Technology in the Classroom: Revolution or Devolution?

By Emily Hines

When Apple Inc. aired its ‘1984’ TV commercial, it promoted a form of technology that would give individuals the ability to make their own choices and create their own ideas: the personal computer. Apple aimed to crush the authority of “Big Brother,” who promoted a conventional lifestyle and the “unification of thoughts.” Apple said they “wanted the Mac to symbolize the idea of empowerment … a tool for combating conformity” (Cellini). By having a personal computer, one could assert his or her individuality and make a journey into the modern era.

Now, years later, personal computers have become extremely popular in the US. 83.8 percent of American households owned a computer in 2013, a massive leap from the 8.2 percent who owned computers back in 1984. The personal computer has become so popular that we have even begun to give them to our children—one-to-one programs are being initiated in an increasing number of US schools, providing students with their own laptops or iPads to use in the classroom and at home. Is it possible, therefore, that personal computers have become too prominent and powerful? Is their usage so widespread that they no longer symbolize individuality but actually promote conformity and mindlessness, producing the “Big Brother” effect they were intended to mitigate?

A closer look at one-to-one computer programs in American schools can help us answer these questions. On the surface, these one-to-one programs have great goals. Kent School District in Washington claims that laptops provide “ubiquitous, 24/7 access” to learning material, facilitate communication among peers and teachers, help familiarize students with “the technological tools of the 21st century workplace,” and ultimately “improve student achievement” on standardized tests. One-to-one programs will help even the most impoverished children educate themselves and become technologically literate.

All this tech, however, may not be as beneficial as we think. Laptops in schools can actually be detrimental to an education, especially if they’re not implemented in the right way. And the bad news is, they typically aren’t. Often, school systems view technology as an end in itself—they assume that once kids have tech devices, the amount they’re learning will magically skyrocket. Author Susan Pinker calls it “drive by education – adults distribute the laptops and then walk away” without teaching instructors what to do with them. Laptops end up being used as nothing more than what Alan November calls the “$1,000 pencil” –a venue for students to type documents, download files, stealthily play games, or hang out in online chat rooms.

Computers should do more than just replace physical books—technology has specific functions that books do not, and these need to be taken advantage. Image Source.

Computers should do more than just replace physical books—technology has specific functions that books do not, and these need to be taken advantage. Image Source.

Since laptops often aren’t used in classrooms as more than fancy textbooks, one-to-one programs have seen hardly any results. The Educational Leadership Journal published an article summarizing the programs’ impact on test scores, and the findings were extremely scattered. In Maine, writing scores went up by 3.44 points out of a possible 80 over a span of five years, but all other subject scores remained stagnant. In Texas, however, writing scores decreased while other subjects saw little fluctuation. In Michigan, four of the schools studied saw an overall increase in scores while another four saw a decrease. The inconsistencies in these results speak to the ineffectiveness of the programs to implement widespread change in academic performance.

Educational Leadership’s article claims that one-to-one programs “may simply amplify what’s already occurring—for better or worse—in classrooms, schools, and districts.” Affluent schools train their teachers to successfully integrate technology in the classroom, while poorer districts, unable to afford specific training, fall even farther behind the newly heightened standard. While we seem to be under the impression that giving every child a laptop will level the playing field and provide universal opportunity, without changing the actual teaching methods being used to implement technology, wealthier schools will continue to outperform those that are less well-funded.

Not to mention, technology is imperfect—laptops break, the Internet goes down, and emails don’t get sent. An education that depends entirely on a Wi-Fi port that sits in a principal’s office next to his full coffee cup is bound to experience some rough days. And, according author Lori Day’s article, “Bridging the New Digital Divide,” lower income schools tend to have weaker, out of date technology systems that have a few more “rough days” than wealthier schools who can update their technology and afford more powerful systems.

The problem only continues when students pack up their backpacks and head home for the day. As Day explains, “there is a divide between those students who have parents able to support their technology use and learning at home, and those who do not.” Upper-middle class parents typically have iPads and smartphones of their own and can, therefore, spend time helping their children advance the skills they learn in the classroom. Working class parents, however, tend to be less tech-savvy and do not necessarily have the means to keep up with a perpetually advancing digital classroom. Practicing tech skills at home is “critical to a child’s ability to take advantage of what is taught in school,” so this at-home inequity only widens the gap between those who benefit from in-school technology and those who don’t.

