Let's stop arguing about technology in schools and get the kids what they need

We built the best educational tool in history. Why are we arguing over letting students use it in school?

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In the years since Google set out to "Organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," technology has changed the world by making unlimited amounts of information available in seconds from anywhere. This has transformed almost every industry from music to news to medicine to retail and everything in between. But somehow, education, the one endeavor that is almost entirely about conveying information –from the minds of adults to those of our children – is still debating technology’s value.

High tech companies have been telling me for years that this failure to create a tech-and-science-savvy workforce will result in a world where Americans aren’t prepared to work in IT. And we are seeing that now as companies reach out to other countries for the engineers they need.

So the debate that has waged lately over the massive effort – driven by adoption of the Common Core of Standards -- by some school districts to get a tablet into the hands of every student makes me, frankly, angry.

Every misstep has people crying for a rethink of why students needs tablets. Every dollar spent has critics asking why we would give kids expensive toys. I don’t mind a bit of healthy debate. But let’s debate which tablet to buy, not whether we should be investing in one-to-one device initiatives in our classrooms.

Geeks argue for the democratization of learning, customized instruction, teachers as coaches rather than lecturers, and data collection. (Full disclosure, I am entirely in the geek camp on this.) While Luddites argue that technology is expensive, isolating, distracting, and not the point. The problem with all of this debate, of course, is that we have no choice. Technology is here. And everyone knows it. Only fifteen percent of American adults don’t use the internet and only five percent of teens don’t. Today,  I asked a class of fisth graders, how many had a smart phone or tablet at home and 100 percent of them raised their hands.

Expecting students to show up and pay attention to a less powerful means of distributing information – a person with a bit a chalk perhaps? -- is silly. This is a generation that learned to parse a reliable source while learning to tie their shoes. (In fact, toddlers are probably learning to tie their shoes by asking Google to show them.) Teachers who ignore the unignorable fact that their students know how to get the answer to any question in seconds from a device that’s probably in their pocket will fail by proving themselves not to be a reliable source.

In a thoroughly researched article last year, in the New York Times, for example, the highly educated college teacher author revealed his own demonization of technology repeatedly in an in-depth story about a particular school’s tablet program. Instead of discussing the tablets as a tool, a means to access the greatest library of information humans have ever created (the Internet), he cast the question instead as “Is technology a savior or a demon?” Then he promptly admitted a personal bias toward demon by opening with the statement that he would, “strenuously oppose any plan by [my middle school children’s] school to add so much screen time to my children’s days.”

In an era where “screen time” can include EdX.org and the Kahn Academy it seems backward (at least to this geek) for an educator to lump educational tablets (the school in question was using Amplify tablets) in with Sponge Bob mashups and LOL cat videos. Again, while talking about the students using their tablets while eating lunch – keep in mind they are studying as opposed to, say, having a food fight or picking on the fat kid -- he laments, “The raptly tender way they touched, pinched and stroked the screens awoke in me an urge to yank the gadgets and junk food out of their hands and lead them to a library or a good climbing tree.” If he was describing any of the other tools in the classroom -- pens, paper, books borrowed from the library, the chalkboard -- the statement would seem absurd, even to him.

But we can’t really mess around over this debate anymore. “I think it is critical that we get technology into schools and that we really do focus on those 21st century skills,” agrees John Galvin general manager of Intel Education. He and I chatted about Intel’s research into what classrooms need from a tablet recently. “We are trying to raise a generation that can process information and to use technology to communicate.”

So, sure, let’s discuss which tablet, which apps, if we should control or harness social media in the classroom, how to integrate technology into the curriculum, and everything else about the "how" of getting every student a device that can access the Internet while in school. But we need to stop arguing about the “if” kids should have technology in the classroom.

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