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These Tablets Won’t Cure What Ails Education

In contemporary times it seems that whenever there is a crisis and a question about “what is to be done,” amongst the most popular answers will be one involving technology. While people can certainly argue over the degree of troubles currently afflicting education in the United States (in terms of K-12), most people would likely agree that the education system is facing quite a few challenges. Whether one blames economic inequality amongst students, the teachers, the administration, too much testing, too little testing, unions, students’ attention span, budget cuts, privatization, or any of a myriad of other factors, the only thing that everybody seems to agree on is that the current state of education is less than ideal.

While not necessarily claiming technology to be a panacea, its evangels are still eager to portray technology as an easy way to get students (and by extension the education system) back on the path towards a healthy future. Tablet computers in particular, it seems, are being cast in the role of these ideal devices; after all, if students are used to having ever more of their lives mediated by screens why not take advantage of this alienation from reality to make them feel less alienated at school? Early and immediate criticism may call into question the widening of the “digital divide” wherein not all have equal access to new technology, but what if a school district (or even a single school within a district) gives every student (and their teachers) a tablet?

The question of tablets in schools is mulled over at length in the recent “Education Issue” of The New York Times Magazine in an article by Carlo Rotella titled “No Child Left Untableted.” The article consists largely of Rotella’s observations whilst sitting in a training session in a middle school in Greensboro, North Carolina, where teachers are being trained in the usage of Amplify tablets that they will be expected to use in their classrooms; the teachers, and all of their students will be receiving the tablets for use in the classroom (and at home as well).  Beyond the training sessions in Greensboro, Rotella also makes the expected research rounds: speaking to former chancellor for NYC schools and Amplify CEO Joel Klein, conversing with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and checking in with various “experts” in the field of education, technology, and children’s psychology.

As a university professor with middle-school aged children Rotella approaches the Amplify tablets with measured skepticism, yet – like the teachers in Greensboro – he is more than willing to be convinced. That the article ends with the conclusion that technology is all well and nice but what really matters is the quality of the teacher using that technology is unsurprising; however, the article still suggests (largely through the interviews with Klein and Duncan) that the tablets will help improve that quality. Though Rotella nicely explains this issue by noting:

“Despite all the research showing that the educational benefits of new technology depend on good teaching, it can be easier to find money for cool new gadgets than for teachers. “

The Amplify Tablet is portrayed as a personalized teacher for students in a crowded classroom and a chipper teacher’s assistant for teachers sorely needing assistance. The Tablet – according to the article – will allow for individualized lessons, provide instant feedback to students and teachers, turn onerous assignments into games, equip students with the technological skills they need for the jobs of today/tomorrow, and help better target assignments to correspond with students’ strengths and weaknesses. It is, of course, also a potential huge source of revenue for tech companies that are eager to get into (what Rotella calls) “the sales bonanza” of selling tens of thousands of tablets to schools. Thus it is essential to bear in mind that all of Joel Klein’s comments need to be treated less as the opinions of the man who helmed NYC schools and more as the views of the CEO of Amplify whose job (and paycheck) relies on the success of these tablets (and the same could be largely said of the – seemingly quite nice – Amplify trainers Rotella talks to in the story).

While Rotella is not madly optimistic about the potential of the tablets he writes in the approved of style which is more one of mild tech-wariness as opposed to actual technological critique. Though Rotella speaks briefly to Sherry Turkle (the token critic of technology for his article) it hardly seems that giving two paragraphs to Turkle is equivalent to the platform that the article gives to the technophiles.

Indeed, the articles unwillingness to confront technology (again: tech-wariness vs. tech-critique) is in many ways made abundantly clear to the reader in one of the very first paragraphs wherein Rotella describes a teacher growing frustrated with the tablet but quickly notes that:

“the most outspoken skeptic among the trainees, was not a Luddite .”

In deploying the term Luddite as an epithet, Rotella seeks to insulate any of the mild criticism that will follow from any accusations that it is based out of a simple technophobia. The historical Luddites, of course, were not opposed to technology out of some sense of phobia or backwardness; rather they were skilled laborers who looked upon the new machines and saw therein the promise of their disempowerment and the loss of their livelihood. In truth, therefore, the teachers’ resistance towards the tablets could be cast in the legacy of traditional Luddism – for the teachers are skilled workers who see in the new machines tools being wielded by capital to render them impotent. Granted, the Luddites fought back (unsuccessfully), the teachers just attend a training session.

