Technology Vs. Learning: False, Tiresome Either/Or Debate

| October 25, 2011 | 5 Comments
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Last week, we saw two completely different ways to cover technology in schools in the New York Times.

On Tuesday, Alan Schwarz wrote a fair and balanced article about an Indiana school district that’s transitioning to digital textbooks. In the story, we heard from a veteran teacher, who said it’s “the most exciting thing to happen in my 40 years of teaching”; from another who said, “This way I can give my time to the kids who really need it. And it’s a lot more engaging for the kids. They’re actually doing their homework now.”

We heard from Tony Bennett, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction, who said, “I believe in local control, and we don’t have the ability to be the keeper of knowledge we have been in the past. We’ll be better off if we uncuff people’s hands.” Even a student’s perspective made it into the

No one believes that engagement can only be found on a gadget. So why make that false distinction?

story: “With a textbook, you can only read what’s on the pages — here you can click on things and watch videos,” said Patrick Wu, a seventh grader. “It’s more fun to use a keyboard than a pencil. And my grades are better because I’m focusing more.”

We read about the fees associated with the computers, parents worrying about exposing their kids to the “online wilderness,” as well as the realities of technical glitches that come with transitioning an entire school district to a digital curriculum: disappearing assignments, unsaved tests, and network failures.

This article makes sense. After reading it, we can see the whole picture.

But Sunday’s article by Matt Richtel, “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute,” left many more questions than it answered. One of the big questions for me was why Richtel chose this school to write about. California is full of Waldorf and Waldorf-inspired schools. One of the main tenets of the Waldorf philosophy is not to use technology. So why single out an education philosophy that’s long been known for not using technology … for not using technology? Where’s the news there? Headline: Waldorf Schools Eschew Technology! Great!

The fact that it’s based in Silicon Valley can be construed as a bit of irony, I suppose, but that’s the only hook he uses to anchor an entire Sunday’s front-page article.

There are many other arguments to make about this article, and in fact the entire series, Grading the Digital School (also read “In Classroom of Future, Outdated Testing Can’t Keep Up, Deconstructing What Works in Education, and Why Should Schools Invest in Software? for rebuttals to Richtel’s stories).

But the question that keeps coming up is why this writer continues to take the black-and-white, either/or approach. It’s far too simplistic a view for the newspaper’s sophisticated readership. No one believes that learners don’t need teachers. No one believes that engagement can only be found on a gadget. So why make that false distinction? Why portray technology as an all-pervasive evil force that’s either shilled by greedy corporations, used by unsuspecting school administrators, or feared by parents who are just trying to protect their kids?

We are smarter than that, and we deserve better coverage of this topic. And here I thought we’re starting to shift the dialogue for the public.



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  • John

    We need to start focusing on “learning experiences” – not about technology. Discussion should not be about the media (ink on pulp or swirl of electrons), but should be about learning outcomes – efficiency and effectiveness. Learning is a human experience, is about human interactions and connections.  A learning system (paper & pencil or online) should facilitate connections and interactions among humans. (not just a human and a video/animation).

    Study Hall app on facebook ( is an example of very simple experience that focuses on learning experience than ed tech! – Let learners connect with each other and learn from each other. It can be face to face, via a phone (i, j, k, l, m…..), via e-mail, via social networks, etc.

  • Jisliss

    You’re making an assumption with this phrase:

      So why single out an education philosophy that’s long been known for not using technology … for not using technology? Where’s the news there? Headline: Waldorf Schools Eschew Technology! 

     I don’t think Waldorf is as widely known and understood as you seem to think it is.  Sure some folks may say “Oh Waldorf, that’s where they don’t use computers”, but that’s not really ‘knowing’ Waldorf.  I think the author of the original article may, perhaps, have been writing to those who dont’ know anymore than that about a Waldorf school.Yes, we’re a Waldorf family (1 child), but are looking at our other options for high school. I was just at an open house for a top rated school in our city.  The teachers made their presentations on power point.  Did I find that more engaging than hearing them just speak?  No, I didn’t.  I found the power point presentations off-putting and lacking a fundamental connection that I think is essential to teaching.

    Framing it up as “Technology vs. Learning” is itself tiresome.  There’s no ‘vs.’ here.  It’s a question of ‘how much’.  Our society needs to foster human connection as much as — and perhaps more than — it needs to foster technology. There’s plenty of time and opportunity for kids to get their technology on.  I think our schools would serve best by focusing on fostering a human connection.

  • Suz

    When a doctor operates on a patient thousands of miles away via technology, when my friend’s child emails his Chinese grandmother in English,but she receives it in Chinese and emails back, I think it is human interaction and connection. Just imagine how students will benefit from interacting with each other globally.Technology is here to stay. We need to make the best of it.Did you hear how Ipads help the autistic children to comunicate?(60 minutes on CBS)
    We will ALWAYS need teachers, but they need to have access to these gadgets in order to meet the students’ diverse needs individually .

  • Chris Lawerence

    Thank you! I am increasingly befuddled by the Grading Digital School series as I find it extremely agenda driven as a news series and suspect in their logic and evidence. For instance in previous articles they critique schools who use a technology enabled project base approach who can’t show improvements on standardized tests, yet at the Waldorf school where they (rightly I believe) eschew standardized tests for a project based work they are excused of that data driven metric. I also might argue that the approach is not vastly different in the two schools, one uses video production software in a project, the other knitting needles. Both curriculums are about making things and experiential learning but obviously not great test prep. I think Richtel and the “paper of record” have to be called on this sketchy reporting. If they want to give him a contrarian column, fine all views welcome, but as a news piece that in the series title is suggesting an evaluation, it is shoddy journalism.

  • Travis Hodgin

    In my opinion, i think that some people work better with a computer rather than paper and pencil. Computers are much more interactive and can actually help hold peoples attention much more then just writing on a chalk board or paper.