Grading the New York Times on Education Technology

January 4, 2012

This morning, the New York Times had the latest in its occasional series, “Wouldn’t It Be Nicer If There Were No Technology in Schools” –wait, sorry, I read it wrong, the correct title is “Grading the Digital School.” The piece, titled “Teachers Resist High-Tech Push in Idaho Schools,” reveals that a new law in Idaho “requires all high school students to take some online classes to graduate, and that the students and their teachers be given laptops or tablets.” The effort, aimed at making Idaho a high-tech leader, may come at the cost of “tens of millions of dollars [in] salaries for teachers and administrators,” the Times alleges.

There are two problems here: the decisions that Idaho is making, and those that the Times is making. First, Idaho: I’m not sure the top-down mandate for a set of products and on-line classes was the smartest way to encourage the thoughtful integration of tech into the classroom. And if school systems take the money for the products out of the pay of the people expected to implement them, well, that doesn’t precisely set the plan up for shining success. I don’t quibble with the aim of making sure that kids don’t emerge from high school stunned and baffled by the sight of a tablet computer (though it rarely seems to be children who are baffled by digital devices). It’s just that there are better ways than Idaho’s strategy. Most fields (especially those involving public investment) have an established, healthy cycle of innovation that includes and in fact relies on the practitioners — think about how innovation in medicine involves doctors, or how innovation in aviation involves pilots. If you believe the Times, it sounds like while Idaho may have meant the technology as a relief airlift, it was delivered as a bunker-busting bomb.

But let’s not forget about the role of the New York Times here. I’ve puzzled before on this blog about the intentions of Matt Richtel, the Times’ Pulitzer-winning technology writer, who (full disclosure) was a friend when we worked together at the Oakland Tribune. To read the “Grading the Digital School” is to believe that education technology is a giant, undifferentiated conglomeration of everything from Smart Boards to computers running Microsoft Word to online courses that costs a zillion dollars, does nothing for kids, and annoys teachers. It’s not hard to find examples to support the case; in public education, as anywhere, some systems will make bad decisions, waste money, and irritate the professionals expected to do the real work. What’s missing is the crucial other side of the story: technology that translates into measurable progress for students, and meets the needs of teachers. This is the side that excites us, and that, happily, we see daily: technology that helps teachers group students more flexibly, tailor instruction more directly to the needs of each student, and focus their time and energy where it’s needed most. It’s a side of the story that needs to figure in school policy and budget decisions. As a former journalist, I know that newspapers are a whole lot better at describing the flaws of systems than their successes. But they are also capable of applauding innovation. If the Times continues to tell a one-sided story about education technology, the losers will be our kids.