A new report from a group of educators, researchers, and children’s health professionals challenges the common perception that today’s students must use computers in the classroom to be successful in the 21st century. The group’s report further argues that the high-tech lifestyle promoted by industry and government might actually do more harm than good for students.

Educators and ed-tech advocacy groups contacted by eSchool News say the report’s authors paint an exaggerated picture of computer use in schools. Although the report makes some good points, they say, its conclusions are overly alarmist.

The report, called “Tech Tonic” and released by the nonprofit Alliance for Childhood, claims there is little evidence of long-term benefits from using computers in schools. It notes that children’s lives are increasingly filled with “screen time” rather than real time with nature, caring adults, the arts, and hands-on work and play–activities that are far more important for the social development and well-being of children, it says.

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    The report also criticizes the extensive financial and political connections between education officials and school technology vendors, and it urges stakeholders to wake up to the increasing influence of corporations in policy-making for public education.

    “The lack of evidence or an expert consensus that computers will improve student achievement–despite years of efforts by high-tech companies and government agencies to demonstrate otherwise–is itself compelling evidence of the need for change,” the report states. “It’s time to scrap … national, state, and local policies that require all students and all teachers to use computers in every grade, and that eliminate even the possibility of alternatives.”

    At the same time, the Alliance suggests, high-tech childhood is making children sick by promoting a sedentary life at a time when childhood obesity is at epidemic levels.

    A follow-up effort to the group’s 2000 report “Fool’s Gold,” which called for a halt on spending for computers in elementary schools (see “Alliance: Stop spending school dollars on technology“), “Tech Tonic” proposes a number of recommendations for parents, educators, and policy makers, including:

    • Make human relationships and a commitment to strong communities a top priority at home and school;
    • Refocus education on children’s relationships with the rest of the living world;
    • Foster creativity every day, with time for the arts and play;
    • Put community-based research and action at the heart of the science and technology curriculum;
    • Declare one day a week an “electronic entertainment-free zone”;
    • End marketing aimed at children; and
    • Shift spending from unproven high-tech products in the classroom to children’s unmet basic needs.

    “To expect our teachers, our schools, and our nation to strive to educate all of our children, leaving none behind, is a worthy goal,” the report says. “To insist that they must at the same time spend huge amounts of money and time trying to integrate unproven classroom technologies into their teaching, across the curriculum with preschoolers on up, is an unwise and costly diversion from that goal. It comes at the expense of our neediest children and schools, for whom the goal is most distant.”

    The report calls on policy makers and school leaders to redefine “technology literacy” to mean something other than just proficiency in operating computers.

    “Today’s children will face complex and daunting choices, in a future of biotechnology, robotics, and microchips, for which we are doing very little to prepare them,” said Joan Almon, head of the Alliance. “We immerse them in a virtual, high-tech world and expect them to navigate the information superhighway with little guidance and few boundaries. It is time for a new definition of technology literacy that supports educational and family habits that are healthy both for children and for the survival of the Earth.”

    Educational technology advocates say they agree that students need a healthy balance between computer time and other activities and that students need to learn about the moral and ethical implications of technology use. But they say the Alliance takes its arguments too far.

    “The oversimplification in this report is a concern,” said Susan Patrick, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology. “This is not an either/or position.”

    Patrick said technology clearly is expanding the choices and opportunities available to today’s students. “Their choices may include more engaging instructional models, access to more excellent teachers outside of their geographic area, and new kinds of interactive learning designed to meet each student’s unique needs through personalization,” she said.

    Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), said the idea of limiting technology use in schools is “in no way realistic.” If students don’t receive exposure to technology in school, he said, they are most certainly going to encounter it at home.

    In fact, he said, many students themselves have advocated for the use of more technology in schools–not less.

    Technology is a “societal reality,” said Knezek. Rather than shun it, educators must embrace it and focus on teaching responsible use. “Guiding the appropriate use of technology is what education is all about,” he said.

    He added: “Kids could practice the piano to the point of exclusivity. It’s an activities management problem, not a technology problem.”

    The Consortium for School Networking, which aims to help schools effectively use technology to improve instruction, issued a statement in response to the Alliance’s report. “The Alliance for Childhood prefers to paint the world in black and white,” the statement says. “Yes, technology can be misused. However, technology can also be a powerful means to transform learning. Rather than focusing on simplistic notions that all technology is bad, we should focus on how technology can improve learning.” (For the group’s full statement, see accompanying article.)

    Links:

    Alliance for Childhood
    http://www.allianceforchildhood.org

    U.S. Department of Education
    http://www.ed.gov

    International Society for Technology in Education
    http://www.iste.org

    Consortium for School Networking
    http://www.cosn.org