Can technology aid in teaching autistic children who think and perceive and feel things differently than the rest?
For special education teachers, parents of children who learn differently, and those students who have already benefitted from technology, the answer is certainly yes. Tomorrow we’ll look at mobile device apps that are designed specifically for these children.