In a New York Times op-ed a couple weeks ago, Susan Pinker, the author of The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter, showcased the evidence that too much technology can be a bad thing, particularly for the most vulnerable students in our society.
She made some important points in the piece. But even as she acknowledged toward the end that technology has a role to play, she missed spotlighting how technology can help us redesign schools to allow students to achieve what appears most important in her mind: the chance for students to have far more meaningful face-to-face interactions with teachers and peers—a counterintuitive yet important part of blended learning’s promise for many students.
In our research, we’ve long pointed out that merely cramming computers in schools or simply handing them out to students won’t produce the educational gains well-intentioned people desire when they start with technology.
But we’ve also pointed out that without harnessing technology’s power, redesigning schools and classrooms to be able to personalize for each student’s distinct learning needs—critical to helping every child fulfill his or her potential—is a pipedream. The key, as with all revolutions powered by technology, though is to start with the redesign of the model itself, in this case the instructional model, and then use technology in purposeful ways to accomplish key goals and solve pressing problems.
In other words, there is no question that merely giving students iPads—and thinking that this will somehow solve our nation’s inequities without correspondingly changing the models, at home or in the classroom, in which they are used—won’t work. As Pinker points out, it may even do more harm than good. Districts tempted to start with technology for its own sake should pay heed.
But at the same time, traditional classrooms without technology are far too devoid of the human interactions that Pinker suggests are so critical to success. Spend time in a traditional school and see how many meaningful face-to-face interactions a typical student has. As the teacher leads the class up-front, how many times are students able to respond in the give-and-take that Pinker writes predict robust vocabularies and school success? How many times do they have benefit from meaty conversations that keep them engaged? Do they have daily opportunities to express and defend ideas and challenge those of others?
Not really. There is a reason why so many students sum their school experience up with a single word: boring.
But in blended-learning environments where schools blend online learning to personalize for students, the number of meaningful interactions can take a very different form—even as cheerleaders like myself should acknowledge that they don’t always. Rather than lecturing or delivering whole-class instruction though, the teacher, who can be armed with data about where students are in their learning, can meet one-on-one with each student and have meaningful conversations about the work she is doing. At KIPP Empower, a blended-learning school in Los Angeles that turned eyes with its 991 API (out of a possible 1000), the school uses blended learning to allow students to work in small groups of no more than 10 students at a time with the teacher so that students have lots of opportunities to engage and interact. What’s more, in many blended-learning schools, onlookers are stunned to see students constantly popping up from their computers to join their peers and walk through academic problems together—either as a tutor because they had solved the same problem a week earlier perhaps or as a collaborator because they both wanted to achieve mastery together.
The point is that technology need not mean bad outcomes, but can unleash some stellar ones. And there is increasing evidence to showcase that as well.
A recent rigorous RAND study of Carnegie Learning’s Cognitive Tutor Algebra I program found that the blended-learning model boosted the average student’s performance by approximately eight percentile points. Another study, also by RAND and commissioned by the Gates Foundation, on schools using personalized learning showed that students in the schools made significantly greater gains in math and reading over the last two years than a virtual control group made up of similar students at comparable schools. And the Hole-in-the-Wall Learning Stations installed throughout India that encourage collaborative learning on computers have exhibited promising learning results.
Now we can all cherry pick our favorites studies, but what they all point to—regardless of outcome—is that what matters isn’t that technology is present per se, but how the technology is used. So let’s stop pitting technology against face-to-face contact. It’s counterproductive. And it’s another in a long list of false dichotomies that just doesn’t have to be the case.