What We Can Learn from the Debate over Educational Technology in Schools

By Randy Lynn

“We’re here to be humiliated!”
“He’s here to document the abuse!”
“Write this down—harassment!”

These were some of the statements made to and about me on my first day of fieldwork at Catholic Academy. The aggrieved party was Nicolette, a Spanish teacher in her early 60s. And the “abuse” was a controversial educational technology initiative for which the teachers at her school were being trained.

The use of digital technologies in schools is a hotly contested topic. But public debates usually focus on biology and pedagogy, rather than the sociological stakes. Having had some firsthand experience as an educational technology specialist before I became a sociologist, I knew there was much to be gained from studying the messy and sometimes fierce struggles among administrators, teachers, parents, students, and other stakeholders.

So I conducted a total of 73 interviews, focus groups, and observations in two suburban high schools in the same large, Midwestern city. One was a public high school (“Public High”) serving a mostly low-income, racially diverse student population. The other was an elite but financially struggling college preparatory academy (“Catholic Academy”), attempting to stay afloat through a unique partnership with an educational technology startup company. The results of my study led me to propose five recommendations relevant to parents, educators, and policymakers.

Close the digital divide among students

An especially important need is to close the “digital divide” between economically disadvantaged
students, such as those at Public High, and their more affluent counterparts at Catholic Academy. One such divide is a lack of access: students at Public High did not always have access to computers or printers at home. However, these students weren’t given chances to complete assignments using school resources, and as a result were often required to bear additional, unnecessary burdens in order to complete their schoolwork.

Another divide is a disparity of technological skills. Teachers at Public High falsely assumed that their students, as members of the “digital generation,” had already acquired the necessary skills to use technologies, and were surprised to find that many had not.

The most effective way to address these problems, of course, would be to increase funding in impoverished school districts. But there are additional steps that could be taken as well. Technologies in schools should be made available to students who don’t have them at home, so that lack of access isn’t a determinant of academic success. Teachers should also consider the hidden costs and obstacles as they create assignments.

Allowing students to submit assignments digitally, for example, means disadvantaged students don’t have to pay for paper to print their assignments—yet many teachers insisted that students must provide printouts.

Economically disadvantaged students also urgently require remedial training in basic technological skills. The assumption that all members of the “digital generation” have already acquired necessary technological skills is a stereotype that fails to recognize the vast disparities of experiences that exist among young people.

It also reproduces class inequalities, as schools wrongly presume that instruction in this area is not necessary, and as a result, these unskilled students remain at a disadvantage as they enter higher education or the job market. If time can’t be created during the academic year, summer may be an ideal time to address this problem, due to the wide body of research suggesting that summer learning loss contributes to the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

Make more effective investments

Educational technologies are extremely expensive. At Public High, the school couldn’t provide many resources, forcing students and teachers to bear many of the costs as they brought their own technologies into the classroom.

At Catholic Academy, where every student had a laptop, the school spent $100,000 annually to provision a student body of only a few hundred. At all but the most affluent schools, the best use of funds is an investment in inexpensive yet effective hardware and software, so that funds will remain available to meet the formidable needs of technical support and professional development. But the pressures on school and district administrators encourage them to prioritize dazzling yet inefficient investments instead.

Children sit at a desk with headphones on while looking at a computer. A teacher with headphones on points to the computer.

Source: U.S. Department of Education


Public High, for example, had equipped about one-third of their classrooms with flashy and expensive smart boards. As a result, a few teachers were well-equipped, while the rest had to scrape together whatever they could, when more prudent spending could have properly equipped all teachers. Parents and other members of school communities should be aware of this administrative temptation, and resist such flashy initiatives.

Provide better support to teachers

At both schools, some teachers were very skilled with technologies, while others had hardly any technological skills. Most unskilled teachers, like Nicolette, were curious and willing to experiment with new technologies. But they were essentially asked to learn a whole new set of skills that introduced delays and disruptions into their already hectic workflows, when what they really needed was time and support to learn at a slower pace.

As a result, optional development of the sort offered in Public High’s district, resulted in lackluster participation during the school year, while mandatory development during the school year, of the sort required at Catholic Academy, produced strong feelings of resentment.

The only model that seemed to yield success was a once-per-week summer session at Catholic Academy, with teachers grouped according to their existing technological abilities, which provided additional support to a few of the more deficient teachers.

Other schools should consider implementing such a model, rather than attempting to force more work upon already overburdened teachers during the school year. Ideally, teachers should be compensated for their attendance at these workshops—with a small stipend, for example—to recognize their commitment, and to avoid creating the appearance that attendance at such sessions is punitive.

Directly address the working conditions of teachers

Discussions about technologies at both schools revolved around debates about what was in the “best interests” of the students. But this admirable focus on the students’ well-being led many teachers to neglect their own interests. As underpaid, overwhelmed, and under-supported workers, many teachers saw technologies as an erosion of their autonomy, while those who felt positively about technologies saw them as a way to enhance their autonomy. But teachers tended instead to attribute such differences of opinion to other variables, such as age or a psychological “resistance to change.”

As a result, educators were very much divided among themselves regarding the use of technologies, instead of unified around their common interests. This was compellingly illustrated at Catholic Academy, where the school attempted to partner with an educational technology startup company. The partnership was extremely controversial, as teachers were required to produce 20-25 videos during the school year, even if they had no intention of using them in their classes. Although the partnership was eventually abandoned, teachers at the school could not mount an effective, organized resistance, even though it was an initiative that provoked widespread discontent.

Involve students in decisions about educational technologies

For all the talk I heard regarding the “best interests” of students, most decisions about how to implement educational technologies were made behind closed doors, in meetings among teachers, administrators, and other adult stakeholders. Students were conspicuously absent from all decision-making processes.

Yet the students, in my conversations with them, revealed that they understood very well the struggles, dilemmas, and inefficiencies in their own schools—sometimes even better than the teachers. Educators, rather than dismissing student complaints as misguided adolescent angst, should take their discontentment seriously and respect their opinions—especially when these opinions contradict educators’ own ideas about who young people are, and who they should become.

It will be important, as technologies continue to be adopted in schools, that they are truly used to promote students’ best interests. That means the technologies should not be used as superficial window dressing, or treated as a new market for companies to “disrupt.” The educational technologies should, instead, be used to empower teachers and students and advance their common interests.

Randy Lynn’s scholarly work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest project is the Few Years’ Resolution initiative (www.fewyearsresolution.com).

Return to January 2017 Issue

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