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Ask Dr. Lynch: K-12 Tech Has Benefits, Drawbacks

EducationWorld Q&A columnist Dr. Matthew Lynch is a department chair and an associate professor of education at Langston University. He has researched topics related to educational policy, school leadership and education reform, particularly in the urban learning environment, and he is interested in developing collaborative enterprises that move the field of education forward. Visit his Web site for more information. Read all of his columns here, and be sure to submit your own question.

Dr. Matthew Lynch

This week, reader Jason O. asks:

Perhaps you can settle a recent debate that one of my colleagues and I had. His contention was that technology has been a godsend for education, and he could not see a downside. I, on the other hand, believed that while technology did have mostly positive effects on K-12 education, it also had some drawbacks—namely, the facilitating of a culture of instant gratification and the supplanting of tried-and-true teaching methods that may be more effective. Care to weigh in on the debate?


Jason, it sounds like you and your colleague have quite the debate going. Let’s see if I can serve as the tiebreaker. The late Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” Though he was speaking about the road to true equality for all people, I have often attributed this quote to the role of education in America, particularly public education for K-12 students. Despite the quickness with which our society has become accustomed to having everything all at once, educational reform and progression are still slow-turning gears in the great machine of time.

The truth is that the face of K-12 education is in a constant state of change. Educators who have been in the field for several decades may notice the faster speed at which changes in methodology and the student population are taking place. Many factors play into this, but none as strongly as technological advancements. The Internet, wireless devices and improvements in communication all heighten the immediacy for information both within and outside of the classroom.

This is both a blessing and a curse, of course. It is really too soon to tell if the first Internet-raised generations will fare better or worse in life and succeed on a global scale. The assumption is that technology equals improvement, and I would argue that overall, it is a true statement. More access to information and a shrinking world can only lead to beneficial results for K-12 students. The children graduating from high school in the next decade will have a broader view of the world than ever before, and that is thanks to traditional geographic boundaries becoming non-issues in communication, workforce and learning. I take no issue with the actual technology. It is great. Where I see existing and potential problems is in the indirect effects of technology on the comprehension habits of our youngest learners.

You have only to look at the overall influence of rapidly advancing technology to realize how it can sometimes be an obstacle in K-12 classrooms. In its broadest sense, technology has totally transformed the way that our children view life. A recent study by Common Sense Media for children age eight or younger found that 72 percent have computer access at home. Television use is almost universal, with 98 percent of children in this age group having at least one at home, and 10 percent reporting that theirs is kept on all the time.

While television consumption by children is nothing new, programs targeted toward toddlers and even infants are on the rise. Consider cable and satellite television staple Baby First TV. The channel plays continuous programming aimed at infants and toddlers that is commercial-free. I bring this up not to spark a debate about whether this type of television viewing is helpful or hurtful to developing youngsters; I mention it as an example of just how ingrained screen culture has become in the lives of our kids.

The journal Pediatrics found that between the ages of birth and six, kids watch an hour-and-a-half of television per day. These measurements do not even address indirect exposure, which puts the amount of time a television plays in the background at four hours per day for kids under the age of two. Love it or hate it, screen culture is a foundational element of the contemporary American childhood.

As a result, our kids arrive at kindergarten with an advanced idea of instant gratification. They know that any game, program or form of communication is available at the touch of a button. This easy access to everything translates to the way that these children are programmed for learning, especially when moments of frustration arise. There is not a “quick fix” solution for everything, yet most children have limited firsthand experience with waiting. It has always been very difficult to keep the attention of students, particularly in the elementary setting, but advancements such as smartphones, tablets and Web sites directed at young learners have complicated this truth even more. Teachers and administrators today must find ways to keep students interested, while not completely abandoning tried-and-true methodology. Thus, the great problem with technology takes its toll on K-12 classrooms across the nation.

Phrases like “hitting the books” may soon be non-existent, as budgets for e-readers slowly chip away at the book budgets for school libraries. An electronic book has a lot of appeal: it is cheaper to manufacture, lighter to carry and even manages to reduce the carbon footprint of the student. Since students are so comfortable with touchscreen methods, it stands to reason that reading may actually come more easily when learned through an electronic device. The problem again is not that the technology harms the actual learning mechanics, but that it leads to another issue altogether.

When was the last time you bought or borrowed a book, electronic or hard copy, just to admire the rhetoric? Have you ever found yourself reading simply because you enjoy grammar? Most of us would have different answers in terms of why we read for leisure—including special interest, excitement, or even a chance to escape reality. People who love to read have an interactive relationship with the material. Cracking open a fresh book is an experience unlike any other and is a reserved, special moment. Kids who are introduced to literature in the same way that they learn math problems (or have video calls with grandparents, or play non-educational games) may not have the same reverence for reading.

I’ve heard the argument that it is not the delivery method, but the content, that matters when it comes to getting kids excited about reading. I’m not sure I buy this. Again, this is an issue that is still too new to have definitive answers. It is just one area of the indirect impact of rapidly advancing technology that keeps me up at night.

So what, then, is the answer? If technology is embraced by some and rejected by others, how can K-12 students be expected to know the right way to learn? It seems the answers are as clear as mud. I believe technology has provided the swift kick that K-12 education has needed for decades. Technology also has facilitated the sweeping adjustments required to reach contemporary students and inspire education. I am just not yet sure which traditional teaching strategies deserve to be preserved, and which ones should be kicked to the curb


About Dr. Lynch

Dr. Matthew Lynch is a Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Langston University and a blogger for the Huffington Post. Dr. Lynch also is the author of the newly released book It’s Time for a Change: School Reform for the Next Decade and A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories. Please visit his Web site for more information.

If you have a question for “Ask Dr. Lynch,” submit it here. Topics can be anything education-related, from classroom management to differentiated instruction.

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