How technology has changed our educational system is a topic that's sometimes hot, sometimes not.
It was a very hot topic about 15 years ago and seems to be making a comeback recently, despite tough economic times and despite the truth in the old joke that it took 25 years for the overhead projector to migrate from the bowling alley to the classroom. It may surprise you, however, that money spent on education in the United States exceeds our defense budget, if you take into account state and local as well as federal expenditure.
My interest in this topic was rekindled by a recent "On Point" NPR radio podcast "The Digital Future of Textbooks," hosted by Tom Ashbrook.
The show has an interesting structure: Ashbrook invites several experts in the field who, by answering his questions, lay out the issues, which are supplemented by questions and comments from phone callers and Internet comments. An enlightening and entertaining discussion usually ensues. This podcast discussed the pros and cons of using digital textbooks, running on portable computers, within an educational setting.
Even when you factor in the cost of providing small computers to the students, this still remains a viable economic option. Printed textbooks at the college level can cost students anywhere from $500 to $1,000 dollars per year; a tablet computer can be acquired in the $200 to $400 range. In grades K-12, textbooks degrade fast — pages go missing as all students are not as fastidious as the teachers might wish. Yes, students will also drop tablet computers, but insurance plans are available that amortize costs and lead to the student owning the computer by the time they graduate.
Another possible negative effect is that the money spent on digital texts will be diverted from traditional subjects like art, music, sports and even woodshop. Who is to say that the loss of these subjects outweighs any of the benefits gained with more technology? And how can we be sure these digital textbooks don't devolve into digital comic books? And what about the digital divide — will this advance in technology further exacerbate the divide between the haves and have-nots?
However, the pros do seem to be outweighing the cons. While big states like Florida and Texas can control some of the content in print texts, e-texts could be more localized, allowing more educators to become author/publishers. Teachers can insert, delete and resequence chapters which are very likely to contain interactive media. Students could not only watch a video as they read, they can interact with graphic models that allow them to ask their own "what-if" questions.
Picture an environmental science student running a climate-change model and essentially asking, "What happens if cars are required to get 50 miles per gallon?" And, in addition to lighter backpacks, a digital text allows the student to highlight, underline and otherwise take notes that are stored right with the lesson for easy review.
Of course, all of this means that teachers must take on new roles and responsibilities. They should be allowed to move away from fixed, mandated lesson plans and have more flexibility to design their own. With the students interacting, perhaps in small groups, with their lessons, teachers would have more time to adopt the MBWA (Management By Walking Around) method of classroom administration. Teachers become more like coaches, spending more one-on-one time with their students and answering questions instead of lecturing, which can be, in a worst-case scenario, answering questions the student did not ask. Instead of being "the sage on the stage," the teacher has the opportunity to become "the guide on the side."
David Eagleman, in his essay "Six Ways the Internet May Save Civilization," says, "The Internet opens the gates of education to anyone who can get her hands on a computer … A motivated teen anywhere on the planet can walk through the world's knowledge, from Wikipedia to the curricula of MIT's OpenCourseWare" (not to mention the wonderful, free lessons on Kahn's Academy).
If you're old enough, you will probably remember similar predictions that television technology would revolutionize our educational system. Unfortunately, TV has not lived up to its full promise. Let's hope digital technology does not suffer a similar outcome.
Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years at the institution. Prior to that he has worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Please send comments and suggestions to his blog at http://tec-soc.blogspot.com where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.