PBS Frontline just broadcast a piece on how technology is changing the way we live, and its treatment of education was a bit 2008. I'm the technology coach at IS 339, the middle school in the Bronx featured on the program because its integration of a 1:1 laptop program over the past four years has coincided with an astounding increase in test scores. I was a social studies teacher there when, yes, only 9 percent of students were testing on grade level in math. This was 2006. Today, it's up around 50 percent. So, the Frontline crew - which spent hours in classrooms, filming - crafted a narrative around these numbers that ended up sounding like How Google Saved a School.
The trouble with a story like this is not that it's untrue; in fact, IS 339's integration of Google Apps (email, docs/spreadsheets) has contributed a lot towards improving collaboration, communication and instruction across a school that's quite large. The trouble is that the story is not so simple, and it was made to seem simple by raising a number of questions that have already been resolved in the schools where we work. What do our kids do with technology in the classroom? (Chat, play games, check their makeup, and participate in engaging learning activities assigned by their teachers.) Can technology be used to improve student achievement, as measured by test scores? (Yes.) Is technology both engaging and distracting? (Yes.)
A more challenging question to ask is whether this is all good. When Google is portrayed as magical or benevolent, and in the business of saving things, I am concerned that there is another story untold: Pixels (and their accompanying "efficiency") have actually displaced a lot of really great things at IS 339, like handmade book reports and music recitals. This isn't a misplaced nostalgia for the physical, but instead a concern that being saved by Google positions the school as a model of what middle school instruction should look like in "the 21st century." The narrative is much more complicated, and schools that have already integrated technology into their practice are now having to confront this problem of when it's good and when it's not good. Twenty-first century instruction - a strange term to use now, ten years in - shouldn't be synonymous with 1:1 laptop programs, but with instruction that knows the difference between gimmicks and excellent teaching.