When “Digital Natives” Discover the Encyclopedia

(This post also appears at Rick Hess Straight Up.)

I’m sure my friends at the Department of Education were thrilled to read in the Raleigh-based News & Observer that North Carolina school districts are using their Race to the Top funds to advance structural reform by… purchasing iPads. Durham, N.C. is spending $3.5 million in RTT funds to “put Apple iPads in the hands of students and teachers at two low-performing schools.” Durham Public Schools Superintendent Eric Becoats said, “Our kids are telling us, ‘This is how we learn. This is what we want.’”

Ah-ha, yes, this is the change we’ve been waiting for. Look, I own an iPad. I like the iPad. But I’ll tell you, when I’ve been to schools that feature one-to-one computing, personal computers, and iPads, they seem to get mostly used in one of two ways. Neither impresses me. The first involves students working on graphics, clip art, powerpoints, or adding sound and visual effects to video shorts. The second is students Googling their way to Wikipedia for material to cut-and-paste into powerpoints or word files.

This was all brought home to me again, just the other week, when I had a chance to spend a couple days visiting acclaimed “technology-infused” high schools. Yet, most of what I saw the technology being used for was either content-lite or amounted to students using Google-cum-Wikipedia as a latter day World Book Encyclopedia. Making powerpoints and video shorts is nice, but it’s only us “digital tourists” who think it reflects impressive learning.

Twenty years ago, even rudimentary video editing was technically challenging and required real skill. Today, technology makes most of this stuff a snap. It’s the same reason video games like Halo or Madden ’11 can seem enormously challenging or complex to an adult but instinctive to a kid. It’s not a question of deep knowledge so much as a learned set of routines. Unfortunately, it’s easy for adults to get so distracted by the visuals, stylings, and sound that we fail to note that the content is vapid or mostly consists of Wikipedia-supplied factoids.

This is when terms like “digital natives” get dangerous. Hell, I remember my own long-ago days in high school, when we could manage the tricky feat of talking on the phone for hours while playing Atari. Yet, happily, nobody mistook these happy pursuits for learning or thought we had mastered new, invaluable skills. A student in Durham using an iPad to Google her way to Wikipedia to find a description of the Harlem Renaissance is learning no more than did a student twenty-five years ago who used an encyclopedia to find the same information (though, the fact that it’s now easy to cut-and-paste rather than hand-copy the information can make it even easier for a student to avoid absorbing new knowledge).

Enthusiasts will dismiss such skepticism by touting the rich multi-media resources, the tangential link chasing, the engaging visuals, and so on. Me? I’m far from sold. If you’re unsure, go visit some of these classrooms and decide for yourself.

I’m a huge fan of using technology to rethink schooling. But it’s the rethinking that matters, not the technology. What matters is how we use these tools to solve problems smarter, deliver knowledge, support students, reimagine instruction, refashion cost structures, and challenge students in new ways. Unfortunately, in far too many places, educators, industry shills, and technology enthusiasts seem to imagine that the technology itself will be a difference-maker. Good luck with that.

-Frederick Hess

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