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Op-Ed: US schools use varying philosophies with computers in classrooms

What's the best approach? Computers have grown to command a significant presence in many areas of life as more and more activities steadily move to a web-based environment.
The classroom is an area where computers are heavily integrated, and U.S. schools are taking various approaches in how to best integrate computer technology in the educational environment; some are thoroughly integrating computers while other schools are opting to minimize its presence.
The philosophies seem to vary when it comes to using computers in the classroom. Here is a brief overview on the approaches different schools are taking when it comes to technology:
• Computers in every classroom
Years ago school districts began adding computers in the classroom, often setting them up as "stations" where children could take turns playing educational programs on them. Older children took required or elective classes which gave them a designated learning session using computers, and in free periods could elect to go to computer labs to use the equipment.
The number of computers in the classrooms, then and now, are often limited by budgetary constraints, but the philosophy aligns with the value of putting an investment in technology. A general consensus is that putting emphasis on technology will help kids learn the skills they'll need to succeed in tomorrow's world as they become adults in an increasingly growing information-driven global economy.
• One-to-one programs
In the early to mid-2000s, many schools became immersed in one-to-one laptop programs, and for some this program continues. Over time many schools still invest in this type of technology program, meaning each child is issued a laptop to use and it is theirs to take back and forth to school each day. Some schools are even adopting iPads in addition to laptops.
The Mooresville Graded School District cited some definite improvements since implementing their one-to-one program. This North Carolina school has seen lower dropout rates, decreased suspension rates and increased attendance and graduate statistics. This school has generally seen positive trends through evaluation of their data from 2008-2011.
Perhaps the jury is still out on whether or not this learning approach is the ideal one. Some studies have shown many positive results, but that technology is "not a silver bullet."
And other schools, after adopting one-to-one programs, abandoned them after a time as indicated in this 2007 New York Times report.
• Eliminate computers
One California school is, for the most part, removing computers from the classroom completely. MSNBC recently did a feature on the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, where they described "clear signs that something different is happening."
The schools, located right in the heart of the Silicon Valley, do not have computers in the elementary schools, and are "used sparingly" on the high school level. The kids are reportedly thriving, and the school has an almost perfect graduation rate. The school is not against technology, but does limit its presence in the classroom.
"I'm concerned that if we say we need technology to engage students we're missing the fact that what engages students is good teachers and good teaching," said Lisa Babinet, a Waldorf math teacher.
Some students attending Waldorf seem to agree. "I don't think we're gonna be left behind at all because it's not like we're not a part of technology at all," said sophomore Isabelle Senteno. "We are a part of it, we just don't incorporate it in the lessons."
Students also noted their cursive, which some consider a lost art, has improved, and the kids sometimes get annoyed when spending time with friends who go to another school; they say their other friends outside school are often glued to their gadgets and the web.
Some may ask if this is detrimental since computers are going to clearly play a significant role in the adult lives of these children, however one Waldorf graduate, now in college, disagrees.
Laila Waheed has a laptop she uses, however does not bring it to lectures. She says she takes notes by hand as it is a "form of studying".
"If you stood at the back of the classroom and looked at every screen, at least half of them would be on Facebook," Waheed said of all the other students who are typing away on their laptops during lectures.
• Varying trends, which is best?
Some questions to consider are how effective is computer technology in the classroom and what is the best way to use it? As computers obviously will play a significant role in the future, children today will need to understand computers, however how much is too much? Do we really want our children to grow up glued to a screen 24/7 and tie all of their activities to gadgets both in and out of the classroom?
Perhaps a hybrid approach is best. Essentially computers, in all forms, are gadgets, and are only a tool that is as beneficial as the educational philosophies and practices linked to them. However if students are glued to their laptops both in and out of school, with their focus distracted by the Facebook and Tumbler type websites, the question begs asking, how much learning is actually happening, and more importantly, having the ability to retain and focus without too much information overload.
One student, Laela Zaidi, who attends Joplin High School in Missouri, is currently learning in a one-to-one laptop program after last year's tornado devastated the school, including destroying all textbooks. With financial help from the United Arab Emirates, the school has gone paperless and now exclusively uses laptops.
In her piece published a few days ago in the Huffington Post this week Zaidi said, "However, this school year I've come to realize that the "one to one" initiative is not always synonymous with "a better education."
The 15-year-old Zaidi summed up her piece talking about technology overkill.
"Unlocking the ingenuity, drive, and enthusiasm within a student tends to become virtually impossible when they all become Internet-absorbed zombies. If this is what 21st-century learning looks like, then maybe there's no reason for students to attend school. After all, there's not much to learn from Tetris."
Begs the question, is a shift happening in regards to educational philosophies about technology, and if not, should a shift occur?

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3 comments

What many "educators" don't seem to get, even now, is that computers are a tool, not a goal. While computers can help memorise boring stuff, they are -for now- far less capable for fields where one needs to use one's reasoning abilities. Using an iPad may be "cool" but that is fundamentally irrelevant if it is used as a toy, not a tool. Teachers have their uses...
#2Dec 3, 2011 Leigh Goessl
Yes, they certainly do have their uses.Computers are obviously a critical tool to understand as things are only going to go more digital in the future (how I wish more schools focused on computer security as they teach computers!), however I firmly believe the focus of learning should also encompass more traditional areas of learning that are becoming lost in the shuffle.
I used to work in a college; can't tell you how many students had no idea how to write a check and asked me to do it for them....one example of a skill that is perhaps considered antiquated by some, however its not extinct either.
Good point.

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