U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, left, and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski… (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )
Something sounded familiar last week when I heard U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski make a huge pitch for infusing digital technology into America's classrooms.
Every schoolchild should have a laptop, they said. Because in the near future, textbooks will be a thing of the past.
Where had I heard that before? So I did a bit of research, and found it. The quote I recalled was, "Books will soon be obsolete in the schools.... Our school system will be completely changed in 10 years."
The revolutionary technology being heralded in that statement wasn't the Internet or the laptop, but the motion picture. The year was 1913, and the speaker, Thomas Edison, was referring to the prospect of replacing book learning with instruction via the moving image.
He was talking through his hat then, every bit as much as Duncan and Genachowski are talking through theirs now.
Here's another similarity: The push for advanced technology in the schoolroom then and now was driven by commercial, not pedagogical, considerations. As an inventor of motion picture technology, Edison stood to profit from its widespread application. And the leading promoter of the replacement of paper textbooks by e-books and electronic devices today is Apple, which announced at a media event last month that it dreams of a world in which every pupil reads textbooks on an iPad or a Mac.
That should tell you that the nirvana sketched out by Duncan and Genachowski at last week's Digital Learning Day town hall was erected upon a sizable foundation of commercially processed claptrap. Not only did Genachowski in his prepared remarks give a special shout out to Apple and the iPad, but the event's roster of co-sponsors included Google, Comcast, AT&T, Intel and other companies hoping to see their investments in Internet or educational technologies pay off.
How much genuine value is there in fancy educational electronics? Listen to what the experts say.
"The media you use make no difference at all to learning," says Richard E. Clark, director of the Center for Cognitive Technology at USC. "Not one dang bit. And the evidence has been around for more than 50 years."
Almost every generation has been subjected in its formative years to some "groundbreaking" pedagogical technology. In the '60s and '70s, "instructional TV was going to revolutionize everything," recalls Thomas C. Reeves, an instructional technology expert at the University of Georgia. "But the notion that a good teacher would be just as effective on videotape is not the case."
Many would-be educational innovators treat technology as an end-all and be-all, making no effort to figure out how to integrate it into the classroom. "Computers, in and of themselves, do very little to aid learning," Gavriel Salomon of the University of Haifa and David Perkins of Harvard observed in 1996. Placing them in the classroom "does not automatically inspire teachers to rethink their teaching or students to adopt new modes of learning."
At last week's dog-and-pony show, Duncan bemoaned how the U.S. is being outpaced in educational technology by countries such as South Korea and even Uruguay. ("We have to move from being a laggard to a leader" was his sound bite.)
Does Duncan ever read his own agency's material? In 2009, the Education Department released a study of whether math and reading software helped student achievement in first, fourth, and sixth grades, based on testing in hundreds of classrooms. The study found that the difference in test scores between the software-using classes and the control group was "not statistically different from zero." In sixth-grade math, students who used software got lower test scores — and the effect got significantly worse in the second year of use.
The aspect of all this innovative change that got the least attention from Duncan and Genachowski was how school districts are supposed to pay for it.
It's great to suggest that every student should be equipped with a laptop or given 24/7 access to Wi-Fi, but shouldn't our federal bureaucrats figure out how to stem the tidal wave of layoffs in the teaching ranks and unrelenting cutbacks in school programs and maintenance budgets first? School districts can't afford to buy enough textbooks for their pupils, but they're supposed to equip every one of them with a $500 iPad?
"There are two big lies the educational technology industry tells," says Reeves. "One, you can replace the teacher. Two, you'll save money in the process. Neither is borne out."
Apple has become a major purveyor of the mythology of the high-tech classroom. "Education is deep in our DNA," declared Phil Schiller, Apple's marketing chief, at its Jan. 19 education event. "We're finding that as students are starting to be introduced to iPad and learning, some really remarkable things are happening."