Revisiting Technology in Classrooms: Where are We Today?

In 2014, I was asked to write an article in FORUM magazine about the state of technology in Canadian schools. I began with a quote from the famous and inspiring article written in 1971 by Dr. Seymour Papert and Dr. Cynthia Solomon, on the best approaches to successfully integrate technology in classrooms. It is now an even more relevant commentary, given how technology has been deployed during the pandemic into schools, both nationally and internationally:

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.”

It is a stark reminder that this commentary, dating back 50 years, is so pertinent to what is currently happening in the world of education. It explains the frustrations currently being heard from teachers, students, parents and administrators alike. To add to this, we know that any crisis will transform previous chronic issues into acute challenges. Issues such as dropout rates, providing stimulating learning environments, well-being, supporting marginalized students and successfully integrating technology, have been exacerbated by the pandemic. In effect, the pandemic has created the “perfect storm” for education.

For too long, the hubris of the world of education has prevented the establishment of coherent, well-thought action plans that would take into account emergency planning and contingencies. When I was Director General for the Eastern Townships School Board, in 2003, we provided laptop computers to all of our students, teachers, non-teaching professionals, special needs support staff and administrators, as the first school board in Canada and the second in North America. We were met with high levels of skepticism and the proverbial “cold shoulder”. Five years later, we produced remarkable positive results in academic scores, reduced dropout rates and achieved overall parental, educator and student support. In 2007, we produced a Pandemic Preparedness Plan in anticipation of a likely pandemic from the H5N1 virus. Again, we were simply ignored or, as a Ministry of Education representative in Quebec called us, treated as “alarmists”. However, in 2008, we were in high demand from various Ministries of Education and school boards across North America for our plan and we gladly shared it. One can only imagine what the current world of education would look like now, had we been accepted to integrate technology into meaningful and rich learning experiences back in 2003 or in 1971!

All of the above serves to illustrate that despite opportunities to successfully offer instruction utilizing technology in very positive pedagogical approaches, designed by the teachers in our schools, it simply didn’t happen. This brings me to another quote:

Education has always been seduced by convenience, but the ‘easy’ choice is not always the ‘best’ choice.” (Ron Canuel)

There is no doubt that the successful integration of technology into education requires a significant amount of work, intensity, patience and most importantly, courage. My focus in this article is much more on the actual structure of education rather than those who work within it. There is also no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of educators strive to provide the best possible education to their students, at times in extremely challenging situations. But the current education system is simply not “designed” nor “built” to systemically support change and innovation. At best, the current system will tolerate attempts to modernize or create positive changes for both students and educators. Those attempts are usually called “Pilot Projects”. How many “Pilot Projects” in education have become district-wide? There are likely a few, but overall it is simply an exercise in demonstrating an “openness” to change, and no more.

So in March of 2020, when the pandemic’s first impact was being felt in our communities, a high level of panic was generated. The world of education asked the following questions: “What do we do with the students if schools are closed for weeks, perhaps months?”; “We have few technology resources in place. We only have computer labs. What do we do?”; “We have barely supported any professional development for teachers to provide online learning. What do we do?”; “We have no effective curriculum or online assessment procedures in place. What do we do?”; “Faculties of Education have mostly ignored any use of technology in classroom instruction, so our ‘new’ teachers are ill-equipped. What do we do?” The real challenge that emerged was that the most convenient way to respond to the impact of the pandemic was by simply carpet-bombing technology into the hands of all students and educators.

Change is certain, progress is not.” E.H. Carr

So we have witnessed slight adjustments and tinkering to the world of education over the past decades. The vast majority of the changes occurred within the actual physical environments of teaching and learning, as we witnessed the construction of 21st century schools with more windows, better lighting, ventilation and heating systems, and ergonomically designed classrooms. For all purposes, the curriculum and assessment models have barely changed. Prior to the pandemic, we were witnessing another drive to skills development (reading-writing-math). As educators know, assessment drives instruction. When assessments focus on creativity, judgement, teamwork, critical thinking, or the ability to adjust to change, to name a few, we will then begin to witness the crucial role that technology can play. As my previous article stated, the only example of such a learning environment in our current system are the kindergarten classrooms. These highly engaging, visually stimulating classrooms, with an holistic curriculum that focuses on both personal and skills development, should become the norm. Recently a high school teacher told me that a part of the role of a teacher at that level is to prepare the students for the world of “adulthood” and the “world of work”. Sadly, this demonstrates the significant disconnect that students experience as they progress through the education system. The further they progress, the greater the disconnect. We do witness change, but certainly not the promised progress.

To be fair, there are criticisms on the presence of technology in classrooms, and in many cases I would agree that technology has not provided the promised positive and enlightening results. I contend that if technology were properly deployed and supported, the results would be very different, for the better. The best metaphor I can provide is like buying a new Ferrari, with all the promises and technology available to it, and then telling the driver that they can never leave the parking lot of a shopping mall. The conclusion: purchasing the Ferrari was a waste of money. It was simply never designed to be driven only in a shopping mall parking lot. Today, the best use of technology in education amounts to computer labs and management operating systems for head office and schools.

To conclude, I now cite this quotation from an unknown source:

The future will always outwit your certainty.”

Recently, I have been asked about what the future of education will look like post-pandemic. It depends on the magnetism, the winds, the temperature and the ability to interpret what these elements all represent. In other words, nobody really knows. What I can say with a fair amount of certainty is that the world of education will demonstrate an extremely high level of resistance to change and this will disappoint the education change evangelists. I am concerned that technology will be blamed for the new term that has popped up in recent months: “learning loss”. What will be displaced is the past behaviour of the education system towards technology, the poor plan for coping during the pandemic, the poor professional development offered to educators, the persistent acceptable dropout rate of 15-20% (worse in marginalized regions), the improvised deployment of technology to students and educators and the poor support provided to parents. Incidentally, asking students to spend more than three or four hours per day of screen time is way too much. Even adults cringe at this reality. I do not advocate for such extreme usage of technology but rather for a “Quality over Quantity” approach. I also know of some very creative teachers who have fundamentally shifted their pedagogies to adapt and make this new reality a worthwhile and positive experience for their students. But the key question remains: how will the majority of educators respond to this?

In closing, there is increasing evidence that school closures will continue to happen for the next few months and, with the arrival of new variant COVID-19 viruses, attempts to return to pre-pandemic environments will likely be put on hold. How many Ministries of Education and school boards have begun to anticipate what schools will look like in the fall of 2021? What role will technology play? Will we do a better job of preparing our educators and students for new shifting realities?

Only the future knows, for sure.

Ron is an award-winning, innovative educator with over 44 years of experience in education. As an educator who has truly tried to seek alternative solutions to very old challenges, he has managed system-wide innovative change and brought about significant improvement in the classroom, while closely relating to the issues and challenges that educators, parents, policy-makers and special interests groups face.He serves as coach, consultant, guide and mentor to a wide range of organizations, including extensive work with indigenous populations across North America. His insights are sought provincially, nationally and internationally. During these days of the pandemic, he is still very active providing online conferences and sessions to participants around the globe.