Nan Austin

Technology changing education in oh so many ways

For weeks, I have been writing about technology in education for our next Eye on Education special tab (look for it Saturday). The big takeaway: The shakeup technology brought to the economy is coming to education – it has to.

The shift to computers at every classroom desk is already well underway. The federal government is helping with cost, underwriting school upgrades of broadband capability. A different funding model that focuses on what communities want for their kids has given school boards back some purchasing power.

Both funding streams give the most to kids who have the least. Especially in less-affluent areas, I think buying computers started out as buying hope, a leap of faith that kids with computers could conquer all. But that is shifting toward more strategic spending.

Giving kids equipment equity can’t on its own open doors to opportunity and empowerment. It takes inspired, tenacious teachers to turn that key.

That has been the lesson for educational leaders – technology in the classrooms is as much about prepared people as glitch-free hardware. Training is ongoing, but not all is useful and not every teacher fits the new groove.

Well-turned tech in higher grades is changing how kids learn: Rather than waiting for the teacher to tell them, teens know they can figure things out. Self-propelled learning sticks longer and has the added benefits of encouraging persistence, responsibility and ingenuity.

Tech in all grades is changing how teachers teach, letting them offer advice or hear about a problem long before the end-of-chapter quiz. That allows them to pivot and readdress problem areas before confused kids fall irretrievably behind.

In elementary grades, it seems to be more about having more visual instruction – bright colors and videos – and fun ways to practice beginner skills over and over as a game. Laptops work side by side with paper books and art supplies – tech has not replaced touch.

It turns out even young kids like keyboards – who knew? As early as second grade, little fingers are typing. There was an outcry against computer testing at third grade that required 9-year-olds to know basic keyboard skills. But after watching 7-year-old fingertips tapping, I have to wonder if grownups are projecting our own tedious typing class memories. We didn’t have a running, jumping Mario to lead us to 10-fingered finesse.

Practice, however, makes a huge difference. Teachers whose kids just have an hour a week or so on computers said their class struggled with the mechanics of online testing. Different questions ask kids to put dots onto rulers, drag lines to points or tag numbers – nothing difficult for kids familiar with using a mouse.

But for the crowd without that access, it was as tough as kids taking the bubble test a decade ago being asked to add a horizontal line of numbers for the first time. Those who had seen numbers only in a vertical column panicked. Testing know-how means more than just knowing the answers, and that has always been true.

Testing will push districts to raise their game on the tech front. Even if there were no testing, however, there are good reasons to put tech in the classroom toolbox.

Coding teaches logic, the key to passing algebra. Robotics teaches engineering, the key to gainful employment. Designing video games, odd as it sounds, teaches artistry and storytelling. At Davis High, new immigrants from many regions use a free, instant translation service to talk to one another. Online courses help students catch up and keep going.

By the time this year’s freshmen graduate, there will be new fields to study, new industries to work in and whatever they can imagine coming next. Career planning, picking a college and applying for jobs increasingly can be done only online.

And then there is the sheer interconnectedness of the World Wide Web, which my family will get to see firsthand this fall.

My son is spending this semester in Budapest, Hungary, a sister campus to his school, McDaniel College in Maryland. I studied in Italy for a year in college, and the contrasts are striking.

I took lots of pictures, packing the film canisters in a lead-lined pouch to avoid airport X-ray machines ruining the film before I got home and had them developed. He clicks pictures with his phone, stores them on the family cloud and we can see them instantly.

I wrote letters home on tissue-thin international air mail sheets that folded into envelopes. It took about 10 days for a letter to arrive. He texts or emails any time.

My mom would send a letter two weeks in advance to arrange a Sunday afternoon phone call, when all the family would stand by the receiver and shout a fast, expensive greeting – and we did have to shout. He can video-phone us whenever he has an Internet connection, showing us his apartment and letting us meet his classmates. Nobody shouts. Nobody shushes the room with, “Quiet! It’s long distance!”

Tech has not solved every problem or replaced human insight and ingenuity, but it has changed the world in incredible ways.

Personally, I am not too excited about getting jet packs. Given the number of me-first drivers, I can’t see me-first fliers being an improvement. But the “Star Trek” “holodeck” has promise. I’d like to visit the “Lord of the Rings’ ” Rivendell or Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, both dripping with pen-and-ink imagination.

Because, at the end of the day, technology should be invisible, the silent partner allowing us to do something amazing.