In ancient Greece, the philosopher Socrates denounced the new technology of “books,” lamenting their lack of interactivity and calling them “orphaned remainders of living speech.” He added that they “seem to talk to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever.”
Almost 2,500 years later, educators in North Carolina are inexorably marching toward abandoning traditional books as the standard medium of instruction. In March 2013, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill initiating a transition by 2017 to funding digital learning materials rather than textbooks. The Wake County school system, the largest in the state, has recently established a pilot program in 13 schools whereby students will take their own smartphones, tablets and laptops to use in the classroom. If successful, the program could be implemented in all the district’s schools.
Two virtual charter schools, which would deliver kindergarten through high school instruction online and eliminate the necessity of students’ attending classes in physical buildings, have been tentatively approved.
These initiatives are laudable in that they are designed to foster 21st century learning skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and digital literacy. However, we must proceed with a caution underpinned by the keen understanding of how these disruptive innovations will affect learners and teachers and with a clear roadmap of how to implement them.
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Most of us recognize the advantages of students’ using digital devices in the classroom: instant access to up-to-date information, enhanced student engagement, accommodation of diverse learning styles, opportunities for content sharing and immediate feedback. But what are the drawbacks?
First of all, classroom teachers may not be skilled in working across the various platforms and operating systems on student devices. Some virtual-school instructors may not be well prepared to deal with distance education.
Current researchers say that while many digital texts and other learning materials do a good job of motivating and engaging young people, they also pose a number of problems.
A 2013 Scientific American article suggests that reading on paper still has unique advantages. The author observes that studies indicate people often understand and remember text read on paper better than that read on a screen, as screens may inhibit comprehension by preventing people from intuitively navigating and mentally mapping long texts. Noting that, in general, screens are more cognitively and physically taxing than paper, he adds that preliminary research indicates that even so-called digital natives are more likely to recall the gist of a story they read on paper because enhanced e-books and e-readers themselves are distracting.
More recent studies by a research team from West Chester University of Pennsylvania corroborate these findings.
According to a 2014 Education Week article, Andrew Dillon, the dean of the school of information at the University of Texas at Austin, maintains that the tension between digital reading’s tendency to foster increased engagement but discourage deeper comprehension is presenting a massive new challenge for schools. “There’s been this huge push from tech companies to get their stuff into classrooms, but that’s purely a commercial venture,” he said. The article concludes that mobile devices, especially digital tablets as they are now being used in the classroom, are not supporting the kinds of extended, rich interactions with text exacted by contemporary educational standards.
In addition to luring students off-task and compromising reading comprehension, digital devices in the classroom can contribute to sensory overload and interfere with sleep quality when students also use them extensively at home.
Despite these drawbacks, the impetus to transition to a digital instructional model has reached critical mass and is not likely to be reversed. The current challenge is to decide how our schools will adapt to this new model, not whether they will. It is, therefore, incumbent upon state policymakers and school administrators to find resources to ensure that all schools have adequate infrastructure with sufficient broadband capabilities and can lend technical support when things inevitably go awry.
They must provide clear recommendations and guidelines for effective use of electronic devices in the classroom and offer professional development opportunities that give teachers the time and tools to explore best practices.
Yes, the state of North Carolina already has a comprehensive digital learning plan in place. But Murphy’s Law is particularly applicable to technology. If anything can go wrong, it will. And at the worst possible time.
Nancy Swisher of Raleigh is a lecturer
in ESL at N.C. State University.