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Estelle Shumann is a writer interested in a wide range of educational methods. Having played several instruments and been exposed to many art forms in her childhood, she finds that solving the education puzzle today requires more than simply a large budget. She currently writes and researches about online education.
Decades ago, the term “face-time” was not in anyone’s vocabulary. But now parents and educators are more aware than ever of the value of spending time face-to-face with students. While the value of technology in schools cannot be denied, online college classes give many students access to education that normally would not be available, many education experts are realizing that technology by itself will not solve the woes of the U.S. education system.
According to Education Week, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, estimates that more than 1.5 million K-12 students were engaged in some form of online or blended learning in the 2009-10 school year. At the end of 2010, supplemental or full-time online learning opportunities were available in at least 48 of 50 states, plus the District of Columbia. While using technology to teach within the classroom and at home through online courses is on the rise, researchers have come up with conflicting results about the benefit of the billions spent on technology.
The New York Times reports that many schools are increasing their spending on technology in the midst of budget cuts and teacher layoffs in spite of the lack of proof that tech-centric curriculum results in improved learning. Some classroom studies show that math scores rise among students using instructional software, while others show that scores actually fall. The high-level analyses that sum up these various studies, not surprisingly, give researchers pause about whether big investments in technology make sense.
In an interview with The New York Times, Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an investor in educational technology companies, said, “The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data.”
But Vander Ark immediately said that “change of a historic magnitude is inevitably coming to classrooms this decade: ‘It’s one of the three or four biggest things happening in the world today.”
In addition to concern about whether or not technology is improving the knowledge of K-12 students, researchers are beginning to question the impact on social skills of students who spend more time in front of a computer screen than interacting with teachers and other students. According to Education Week, technology allows students to use online opportunities in a variety of ways, including interacting with a virtual teacher and other students taking the same class simultaneously. However, enough of online education is so student specific, that it could be possible to refrain from all interpersonal interaction.
Education Week says that online schools are “starting to focus more on the issue of socialization for their students and some are incorporating more face-to-face instruction into their array of services to allow for student interaction both online and in person. They’re forming clubs, holding proms, and creating school newspapers.”
Most researchers recognize that, like most educational techniques, there are advantages and disadvantages to online learning. Students who use technology in the classroom are just as prone to wasting time and playing games in front of the computer as they are when they are seated before a notebook, so teachers must continue to be vigilant and establish discipline in the classroom.
Students who take advantage of courses that are exclusively online may find that the use of technology has a big impact on their social development. According to The Wall Street Journal, sociologists and child psychologists are studying the ways in which online education “might hinder or help, the development of social skills.” For some students, particularly those who are shy, the lack of face-to-face interaction can actually make developing social skills easier since they can “talk” online instead of in person. For others, online courses could be isolating.
According to The Wall Street Journal, “Elizabeth Birr Moje, a professor of education at the University of Michigan who has studied online learning, says “there are some huge advantages” to online high schools, including an individualized pace and better access to multimedia content. “The disadvantage is that you may not learn to work with other people quite as well,” she adds.
Until more definitive research is in place about the impact of technology in schools, it seems that teachers and parents should monitor the impact of technology on students on an individualized basis to make sure the effects are positive. Turning to technology to replace traditional classroom interaction could just be a fad, but one with long-term, negative consequences.