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Technology in schools

Friend or foe?

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Does technology belong in our schools?

This may seem a very odd question to be posed by a head of school in the year 2004. I think a certain amount of skepticism, even towards something as seemingly commonplace as technology, is healthy. No aspect of school life is exempt from examination.

At first thought, it would seem that the answer to my question is obvious. Technology, in its many incarnations, continues to advance into virtually every aspect of our daily lives. There is no doubt that technology has forever changed the nature of work, learning and life. Online banking, grocery shopping, travel arrangements, job hunting, research and even finding a mate are now common online activities. Shouldn't technology, then, be just as pervasive in our schools to prepare our young "digital citizens" for the world in which they will participate as adults?

I suspect that if technology — hardware, software, gadgets and gizmos — were to become dominant in the classroom experience, it would be a hindrance to us in meeting many of our educational goals for our students. Teaching and learning, I think, are fundamentally human endeavours. The development of academic, athletic and artistic skills, and personal and social maturation are best nurtured through direct human interaction. Technology is a useful educational tool, but only if teachers are guiding its use and only if it is applied in a supportive role within our schools. Technology cannot be allowed to replace or hinder the personal interaction and communication that are so fundamental to the educational experience.

Those who have believed that technology would save education, or completely transform it, have been fooled before. Our educational system has always been exposed to new forms of technology. In 1922, Thomas Edison said, "I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our education system."

In 1945, William Levinson made his own prediction about technology: "...the time may come when a portable radio receiver will be as common as a blackboard. Radio instruction will be integrated into school life as an accepted educational medium." 

Given our infatuation with technology today, it comes as no surprise that many are making the same predictions about Palm PDAs, laptops and broadband.

Advocates of technology in education claim that computers motivate students, provide access to an incalculable wealth of resources previously unknown, provide a faster and wider means of communication, and generate a more finished product. Critics argue that the motivation is short-lived, that web resources generally lack credibility and accountability, that e-mail has lead to gross misunderstanding and alienation (and diminishing productivity), and that the content of some student work now lacks substance in favour of flash. No matter which way we lean on this issue, most educators would agree that technology has presented schools with new and complex challenges. Students now have easy access to sophisticated methods of plagiarism. Teachers must be mindful of new forms of cheating and distraction since calculators, cell phones and even watches come equipped with high-capacity computer chips. And, both parents and teachers must grapple with the issue of filtering Internet content.

Indeed, there is a dark side to technology in our schools, but I have no doubt that we can overcome these problems and rise to all challenges presented by technology if we hold fast to the human element. Yes, keep hardware and software current, yet put a strong emphasis on professional development and training to equip and empower our teachers to use the technology most effectively. Our teachers are still the greatest resource in our schools and it is they who will promote a positive relationship between technology and young people.

It is often the case that the social consequences of technological advancements lag behind the pace of the technology itself. The worldwide debate over biotechnology and stem cell research are just two salient examples. So, while intriguing applications of technology in educational curriculum do exist, there are many questions that should make us pause. Does technology affect the value systems of our students? Do dialogue and human interaction suffer as a consequence of e-mail, instant messaging, ICQ and chat rooms? Is it reasonable to promote a connected state for our students that fosters a round-the-clock work ethic? Despite outside pressures, as educators and parents, we must try to be cognizant of the broader implications of technology and be protective of the human element in our schools.

So, does technology belong in our schools? Yes, it most surely does. It belongs in the hands of our administrators to effectively manage reporting, analysis and business communications; it belongs in the hands of our teachers to extend their knowledge base, network with colleagues, vet resources and use as one of many instructional tools; and judiciously, it belongs in the hands of our students to aid in their acts of inquiry, to safely explore and evaluate an increasingly digital world, and to find an appropriate and healthy balance between technology and humanity. It is up to us to guide our students in achieving this healthy balance — a new standard requirement of today's educational experience.

—Paul Duckett
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