Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Opinion: Technology in the Classroom, Preparing for a Global Economy

In the past two years, four high school seniors have been under my direct supervision.  Three of those seniors could not spell or write grammatically correct sentences.  These kids were intelligent, they had goals, and all of them have been accepted into college.  Two of them were even Raytown students.

What astonishes me about these recent high school graduates is how they made it through countless teachers who you might think would have caught the inadequacies these kids have demonstrated in their writing abilities.  Admittedly, their inaptitude to spell correctly may be mere coincidence, but the more my co-workers and I assessed these kids, the one thing they have in schools that wasn’t available to us, was computers and “spell check.”  Based on this conclusion, the teachers are more than likely highly capable, but lack the opportunity to catch these mistakes.

I have always found spell check to be a great convenience in catching mistakes when writing a paper for school, but I have never used it as a crutch to spell correctly.  The more I’ve thought about this, the more it seems that students no longer need to spell because computers can do it for them.  I graduated from high school 13 years ago, and all but one of my papers was handwritten. The English department had a computer lab installed towards the end of my senior year, and my last paper was word-processed.  In our schools today, starting as early as elementary school, papers are often required to be word-processed. Not only will some word processors check spelling, they will also check grammar.  Many students have access to computers in their homes and almost all have access to them in schools.  My question is this; is technology advancing education, or it is hindering our students from mastering effective communication skills?  

Earlier this year, the Federal Assistance Package, or “stimulus,” was signed into law by President Obama to help lift our economy out of recession.  The Department of Education has by far received one of the largest allotments of the $700 billion.  Each state has received an amount based on its deficit needs.  In Missouri, the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City will be receiving the largest of the state’s stimulus money.  The monies for education have been designated to three major areas: building projects, special education, and updating technology in underprivileged school districts. I sat down with Raytown Superintendent Dr. Allan Markley recently to discuss how Raytown would use the stimulus money if it received any, and our conversation turned to the technology aspect of it.  

I have been a substitute teacher in many school districts in the metro area, including Raytown, and I have seen technology at work.  High tech graphing calculators, smart boards, and of course computers at every turn.  Business classes, English classes, Math classes, Art classes, libraries, all have computers.  Whole classrooms are equipped solely with computers for class instruction.  The Raytown school district is definitely not lacking in computer technology at the middle school or high school levels.  When a substitute enters one of these high tech classrooms, it is unfortunately accepted that the students will pay lip service to regular classroom expectations and “surf” the web.  When I asked Dr. Markley about this easily attainable access to the internet, he explained that “sometimes kids will take advantage, it’s to be expected.  But at the same time, this is the student’s link to information and their only link to outside cultures.”  

Markley makes a strong point.  We are living in a globalized culture.  These students will enter a highly competitive globalized workforce and economy. In this time of economic uncertainty, schools across the nation are taking the initiative to prepare students for that future.  For these reasons, technology in schools is highly beneficial.  However, I question whether Facebook and MySpace are that globally conscious even though they are available to anyone in the world with Internet access.  It’s true, school administrators lock most of these new social networks, but sometimes we underestimate the intelligence of these students to find ways around barriers.  

In one way technology is advancing education.  However, research indicates that technology investment has typically had little impact on student achievement.  Markley is right that technology keeps our students on a global level, but does it make them globally competitive?  After taking a look at how technology has been integrated in education world wide, it is apparent that technology investment in the United States has gone slightly overboard.  It could be argued that we have to keep up with the technological advancements of Asian countries, such as Japan, Taiwan, and China by investing more and more technology into our schools.  That isn’t the case though.  When compared to China, a country that our economy is delicately linked to, our approach to technology and education is comparably different.  Technology is widely used in China by the teacher for instruction.  

Research shows that in math and science, American students fair far worse than their Chinese counterparts. Advances in technology come from the comprehension and application of these two subjects.  In China, emphasis is given to these subjects and the humanities are not neglected, as many would believe.  The Chinese Ministry of Education has designed its curriculum to build “strong foundational knowledge and mastery of core concepts.”  Biology, chemistry, physics, algebra and geometry are required for secondary education completion in China, whereas in the United States, students are given the option to take alternative classes and are not expected to take higher levels of these courses.  

The Chinese school system also offers more specialized, vocational and agricultural schools in the upper levels of secondary education.  The majority of these specialized schools are technology based. The purpose of these schools is to prepare students for employment. Our educational system also affords for vocational schools such as Raytown’s Joe Herndon Center.  However, this school offers its services to the surrounding metro area rather than just the Raytown School District. The Chinese counterpart to our school districts will typically have more than one specialized school. This difference could be attributed to the importance we place on academics and college education as a culture.  The United States is the second highest educated nation in the world. China is not even included in the top 10 nations as most would presume based on their position as a leader in the exportation economy.  When compared socio-economically, students from both nations come from similar backgrounds.  In both societies, some students are suited for higher education, while others are not.  In China, however, more educational options exist at what would be the American “high school” level.  

In our schools, we focus on how technology will help us compete globally.  We continue to invest billions of dollars into our schools but is this the most important aspect of maintaining our position on the world stage?  Technology when integrated into the classroom can be highly beneficial when taken out of the student’s immediate grasp and into the teacher’s. When used for teaching virtual classes, technology then becomes effective.  When a teacher can create a lesson plan with a teacher from another school, school district, state, or country, and share it through the Internet, then it becomes a link to a global society. At the present time, the use of computers in the academic classroom is hindering education advancements in the area of communication, which ironically is what computers allow us to do on a global level