Bringing Technology into the Classroom

Taipei American School (TAS) no longer has a library. Instead of rows of bookcases and little cubicles for reading, the area that was formerly the library is now the Information Commons, an open space filled with tables and easy chairs.

Some books for general reading are left in a few scattered bookshelves, but instead of book stacks, the Commons mostly features iPads and dedicated e-readers that students can browse or check out, just as if they were books, while obtaining vastly greater amounts of information on each device. [Actual books are stored elsewhere and are available on request].

Objects created by students at TAS using a highly advanced 3D printer for clay.
Objects created by students at TAS using a highly advanced 3D printer for clay.

In the art department, students do far more than simply paint and mold in clay. Instead, these budding artists become proficient in the latest technologies, including one of the world’s most advanced 3D-printers for clay that allows them to build far more precise models and sculptures than could be molded by hand or spun on a potter’s wheel. And TAS science laboratories are bursting with equipment that wouldn’t be out of place in some of the most sophisticated labs in the world.

TAS's robotics labs include machinery for metal working.
TAS’s robotics labs include machinery for metal working.

Taipei European School (TES) doesn’t have quite the resources in robotics and the sciences as TAS (although they are renovating their Secondary School campus and promise to reach a similar technological level in the next few years). Yet even TES classrooms are brimming with computers and whiteboards that enable what is written on them to be printed out or emailed.

Compared to the simple wooden desks and blackboards that predominate in local public school classrooms, does this suggest a technology gap that will necessarily advantage more affluent students in international schools over public school students? Current trends in educational policy seem to indicate that this might be the case.

Educational technology has become so ubiquitous that its advocates have coined a new term – EdTech – and consider it vital to the modern classroom. Teachers are making use of technology by posting lectures on YouTube, which students are expected to watch on their own time and then come to the classroom capable of carrying on a discussion or engaging in project-based learning about the topic.

Advocates say that technology in the classroom is vital for any number of reasons. One is that it better prepares students for the technology-saturated “real world” that they will be living in, as well as for future jobs that will likely require technological proficiency. EdTech proponents also cite such other benefits as facilitating collaboration and a diversity of learning styles, and increasing students’ engagement in the learning process.

The state of Florida passed a law in 2011 that requires all high school students to pass an online course for graduation – and this year’s graduating class will provide the first chance to evaluate how well this initiative works. CompTIA, an IT trade association, as well as the Journal of Research on Technology in Education, have both conducted surveys and research that found that technology in the classroom enhances learning.

Surveys of educators in the United States conducted by digital education company TES Global found that 96% of respondents agreed that “technology plays a significant role in their classroom,” while “69% claim that open resources are now used more often than textbooks.” Its surveys also found that “the majority of teachers (83%) use technology to deliver whole-group instruction or differentiated instruction (79%), while 78% report that it’s useful in communicating with parents.” TES concludes that “the benefit is clear: 33% report that technology lets students learn content in a different way, and 24% thinks it improves student engagement.”

Yet many educators disagree with the rush to put technology into the classroom, citing the lack of concrete evidence that students learn better through technology and suggesting that such gadgets can simply be a distraction.

According to Francesco Avvisati, author of the OECD report “Students, Computers, and Learning: Making the Connection,” over the past decades, countries including Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, have put a great emphasis on bringing technology into classrooms. “Yet there has been no appreciable improvement in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in most of the countries that have invested heavily in ICT for education,” Avvisati told online publisher CMRubinWorld in an interview. The OECD report also noted that even when disadvantaged students had access to the latest EdTech, it failed to close gaps between disadvantaged and privileged students.

A New York Times article in 2011 reported that many of Silicon Valley’s top executives from Google, Apple, Ebay and a host of other leading tech firms send their children to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, part of the chain of elite private Waldorf schools that eschew the use of technology for more rudimentary equipment such as wooden desks, blackboards and chalk, and bookshelves with actual books – much like a typical Taiwanese classroom. The Waldorf schools have three branches in Taiwan.

The New York Times quoted Google executive director of communications and parent of Waldorf students Alan Eagle as saying that the need for students to learn how to use Google’s tools is nonsense. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible,” he told the newspaper. “There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”

According to Jenny Hepworth, President of EF Academy International Boarding Schools, which recruits students in Taiwan for its U.S. and U.K.-based campuses, “it’s not a question of what technology to use, but of what the learning objective is, and how can technology help that learning objective take place.” She says that “too often, schools start with, ok, we’re going to have everybody have a laptop, instead of saying, ok, now we are going to teach this, and this is how a laptop is going to help.”

She says that at EF Academy, teachers can set their own policies on the use of technology in the classroom, with some teachers embracing technology and others preferring a more traditional approach.

Allan Weston, CEO of TES, concurs. “There’s a place for technology in the classroom, but sometimes tech can be an impediment to learning,” he notes, offering little more than entertainment to students. “What’s important is that teachers use tech effectively, using it at the right time and in the right way.”

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