What the New York Times Got Wrong About Education Technology

What the New York Times Got Wrong About Education Technology
Anthony DePrimo/The Staten Island Advance via AP, Pool

A recent article in the New York Times, has once again stoked the fires of debate about education technology. This time the piece is based on a faulty premise that conflates personalizing learning with screen time and suggests the use of technology is at odds with the role of great teachers in the classroom. Sadly, the central plank of the argument hinges less on the reality of schools today and more on speculation about the implications of technology in schools.  It may, as it turns out, also rely on specious stories that (according to one Pulitzer Prize winning journalist) reflect the “power and the peril of the ‘perfect anecdote.’

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The latest target is the Summit Learning Program that was designed by educators at Summit Public Schools (a network of public schools in California and Washington) to personalize teaching and learning for students. Like so many stories devoted to the topic, this most recent piece presents parents and teachers with a choice: allow students to benefit from learning technology or from teachers. But the choice is a false one.

What’s worse, such arguments tend to overlook the transformative potential for technology to play a role in addressing some of public education’s most pernicious challenges.

For more than five years, Summit’s teachers have collaborated with educators from around the country to develop technology that enables them to re-orient their schools around the unique needs, interests and passions of students. At Summit schools, students work toward a common, high bar, while following progressions that better reflect the realities of how students learn--at paces that do not always fit neatly within the traditional contours of grades and textbooks. This kind of pedagogy invites teachers to spark learning through one-on-one interactions, real-world projects, and  content that is aligned with student interests or backgrounds.

Such an approach can be highly effective, but also administratively challenging. Other schools with similar aspirations have often struggled to implement something comparable. In response, Summit developed curriculum and technology that it now makes available – for free – to schools interested in designing a similar model. Today, some 380 schools are using free tools from Summit that replicate and build on the network’s success by embracing technology to better connect teachers and students at an individual level.

Rather than replace them, technology is providing teachers with ready access to information that enables them to create better and more interactive learning experiences for students.  They can invest more time in one-on-one mentoring and working in small groups, developing deep personal relationships with students, and helping them to develop long-lasting habits for success.

In personalized classrooms, the curation of digital content can also accelerate the mastery of basic skills, which opens up time for the sort of Socratic discussions and in-depth projects that enable students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills that will serve them well into adulthood. Screen time takes a back seat to collaboration. Data brings objectivity to help teachers spot problems early or unlock sometimes hidden potential. In districts like Chicago, a growing community of educators are have embraced the personalization of learning, with powerful results in terms of both outcomes and equity.

The sort of personalized approach to learning enabled by Summit Learning and others stands in stark contrast to the traditional, one-size-fits-all schooling system modeled upon the idea that teachers could serve large numbers of students by teaching them at the same time in the same way .

All of this is to say that Summit is a particularly odd choice in subject for this kind of coverage. Summit has committed to safeguarding student data by signing a national Student Privacy Pledge and complying with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act – which provides heightened transparency to parents (even though it is not required to do so as a nonprofit). And the conflation of Summit’s approach with red herring issues screen time does a disservice to not just the promise of education technology implemented well, but educators – and students – who are benefiting from the advent of approaches that challenge the status quo.

Schools like Summit and its hundreds of partners across the country who have embraced their model demonstrate what can happen when the culture is designed thoughtfully to help students develop lasting norms around owning their learning. Through their example, it is increasingly clear that parents, teachers, and students can have the best of both in-person teaching and technology.

To argue otherwise is to rob students of some of today’s most powerful learning opportunities.

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