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Of Plato and iPads: Should We Use Technology in the Classroom?

Elise Italiano fears that the push to “personalize” education through technology will, in actuality, individualize education and hamper classroom relationships. She wrote a thoughtful piece Thursday at The Public Discourse on the subject:

The very design of these technologies is to multitask, not to concentrate, analyze, contemplate, or wonder. When a teacher is lecturing, students can easily disengage, looking at other apps (some for school and others surely for entertainment), perusing websites, and checking email. Schools that value teachers’ wisdom, expertise, and guidance will wind up undermining their work by asking them not only to deliver meaningful content but to monitor students’ attention constantly. When competing for attention with a device, teachers are implicitly asked to become entertainers.

Her points are valid and well reasoned. Technology’s distractions could very well harm students’ ability to concentrate, reflect, and be still. Additionally, teachers may find themselves scrambling to procure the “next new thing,” for fear of losing their students’ interest: once you decide to use the latest technology to connect with students, you must be prepared to keep up with the trends. Thus there is a cost—monetarily and intellectually—to using technology in the classroom.

Italiano also sees a communal cost in technology’s isolating tendencies. Tablets, phones, and laptops make it easier for students to “tune out.” The focus in a technological classroom changes from student-to-student and/or student-to-teacher to a student-computer relationship, with the teacher occasionally breaking into this primary bond. The human equation in education, including the use of words to bond and instruct, becomes secondary to the visual, interactive, and individual.

Despite her emphasis on communal learning, Italiano also stresses students’ need for silence and solitude—for the “still, quiet, and intentional pursuit of truth.” This is one reason I think school and public libraries are absolutely vital to the education experience, and need to be preserved. They serve as “quiet zones,” where students can step away from the hubbub. School libraries could even enforce a “no cell phones” rule, where mobile devices and other distractions are left at the door.

The above points in Italiano’s story are all very strong. But one of her comments seemed a bit simplistic: she writes, “Though it is becoming clear that technology is changing the way we learn, it is not yet clear that it is improving it.”

This statement seems to denigrate the true good technology can serve in education. The use of technology in classrooms may be concerning in some ways, but it is not completely harmful. We merely need to consider the ways and times in which it is utilized. Some classes can use technology to great effect: there are a host of curricula with excellent interactive online tools. For science, math, and language classes, such auditory and visual materials make difficult concepts easier to absorb. Students can study in the way most suited to their learning style.

But these tools seem most useful outside of class, where students can study and peruse at their own speed. Class time, then, becomes a place where students can ask teachers’ advice and input on study material, whether online or in print. Teachers can help students troubleshoot and explain deeper answers to classes as a whole—thus transforming the online tools into interactive, communal assets. Rather than creating solitary learners, such a method could encourage group learning.

At root, education is a shared exercise. In order to truly foster classroom interactions and relationships, teachers mustn’t neglect the Socratic method. Teachers’ thoughtful questions, joined by rebounding answers and arguments from students, encourage a deeper connection with subject matter. The more students are forced to analyze, answer, and discuss, the more they will learn and remember.

Whenever the discussion of education arises, Plato’s Cave analogy comes to mind. The best, most fulfilling work a teacher can do is to move students from the impressions and façade of the Cave into the pure, clear sunlight of Truth. Education, at its fullest, is only secondarily interested in a student’s career. At root, it sinks into the marrow of their personhood and understanding of reality. Thus, teachers must constantly ask themselves: which tools best advance Truth, and which detract from it? How can I best advance students toward a clearer, deeper understanding of the world? If technology truly serves to advance this endeavor, then it should be used, by all means. But if its pleasantries and toys distract from deeper discussion or knowledge, we must discard it—like chains from about our necks.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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