Editorial: Digital fears and hopes

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Schools in Philadelphia and elsewhere are struggling to catch up with the times.

Classrooms are starting to look different, but some still function like they did 50 years ago, when pencils, chalk, and books were the main learning tools (with maybe an occasional filmstrip).

Fear, scarce resources, and a lack of vision are blocking an expanded classroom role for technology.

Public schools here have taken steps toward a digital environment. Classrooms are wired for the Internet. Computers are often present, though many are more than five years old. It is becoming more common to see some integration of technology into instruction.

But the pace of change is too slow. Today’s students are digital natives, used to gadgets and to communicating and learning online. Schools aren’t taking advantage of this familiarity to enhance learning and sharpen the technical skills students will need to navigate the world.

Despite the digital divide, many students across the economic spectrum possess a powerful digital tool – a smartphone. Wrote author and futurist Michio Kaku, “Today, your cell phone has more computer power than all of NASA back in 1969, when it placed two astronauts on the moon.”

The learning possibilities are endless, far beyond doing research on the Internet. Most important, they open paths for students to take charge of their own learning. A student can exchange ideas with peers across the world … learn Arabic or Chinese … watch lectures by brilliant teachers. Software can make mastering basic skills an enjoyable game. Digital connections can keep students learning when they are absent or transient. And blended learning can help individualize instruction in large and diverse classrooms.

Where is the visionary leadership to take advantage of these opportunities? The District now offers schools a “bring your own device” option, aiming to tap the technology that many students have in their pockets or backpacks. A few schools have embraced this, trusting their students with these tools. But an informal Notebook survey suggests that most don’t allow students to use their smartphones or tablets during the school day.

Another prevalent fear is that technology will displace teachers. The perceived threat to the teaching profession is reinforced every time we hear the money-making opportunities in the $1.3 trillion “education market” touted.

Education leaders need to make clear that this is not their plan. New technology tools don’t diminish the need for teachers – quite the reverse. Education depends on relationships and vibrant communities of learners. Technology creates new possibilities, but teachers must be there to guide the learning. The history of the High School of the Future shows us that state-of-the-art technology is a step, not an answer.

At the same time, technology is no longer optional. And it is expensive: It breaks and it becomes obsolete. As the gap between have and have-not schools appears to grow, it’s clear that districts need help in providing all classrooms the tools they need to prepare students for the modern world. The federal government should step in and expand its funding role to ensure fair treatment for every student.