No Child Left Untableted

Sally Hurd Smith, a veteran teacher, held up her brand-new tablet computer and shook it as she said, “I don’t want this thing to take over my classroom.” It was late June, a month before the first day of school. In a sixth-grade classroom in Greensboro, N.C., a dozen middle-school social-studies teachers were getting their second of three days of training on tablets that had been presented to them as a transformative educational tool. Every student and teacher in 18 of Guilford County’s 24 middle schools would receive one, 15,450 in all, to be used for class work, homework, educational games — just about everything, eventually.

There was, as educators say, a diverse range of learners in the room. Some were well on the way to mastering the tablet. Ben Porter, for instance, a third-year teacher who previously worked as an operations manager for a Cold Stone Creamery franchiser, was already adept at loading and sharing lesson materials and using the tablet’s classroom-management tools: quick polls, discussions, short-answer exercises, the function for randomly calling on a student and more. Other teachers, including a gray-bearded man who described himself as “technologically retarded,” had not progressed much further than turning it on.

Smith, the most outspoken skeptic among the trainees, was not a Luddite — she uses her Web site to dispense assignments and readings to her students — but she worried about what might be lost in trying to funnel her teaching know-how through the tablet. “I just don’t like the idea of looking at a screen and not at the students,” she said.

A couple of seats over from her, I was thinking the same thing. I teach college students, not middle schoolers, but I count on being able to read their faces and look them in the eye, and I would resist — O.K., freak out — if obliged to engage them through a screen in the classroom. And as a parent of middle schoolers, I would strenuously oppose any plan by their school to add so much screen time to my children’s days. The tablets, paid for in part by a $30 million grant from the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, were created and sold by a company called Amplify, a New York-based division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and they struck me as exemplifying several dubious American habits now ascendant: the overvaluing of technology and the undervaluing of people; the displacement of face-to-face interaction by virtual connection; the recasting of citizenship and inner life as a commodified data profile; the tendency to turn to the market to address social problems.

Still, I came to Guilford County, I hoped, motivated by curiosity and discovery rather than kneejerk repudiation. I try to be on guard against misrecognizing complex change as simple decline, and I acknowledge that my tendency to dismiss the tech industry’s marketing might blind me to the Amplify tablet’s genuine potential as a teaching tool — and to major new developments reshaping not just the nature of schooling but also the world in which my kids are growing up.

Read the entire article by Carl Rotella in the New York Times Magazine at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/magazine/no-child-left-untableted.html

Image Credit: 
Ben Finke, New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/magazine/no-child-left-untableted.html
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