Technology for Technology's Sake? Lessons, Teaching Can Get Lost in Schools' Computer Race

Article excerpt

Byline: Deborah Johnson Daily Herald Staff Writer

Mark Mueller still shakes his head over the time his school bought $2,000 computers to help students do math drills.

At the time, the Libertyville teacher says, Highland Middle School had perfectly good machines that did the same thing, but for a whole lot less money.

"To use a $2,000 computer to do something that already was being done on a $200 machine wasn't very cost-effective," he said. "You could have gotten 10 of those machines and had the kids do the same thing."

Mueller underscores an increasingly common belief among suburban educators: That before school officials pour big bucks into technology, they need to step back and consider what the equipment will be used for.

In other words, how can computers improve learning?

Jeffrey L. Hunt, the planetarium director at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, recently wrote a dissertation on how school districts prepare technology plans.

Hunt studied the practices of three large Illinois districts and found that, too often, technology "plans" read like shopping lists: too much emphasis on buying hardware, too little thought given to specific goals.

"They mainly focus on hardware - computers, networks. ... They didn't focus very much on how students learn. Their main focus was on buying equipment," he said.

Breaking the 'mad cycle'

Like hamsters on a wheel, school officials chase the most up-to-date equipment. But given technology's rapid and constant evolution, catching up is impossible.

Hunt calls it the "mad cycle of obsolescence - 'My equipment is obsolete, and I need to replace it.' "

Instead, before they pump more money into Bill Gates' pockets, school officials need to figure out what they want to accomplish, Hunt said.

Do we want computers to produce better readers, writers and mathematicians? Do we want them to teach kids to find, organize, analyze and present information? Will computers teach our students to solve problems?

"When the focus is on the goals rather than the hardware, we start to look at technology differently," Hunt said.

John Baier, a teacher at Glenbard South High School near Glen Ellyn, said he uses computers to teach physics. The key to his success has been planning how the equipment will be used before buying it.

"If you try to do it without planning it out, you have no clue what you're doing," he said.

Some educators seem to want to use technology for technology's sake. Baier says that's a big no-no. He compares it to buying a car with fancy options that the driver doesn't need.

Human beings, not technology, should determine what gets taught in the classroom, he said.

"What I'm getting fits the curriculum," he said. "I do not change the curriculum to fit the technology because that means the technology is driving the curriculum. ... You want the people to drive the technology."

Martha Stone Wiske, co-director of the Educational Technology Center at Harvard University, said schools sometimes knuckle under to pressure from parents and members of the business community who believe glitzy machines are needed to give kids computer "experience."

"Business people on advisory committees exert a lot of techno-phillic pressure without being real clear about what the technology will do," she said.

That kind of thinking, she said, just doesn't make sense. …