Of course, technology in the classroom isn’t all bad—it does have its place in certain academic situations, and can be used correctly by specially trained individuals. Spirit Lake High School in Iowa took advantage of its one-to-one program and had students participate in Google Science Fair, a project that invites kids to share and present their scientific ideas to a global community via Google. Similarly, an English teacher at Highland Park High School in Illinois (my alma matter!) started using Twitter to teach Hamlet after the school implemented its own one-to-one program. Having a particular purpose for technology in the classroom helps it function as a unique educational tool, much more than simply an updated textbook. However, until schools commit to training their teachers before throwing them into a classroom full of tech-hungry adolescents, technology should not be considered a universal “go-to” tool that will solve all of education’s problems.

By giving each student his or her own computer, one-to-one programs often promote conformity and strip children of the ability to think for themselves. Image Source.

By giving each student his or her own computer, one-to-one programs often promote conformity and strip children of the ability to think for themselves. Image Source.

Technology can do a lot of good in a classroom when it’s used the right way. It can foster innovative thinking and facilitate the exploration of new ideas. Schools like Spirit Lake High and HPHS embody Apple’s ‘1984’ vision—they use computers to promote new ways of thinking, paying homage to the woman in the commercial who runs into a sea of “soulless drones” (Cellini) and smashes the screen at which they all stare blankly. These classrooms evoke images of students happily working together, talking, and asking questions.

But what about all the schools where this isn’t the case? Children sitting idly at desks while staring at laptop screens look more like a black-and-white sea of “lifeless drones” than empowered individuals with enough audacity to stand up for their own ideas. It’s possible that an overdose of tech has left us doing exactly what Apple didn’t want—becoming dependent on computers to do our thinking for us instead of seeing them as tools to help us think. Computers are not supposed to provide answers but instead help us reach conclusions of our own. Technology shouldn’t replace our thinking—it should enhance it, so that we are inspired to glance up from our screens every once in a while and apply what we find online to the world around us.

Works Cited

Cellini, Adelia (January 2004). “The Story Behind Apple’s ‘1984’ TV commercial: Big Brother at 20”MacWorld 21 (1): 18. Retrieved May 9, 2008

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2 responses to “Technology in the Classroom: Revolution or Devolution?

  1. Thanks for this insightful article on technology in the classroom. I entirely agree with you that 1:1 programs can have negative effects, –and positive ones, too! — especially, as you point out, in districts where laptops are “not implemented in the right way.” I wonder, though, who should decide what the “right way” is. Teachers themselves, who can use their experience and instincts to craft engaging lessons around technology, much as the teacher from your alma mater did by using Twitter to teach Hamlet? Administrators? Outside ed consultants? The answer to that question might reveal a lot about how we perceive K-12 educators. As a Grinnell alum (2010) and a high school teacher in a 1:1 district, I’m glad the college (or your class?) has started this website. It is itself a great use of technology. I encourage you and other college students to read work by my high school students posted on a website with a similar purpose: http://www.studentwritersatgrinnell.org.

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  2. Emily, you’ve nicely crafted this essay (returning to the opening example in the penultimate paragraph, for example, and presenting both examples and counterexamples). In your second paragraph, though, without yet having defined or contexutalized how technology is *used,* the closing question makes a rather big leap. How technology is introduced and ultimately used is *precisely* the issue that divides those on both sides: fewer people, I assume, would be against the idea of teaching (and learning) “age-appropriate” skills to introduce children to ways of understanding and relating to the technologies that will become ever more pervasive in their lives. (Writing is a technology; books are technologies; and so on.) You are quite right to criticize the apparently mindless presumption that laptop computers qua technology are a panacea in and of themselves. What introduction of one-to-one programs requires, then, is intentionality bolstered by a philosophical rationale. If school systems are embarking on one-to-one programs just to keep up with their neighbors, then you’re precisely right that conformity and mindlessness are being promoted–but note that said promotion is occurring at the level of the education policymakers, not necessarily at the level of the students.

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