Re-envisioning the classroom to incorporate 21st century educational approaches involves a blend of instructional styles to provide high quality, differentiated education. Although they claim that they are not replacing teachers with computers, day-schools relying on fewer teachers and more computers for instruction do generate a 50% tuition savings. They seek to transform the very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide instead of a lecturer, wandering among students who learn at their own pace on computers and other Internet-connected devices.
This model comes as many schools, public and private, are stepping up their use of technology in the classroom, both as a cost-cutting measure and a way of individualizing instruction.
This experiment is being conducted in schools across the country without significant data to support its success. Mark Warschauer of the Digital Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine, writes that, “It is not the technology itself, but the solid package of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment that improves learning.”
Still, there is tremendous pressure to push technology into the classroom without proof of its value. This is especially true when parents are looking for ways to cut their day-school tuition expenses. A review by the Education Department in 2009 of research on online courses—which more than one million K-12 students are taking—found that few rigorous studies had been done and that policy makers “lack scientific evidence” of their effectiveness. A division of the Education Department that rates classroom curricula has found that much educational software is not an improvement over textbooks.
The AviChai Foundation and the OU support this new venture since it might be an important model for day schools to implement. “Blended learning” has great potential from both an educational perspective and a financial perspective. This is what grantors are supposed to do. Unfortunately, there is a long list of educational experiments that have failed over the years.
Technology is valuable and can be an important tool and adjunct to learning. It is not at all proven that computers on their own can really bring about the kind of mastery of language or excitement of language or of understanding a text or critical thinking that a real, authentic dialogue or intellectual experience can bring about. The interaction between a teacher and a student, as well as the interaction among students, cannot be replaced by a machine. There will be face time with teachers, but it is the technology that is being touted as the savior both in terms of learning and savings.
The real experts, not the ivy tower theorists, but those who develop the technology that some are scrambling after, take a more measured approach to this issue. The chief technology officer of eBay and many employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard, send their children to a small nine-classroom school. The school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.
The Waldorf School of the Peninsula, one of around 160 Waldorf schools in the country, subscribes to a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks. Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.
Although digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets, critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills—like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools—at the expense of math, reading and writing fundamentals. They say the technology advocates have it backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later.
We’ve jumped on bandwagons before without knowing fully what we’re doing. This might just be the new bandwagon. .
Let it be stated unequivocally that well trained, knowledgeable, motivated and engaging teachers are the key to quality education. That being said, computers, electronic whiteboards and other interactive technologies are fundamentally changing American education. The introduction of digital tools will have an impact on education that will rival that of the printing press. The challenge is making the shift from print-based materials to digital ones that offer new levels of interactivity. Until then, schools will be hampered by the need to invest simultaneously in books and technology.
Dr. Wallace Greene is a former day school principal, Founder of the Sinai School, former Director of Jewish Educational Services For The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and immediate past Chairman of The National Board of License. He is currently consults with day schools and other organizations.
By Dr. Wallace Greene