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Diane Ravitch outlines ed tech’s promise, perils

NYU professor Diane Ravitch said technology should be used to expand and challenge students’ views of the world—but should not stifle student and teacher creativity.

Technology offers incredible potential for education, but it also presents certain perils that all education stakeholders must take care to avoid, said noted education historian and NYU professor Diane Ravitch on March 16 at the Computer-Using Educators (CUE) conference in Palm Springs, Calif.

“I’m actually here to get some more followers on Twitter,” Ravitch jokingly told the audience, before diving into an illuminating discussion about the promise that technology holds for education and the pitfalls that accompany it.

“I’m genuinely excited by what teachers are able to bring to history, the sciences, economics, the arts. … For a century, educators have dreamed about student-centered learning, and now technology has the potential to make it real,” Ravitch said.

Educational technology helps students rise to a level of engagement and learning “far beyond” what a textbook can offer, Ravitch said, adding that textbooks often avoid sensitive or difficult topics from the past because publishers and those with a stake in adoption want the textbooks to be approved for student use.

Textbooks have been “plagued by a regime of silence and censorship,” and for years, educators have wondered how to expose students to true versions of the events they read about in their textbooks, she said.

“So what do you do? The answer is technology,” Ravitch said. For instance, educators can show videos depicting historical events or portraying scientific phenomena without editing.

“Technology is too big, too various, too wide open, and far too much for them to monitor,” she said. “It’s free, and they can’t make you edit out the controversial stuff—they can try, but I think it might be too hard.”

Ed tech has, in fact, helped spur new kinds of freedom.

“I appreciate what technology has done for your freedom of thought, your freedom to teach, and even more what technology has done to open the minds of students,” Ravitch said. “That is a revolution.”

Technology is full of promise for the adventurous teacher, and Ravitch said she has seen the potential it holds when teachers take educational technology to the next level and make learning challenging, yet still engaging, for students.

But technology has its perils as well, Ravitch warned. Teachers aren’t the only ones who see technology’s potential in the classroom—entrepreneurs see it as a way to make money, and policy makers see it as a way to cut costs and, in some cases, eliminate teachers.

Ravitch addressed online education providers and virtual academies that turn into big business for executives and investors. Some virtual-school providers have high teacher-to-student ratios and receive money for each student enrolled, without providing students with traditional brick-and-mortar benefits.

“Some advocates of online instruction say it will make possible reductions of 30 percent of today’s teaching staff,” Ravitch said. “The bottom line [for some] is profits, not students.”

Ravitch next turned to teacher evaluations, saying that some academic researchers believe “great teaching can be quantified down to the decimal point. They think they can deduce from these numbers which teachers are great and which can be fired on the spot.”

She continued: “They make these calculations without ever entering a classroom; they speak assuredly because they have data. The algorithm can’t be wrong, can it? Or can it? … Making public these value-added numerical evaluations demoralizes teachers. Without technology, no one would be able to make up such ridiculous ratings systems.”

The anonymity that technology offers is another peril, because while technology makes a world of information available to anyone with access, it also “brings out unbelievable meanness in strangers. … One thing that we have to teach our students is how to ignore cyber insults,” Ravitch said.

Cyber bullying differs from typical schoolyard taunts because the words are put online and often remain online for all to see, having a far greater impact on children, especially sensitive children.

A fourth peril revolves around the incredible amounts of information to be found online.

Students are “bombarded by information that has not been vetted by anyone—not everything you read is accurate,” Ravitch said. Wikipedia, she noted, is a “brilliant innovation,” but anyone can insert their strong or biased opinions, and those opinions will remain on a “factual” page until challenged or erased by someone with proper knowledge on the subject, if challenged at all.

Though technology helps us make progress, a certain amount of student insight and creativity might be lost with the advent of computers that are programmed to grade student essays. While certainly cheaper than human evaluators, “no machine can judge nuance, or irony, or tone, or some amazing bursts of creativity,” Ravitch said. “I fear the use of these programs will inevitably reduce student work. … I fear a loss of thoughtfulness” as students write papers to satisfy a computer.

Technology, she concluded, should be used to expand and challenge students’ views of the world—but should not stifle student and teacher creativity.

“This is the thinking of a world too flat for me. … Don’t let them flatten you,” Ravitch said. “Don’t let them give you a number—we are not cattle; we should not be branded. Let us dare to use technology as it should be used—to dream, create, explore, and learn without boundaries. Let us use the power of technology to say ‘No’ to those who want to standardize our minds and the minds of our students.”

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Laura Ascione

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