Technology in Classrooms: Where are We Today?

Ron Canuel

In 1971, Dr. Seymour Papert and Dr. Cynthia Solomon, from the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of M.I.T., published an article that set the stage for the introduction of computers into classrooms. Or rather, the article set out the necessary conditions and activities that would best serve the students and the teachers.  This article is exceptionally revealing, not only for the content but also for the analytical observations that were made about the world of education.  The article, read today, remains very disconcerting given the commentary about the overall world of education.

“Why not use them (computers) to produce some action?  There is no better reason than the intellectual timidity of the computers-in-education community, which seems remarkably reluctant to use the computers for any purpose that fails to look very much like something that has been taught in schools for the past centuries.”

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, we witnessed the world of education embark upon massive purchases of computers, almost all in the form of desktops, and literally inject them into schools with little real planning or support for the teachers on “how” to use them effectively.  There was much discussion about the revolutionary effects that this would have on both students and teachers.  So, with so much promise of innovation, we ultimately witnessed these computers relegated to “labs” and, as my colleague Gary Stager once said, “turned visits to such locales into the equivalent of a school outing”.  Teachers put their names on the scheduling board, hoped that the three Early Adaptor teachers didn’t hoard the time in the lab, informed the students that in two weeks the visit would occur, built lessons plans in preparation for the “visit”, and when the momentous day arrived, discovered that over half the computers weren’t working or parts were missing or the internet was down.  (So much for successful integration of technology in the classrooms!)  This scenario repeated itself across schools in North America at a high rate, and the final result was that technology in schools was simply relegated to a minority of students and teachers interested in simplistic games or low-level designed educational software.

Towards the end of the 1990s emerged the portable computer, however given the significant investments in technology done 5-10 years earlier, there was not a “rush” to buy into this form of technology and computer labs persisted to being the physical and visible portrayal of “technology innovation” in education.  It was also the era of the Internet bubble, so critics of technology quickly pointed out how foolhardy it is was to purchase laptops for classrooms.

As we entered the 21st century, we then witnessed an explosion of “visions” of 21st century learning.  Advocates of change in education quickly saw the potential of technology however continued to forget an essential element: permission to those in education to move beyond the confines of the curriculum and assessments.  I have often heard that the measurements of success of students differ vastly from the measurements of success for adults.  A closer look at this presents a stark reality:

Currently, students who are considered successful retain high memorization skills, work individually, demonstrate linear thinking skills and few analytical abilities.  Yet this is the exact opposite to that of a successful adult, who can work in teams, uses critical thinking skills, and values creativity, risk-taking, to cite but a few elements.

I have often been asked what that 21st century classroom should look like and my answer remains the same, as it has for the past ten years: it is the kindergarten class.  When you take a close look at this classroom, you discover that the teacher is empowered, the teacher focuses on the development of basic skills and than applies these skills to deeper learning, the teacher focuses on the holistic development of the child and constantly encourages children to succeed.  Research from the Canadian Education Association, entitled What Did You Do In School Today? confirms how our current education system actually seems to siphon creativity, critical thinking, teamwork and cooperation out of students as they progress to the final year of high school.

So, to return to the theme of this article, Technology in Classrooms: Where are We Today? , I would have to quote Dr. Papert and Solomon again:

“How strange, then, that ‘computers in education’ should so often be reduced to using bright new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in thinly disguised versions of the same old way.”

I can confirm that I am now starting to see some remarkable and transformational usages of technology in classrooms.  We may be approaching a tipping point but that is still a distance away.  We will have rethink our professional development models for teachers that remain inadequate and move towards creating learning and teaching environments that are trusting of teachers and students and empower them with the “tools” that can make each child succeed, yes, each child, and not just most of them.

Ron Canuel is currently President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Education Association. Ron has over 34 years of experience in the public education sector, most recently as Director General of the Eastern Townships School Board in Quebec.