The article is peppered with some of the technological concerns that have become seasonable of late (particularly in the wake of the NSA revelations), and thus worries about student privacy and what will happen with the student’s information are all at least briefly mentioned. Furthermore some attention is given to the question of what all of this extra “time in front of a screen” means for students, and what it will mean in the long term. If school is one of the places where people are taught – to a greater or lesser extent – to actually interact with other human beings (and where the proper way to do this is learned) than more time in front of a screen is not necessarily useful.

From the standpoint of critiquing technology there are many questions to be raised and arguments to be conducted when it comes to something like the massive integration of tablet computers and classrooms. The economic factors (such as companies wanting in on this market) ranging from sales to training to the planned obsolescence that will lock school districts into having to constantly pay for more devices and trainings are also important to note. At one point Rotella quotes Joel Klein as characterizing most discussions about education as: “ideological, not evidence-based,” which is an almost irresistible invitation to point out that Klein is simply seeking to advocate for the ideology of capitalism and the ideology of technology (Amplify is owned by News Corporation which is owned by Rupert Murdoch).

And yet it is by portraying the problem as one of technology in classrooms that Rotella’s article (and those like it) ultimately proves so frustratingly inadequate. While reading about Amplify and hearing the opinions of various “serious people” (such as Klein and Duncan) makes it clear that these people never bothered thinking through Neil Postman’s 6 questions for technology, the emphasis in this story upon the technology simply acts to disguise a much more complicated and pressing question, namely: what is the point of education in contemporary society?

Perhaps some of what makes the discussion of tablets so unsatisfying is the sense that these devices are just being pointed to as another way of marginally improving test scores and making students conform to educational standards. While the argument is somewhat made that in a technological society students need to be versed in technological tools, the question of “what kind of a society do we want to live in?” goes unanswered. The Amplify tablet is not portrayed as a device that will develop critical thinking skills, because nowhere do the proponents of the Amplify suggest that critical thinking is a desired end result of education. In his book The End of Education, Neil Postman wrestles with many of these problems and calmly notes:

“there is no intellectual activity more American than quarreling about what education means, especially within the context of school.” (Postman, 139)

Yet it seems like this quarrel has turned into something that is only discussed in teachers’ break rooms, and nobody really listens to teachers these days anyways. While Postman goes on (on that very same page) to express quite a bit of skepticism about the full scale embrace of “uncontrolled technological development,” the key remains that he is focused on what a given technology means in terms of the direction of education. We cannot begin to think seriously about a device like the Amplify tablet unless we can answer what type of society that device is meant to advance. If the Amplify is simply a shiny new toy to advance the same crumbling ideology than these tablets will eventually become just more debris. As Postman notes:

“The role that new technology should play in schools or anywhere else is something that needs to be discussed without the hyperactive fantasies of cheerleaders.” (Postman, 41)

This is a disquieting point to consider when one realizes that Rotella’s article is almost entirely dictated by these technological “cheerleaders,” and this is largely true of discussions of education and technology in general. Furthermore the slightly wary position staked out by Rotella does not set him in opposition to the cheerleaders but instead as a member of the crowd who the cheerleaders are there to whip into enthusiasm. While the research (to which Rotella alludes) may note that it is the quality of teachers that matters most, teachers are not given much role in these debates, instead boards of business minded bureaucrats are empowered to shape educational policy in such a way that seems to always end in more testing. It is not a matter of if students are learning, but a matter of why are these students learning? There is a massive chasm between needing to memorize to beat a test and being encouraged to learn because it will make one a more fully actualized human being.  If students are conceived as a type of tabula rasa, what ideologies are inscribed upon them by tablet computers?

It is important to remain cognizant of technological changes occurring in schools, but it is equally important to remember that new technologies in the service of the same old ideas about education will only replicate those same results. And thus, in a few years time The New York Times Magazine will feature yet another article about the new technology that will save education. When it is perhaps those advocating this new technology from whom education needs to be saved.

Works Cited

Postman, Neil. The End of Education. Vintage, 1996.

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

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This entry was posted on September 19, 2013 by in Education, K-12, Luddism, Privacy, Students, Tablets, Teachers, Technology and tagged , .

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