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Making tech connect

Tere's a definite coolness factor: There are no books, no papers, no pencils in Tom Daccord's World History class at the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham. Every student has an iBook and Daccord has a laptop. Web pages projected on a screen fueled a class discussion recently about women's role in Islam.


There was the Frontline documentary clip from Iran. There were video interviews about the ban on headscarves at Istanbul University in Turkey. There was the lyrical, ancient chanting of the Koran coming over the Real Time player.

And, of course, there was Daccord, prodding: "What is the relationship between women and the family? What is the connection?"

In some respects, the technology doesn't matter. Daccord does what good teachers have always done: Offer students evidence and provoke them to think. But in other ways, the technology is everything. It is why, for example, Daccord could halt the documentary mid-sentence with a mouse click -- and right as the narrator broached it -- ask students about the relationship between Islamic law and civil law. It is why students could tap out notes and not worry they'll ever get lost.

As computer technology moves from frontier to educational mainstream, it's no longer enough to use computers for the sake of using computers. They must do something. And yet, many schools and districts still measure technological savvy by the student-to-computer ratio and not by how well they fit into classroom learning. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percent of public school classrooms with Internet access has risen steadily from 3 percent in 1994 to 77 percent in 2000 and 92 percent in 2002. The ratio of students to computers with Internet access has increased from 12.1 to 1 in 1998 to 4.8 to 1 in 2002. But more hardware doesn't necessarily mean better learning.

"Most people just do not know how to integrate technology into instruction," said Greg Palmer, director of technology for the Canton Public Schools and a consultant who has assessed school computer use in more than two dozen districts nationwide.

Even many wealthy districts are not wired for Internet use -- or wired properly -- and districts in general underestimate the human support required, Palmer said. "Most districts that are failing are failing because they have invested a ton of money in hardware and software and little in the people to integrate it into the educational platform," he said.

In the corporate world, one network administrator oversees operation of 50 computers, Palmer said. In Canton, where he has a staff of six, three manage 1,500 PC's and three help teachers integrate technology into lessons.

The two issues -- the upkeep of hardware and helping make technology work for teachers -- represent new personnel needs some schools are still grappling with.

Ray Tode, director of educational technology and information systems for Andover Public Schools, said the district helped parents buy Toshiba laptops for 75 students in three fifth-grade classes to use at school and take home while other classes use school laptops. The experience has been wonderful educationally, but requires a huge effort to train teachers and maintain laptops, including those bought by parents, Tode said.

It's not unusual, he said, for a student to bring a laptop into school and complain it's not working. "The biggest problem is with parents," said Tode, who said adults download software for their own use. Students, he said, also gum up computers.

"We had one little girl download 20 gigabytes of Britney Spears videos," he said. "She came in and she couldn't save anything."

Even as students' writing skills improve because they're more willing to revise, Tode notes -- a common result cited in research -- budget cuts this year have forced technology specialists to stop working with teachers on curriculum. "Now they have been pulled back into the computer lab and are teaching classes," he said.

The people who train teachers and make computers run are like the shoemaker's elves whose work is essential, but rarely seen. Too often, Palmer said, the focus is on hardware and software. Like many parents, I've written checks for technology fund-raisers so my daughter's elementary school can buy more stuff.

The connection feels hard-wired because we embrace the equation: Computer = Better Education. But it's fair to ask: What's the real gain?

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan made the apt and oft-quoted point that "the medium is the message." But when it comes to education, the message must outshine the medium. Todd Oppenheimer, author of "The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved," said computer technology "is over-rated" and subverts the real mission of schools: teaching children.

Oppenheimer argues that the drive to bring technology into classrooms is happening with little thought as to how it is changing schools. Saying students need computers because employers will expect them to be computer literate misses the point: Learning to use computers is easy, Oppenheimer said.

"What [employers] really want from their new hires are basic work skills, people skills, communication skills, writing abilities, to think critically, to be reliable and conscientious, to be able to use their imagination," he said. Oppenheimer worries that glitzy computer presentations leave students "more entertained than provoked."

"Err on the side of less [technology] and reserve the school as a sanctuary for personal interaction and hands-on creativity," he said.

We certainly don't want to forget the value of messy, imperfect, human experiences, but we must realize that while computers may be a big deal for adults, for kids they are just the way you work. "Students talk about technology in verbs, not in nouns. They talk about actions," said Don Knezek, CEO of the nonprofit International Society for Technology for Education in Eugene, Oregon. "When adults talk about technology, they talk about laptops and PDA's [personal digital assistants] and routers."

Knezek said the most powerful gap between education and technology is that schools have failed to acknowledge the changed content, nature, and structure of various disciplines. Science as taught in schools, he said, is not what science is anymore. "The greatest problem is what we teach," he said. "There is an absolute disconnect between what's real, what the disciplines are, and what we teach in school."

For now, though, the challenge remains to simply make technology less of a toy and more of a tool.

At Noble & Greenough, Upper School Head Ben Snyder said the school is forming a study group to consider requiring all students to buy laptops. But he is firm that computers won't take over the school. "Even if we became a laptop school, there would be classes where kids wouldn't even pull them out of backpacks," he said.

On the other hand, Snyder said, the debate around the extent and use of technology in schools is not new.

"I remember when videotape came in, people said, `You're going to show television in the classroom?' " he said. "The question for a lot of us is: When does technology become a commodity like a notebook or the piece of slate kids would carry around hundreds of years ago?"

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