At some point early in the U.S.-Soviet space race, the two nations set out to solve a problem: How would space travelers write in the subzero weightlessness of outer space? Harnessing millions of dollars in resources along with the ingenuity of the same scientists who had created space travel, NASA invented the Space Pen. An amazing little piece of technology, the pen used pressurized ink to allow astronauts to write whether right-side-up or upside-down, in freezing cold or boiling hot. Meanwhile, what did the Russians do? They used pencils.
We Americans can go a little overboard when it comes to technology. We enthusiastically set out to new frontiers with the aid of the latest invention. Sometimes those inventions can be momentous, like space travel. But sometimes those inventions can be more like the Space Pen—little more than delightful (and costly) diversions.
In schools, the story is no different. The excitement in public education today around blended learning and computer-adaptive curriculum is palpable. And for good reason: the genius that enabled space flight fifty years ago can be the same genius that enables teachers to reimagine classes to conform to each student’s needs. But the genius that invented the Space Pen can also be the same genius who creates wonderful computer platforms that distract from work that teachers could just as easily be doing with a cosmonaut’s pencil.
When considering our work with blended learning in schools like Bronx Arena, a transfer school designed to take advantage of computer technology to adapt to student needs, I have seen how they proceed with their work carefully and thoughtfully. As a result, they represent some of the best of what is possible with blended learning.
But at many schools I’ve seen a mismatch between the excitement and the reality of technology in the classroom. In some cases, computers just become repositories for handing out worksheets and collecting responses, potentially deadening discussion in the process. In other cases, teachers who always struggled with making lessons interactive and pushing students’ thinking continue to struggle, just with the added challenge of using a computer.
One question I often hear from people inside and outside schools is: Is it a good thing for teachers to use computers in the classroom? Here’s another take on the question: Is it a good thing for teachers to use books in the classroom? Of course it is! As long as they are used the right way. Just as no student but the most advanced will excel if placed in a room alone with a book, no student would excel if placed in a room with a computer and no guidance. But just as we would be crazy to expect teachers to discard books because they don’t solve all the challenges of education, we would be crazy to expect teachers to discard computers for the same reason. Computers are an integral part of our lives and they need to be an integral part of our schools. The question is whether they will enable us to soar or just be a delightful (and costly) diversion.