Why are tech companies the only voice talking about technology in the classroom?
I remember it’s compactness — at six years old, it’s 10 inch screen seemed almost perfectly scaled for me. Whether I wanted to write letters, draw, or use it for my neverending chain of pretend stores, it was like I had a suitcase filled with far more opportunities to create than with a pen and my limited artistic abilities. But a suitcase would have been easier to move — the Apple Macintosh I was constantly dragging around the house as a kid weighed 16 pounds and was nearly a 1 foot cube. It was hardly the iPad schools eagerly push on kids today, and discussing how to use it was simple — you just had to decide whether to use MacWrite or MacPaint.
iPads, Chromebooks, and smartphones are now ubiquitous in classrooms, and with hundreds of thousands of apps, using a simple word processor or artboard is nostalgic. We exclaim how devices can help replicate an entire library in our hands and take for granted how they might help create something as mundane as a book report. Evidently, we have graduated from using technology as a tool for creation to using it as a tool for consumption, but who determined that was preferable? This seismic shift has occurred without a collaborative conversation between parents, students, educators, school administrators, employers, workforce development professionals, and civic leaders who all have a key stake in this discussion.
How did this happen?
Technology’s role in the classroom has been a topic of contention for decades. In a wide-ranging 1995 interview with the Smithsonian Institution, none other than Steve Jobs offered his thoughts on how he “helped with more computers in more schools than anybody else in the world and [was] absolutely convinced that is by no means the most important thing. The most important thing is a person.” One of the leading tech visionaries (not to mention, computer salesmen) of our time argued that getting computers into the hands of kids should not be our ultimate goal, yet most schools are currently judging success solely by measuring the ratio of students to devices. Jobs went on to remark how the consumers of education (parents) “went away. The customers stopped paying attention to their schools, for the most part.” Nobody was showing up for a conversation.
Well, not exactly ‘nobody.’ Over the past 30 years, technology companies have consistently deepened their relationships with schools — not only has this guaranteed access to the roughly 56 million students in the K-12 system who are potential lifelong customers, it’s earned many a share of the $8 billion schools spend annually on hardware and software as well as the $3 billion they spend annually on digital content. The influence of these firms along with the ever-expanding capabilities of devices have put classrooms and the ed-tech discussion on autopilot, but the direction (much less the destination) is unknown to the students and teachers who are most impacted.
What discussion should we have?
“Most discussions of the role of educational technology are fundamentally flawed because they ignore one essential tenet: technology is a means, not an end” said Wade Whitehead, a teacher at Crystal Springs School in Roanoke, VA and the founder of the Teachers of Promise Foundation. Before we can get to the benefits of carrying around a virtual library or the dangers of screen time addiction, we need to begin a conversation about what we want to use technology for and who needs to be involved in that discussion. By bringing the perspectives of students, parents, educators, and employers to the table alongside the people designing these devices, we can create a constructive dialogue on using technology in education rather than allowing technology to use the classroom.