Image courtesty of cherylt23 @ pixabay.

Image courtesy of cherylt23 @ pixabay.

Yesterday, I was reading the New York Times and noticed an interesting headline at the top of the “Most E-mailed” list: Can Students Have Too Much Tech?

Intriguing title. Sounded worth a read. Unfortunately, it was a shallow critique of ed tech that conflated separate issues and was ultimately uninspiring.

Susan Pinker opens with a critique of President Obama’s State of the Union address, singling out his call for net neutrality and equitable access to broad band Internet. The argument can be summed up with this early sentence:

More technology in the classroom has long been a policy-making panacea. But mounting evidence shows that showering students, especially those from struggling families, with networked devices will not shrink the class divide in education. If anything, it will widen it.

The article continues to cite several examples of how access to technology did not magically close the achievement gap and solve the problems of education. But throughout, she’s simply attacking a straw man.

If you believe that buying a device for every student and giving them access to the Internet will magically help students become straight-A students, then I’ve got a bridge to sell you. But there’s still a logically consistent argument that Internet access and technology ownership are important tools that contribute to – and perhaps are even prerequisites for – a quality education.

When students get to college, we take for granted that they are adept at using technology.

When students go to college, it will be assumed that they are comfortable with computers. They will need to regularly check their e-mail, navigate the university’s web portal, submit assignments through a course management system. They’ll need to type papers and create presentations, as well as conduct research – which means efficiently using a search engine to find multiple sources of information and integrate them into a single argument.

I take these things for granted. My family was an early adopter of technology, and we inherited our first computer from my uncle at IBM around 1988. I hadn’t yet started kindergarten. We regularly upgraded our computers, got Prodigy when it first became available in the 1990’s, and upgraded to broadband when cable modems hit our area in the late ’90’s. As a result, using a computer – and the Internet – has always been like second nature to me. [As an aside, it’s also interesting to note that part of Pinker’s argument is that access to technology gives people greater access to distractions. Sure, that’s true. And the many hours I wasted away on computer games throughout my adolescence did not in any way impede my academic achievement.]

It is undeniably logical that if students do not have access to a reliable computer and Internet throughout their formative years, they will show up to college unprepared for the modern college environment. These are skills that are learned, and without access to the tools you’ll never learn them.

Making this claim is not the same as claiming the converse – that having access to a computer will by definition make you ready for college. That’s a whole nother ball of wax.

Policy makers should ensure access, and educators should determine when and how to integrate it.

At the end of her piece, Pinker makes the legitimate point that integrating technology into the classroom can be useful if it’s well planned out by the teacher and well suited for the task. This is an entirely rational point… but the problem is it’s separate from the original problem.

The question of how and when to integrate technology into a lesson should be left up to the individual teacher. But if a teacher decides that a lesson does require some sort of technology – or that the student needs access to that technology at home – it will only work if the infrastructure is there. It can only work if policy makers have provided the funds for schools and students to both gain access to modern devices and hi-speed internet.

And this highlights the importance of two distinct roles for policymakers and educators. Policymakers should be concerned with creating the infrastructure for education to happen – providing the building, the curriculum, the supplies, the support, the textbooks, the technology. Educators should be concerned with using that infrastructure to help students learn. You can’t separate the two and try to evaluate educational outcomes based solely on the question of access.