The High-Tech Classroom: Now the Ugly after The Good and The Bad

Now that I have dispensed with The Good and The Bad, what’s Ugly about high-tech classrooms?

Recall in the film that Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach are amoral fortune hunters looking for a cache of buried gold. They try to kill one another and resort to torture to get the gold. None are heroes although “Blondie” Eastwood comes off a tad better than the others in Leone’s mocking of Hollywood westerns. Wallach’s character is comic, competent, and completely lacking in morals. That is his ugliness.
Eli & Clint

The connection to schools is that the champions of more classroom high-tech have lacked substantial evidence in the past–and now as well–that the electronic devices do what they promise to do. Undeterred by lack of evidence, advocates still beat the drum for more laptops and more hand-held devices. Two promises have failed to have been kept. And that is ugliness.

First, techno-enthusiasts have promised since the mid-1980s that teachers and students using desktop computers (now laptops) will shift their daily lessons from teacher-centered to student-centered practices. Second, student use of computers will yield gains in academic achievement including test scores.

Those claims by vendors and policymakers eager to spread the gospel of high-tech classrooms fall neatly into the basic questions I asked in an earlier post (August 11 ) that need to be asked of any policy aimed at teachers and students:

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (such as teacher and student use of computers) get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn achieve the goals set by policy makers?

Questions 2 and 3 get at the ugly unfulfilled promises of high-tech mavens.

Has teacher use of high-tech devices like desktop computers, laptops, and interactive whiteboards altered how teachers usually teach? Thus far, the answer is that teachers will use high-tech devices consistent with their experience and beliefs about teacher- and student-centered practices. Researchers following Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) and subsequent work with teachers found that pattern in their studies as have others. My work supports the conclusion that most teachers use computers in a teacher-directed manner rather than in ways that cultivate student-centred practices.

Have high-tech devices increased academic achievement? Except for studies done in the 1970s on computer-assisted instruction aimed at basic reading and math skills, there is little reliable and valid evidence that using desktops or laptops will increase scores on achievement tests. Since the early 1980s, controversy over the design and methodology of studies aimed at showing causal links between student achievement and use of desktop (or laptop) computers has continued uninterrupted. Proving that high-tech devices will produce academic gains is a fool’s errand.

Like the film “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” classroom use of computers contains an unholy mix of these elements sufficient to give policymakers pause in listening to unsupported Ugly claims of high-tech advocates. For parents, principals, and teachers there are enough instances of the Good to inspire those committed to integrating high tech devices into daily lessons to continue their work.

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