Policy

Tech in the classroom: Big ideas, big problems

Blank smartboards taking up space along classroom walls. Stacks of unused iPads gathering dust. Botched rollouts and canceled contracts. With horror stories like these, it’s no surprise that the “Big Ideas in Education” panelists at City & State’s On Education event chose to focus on what comes next: damage control when those big ideas run into big problems.

“I’ve been to dozens and dozens of schools and I know a couple of years ago, they were very proud of their smartboards,” said Clara Hemphill, editor of Inside Schools. “And I go back this past year and all the lightbulbs have burned out and they cost $400 to replace, so smartboards are not working anymore.”

Hemphill moderated the panel on Thursday at The New School, featuring experts from all corners of the proverbial classroom: Carol Mosesson-Teig, director of student achievement at the New York City Department of Education; Rashid Davis, principal of P-Tech in Crown Heights; Bryan Thompson, president of educational materials provider Steps to Literacy; Steve Sussman, curriculum division president of materials provider Sussman Sales; and Guy Vardi, CEO of the math games developer Matific.

The discussion was not limited to smartboards, but rather about the “big idea” of technology in the classroom.

“Students are digital natives,” Davis said. “So we need to tell teachers that they need to understand how to leverage, and not be fearful of, the knowledge students have with technology. And allow them to learn and relearn because that’s what they’re going to be doing for the rest of their lives.”

But Sussman was quick to warn that tech cannot be adopted too quickly. “It’s so important to know the capabilities and to test programs to make sure you know what you want to do before you go out and buy a bunch of devices that may not run smoothly with the type of programs you’re trying to implement.”

Thompson cited the failed adoption of iPads by the Los Angeles Unified School District, saying they put the cart before the horse. “They didn’t look at what they wanted to achieve,” he said, “and instead they said, if we have the technology we can worry about everything else after, and that’s not really the case.”

Thompson said teachers and administrators implementing new technologies have to be ready to adjust on the fly.

“If we sit down with technology, whether that’s smartboards or iPads, and we let that run the entire lesson for the day, we’re not actually interacting with the students,” he said. “I think smartboards and iPads have a fantastic place in our classroom, be it now or in the future. But I think we need to integrate (them) in a way that is thoughtful from the start.”

Mosesson-Teig was careful to note the city’s view on technology’s role in another big idea: getting kids interested in mathematics. She said no piece of technology could take the place of teachers who understand math. “And furthermore we believe strongly that mathematics has to be taught in community,” she said. “You cannot learn mathematics in isolation, and there needs to be conversation happening between students and teachers to ensure there’s a depth of understanding.”

Math was cited as a particular challenge for teachers and students alike. Hemphill shared a chart showing the proportion of the student body receiving an advanced Regents diploma has remained steady around 18 percent over the past decade, even as the percentage of students receiving the standard Regents diploma trended upward. She blamed the “algebra whirlpool,” the phenomenon where students have to take the algebra I Regents exam multiple times before passing it. Those students then run out of the time – or desire – to study higher-level subjects like algebra II, chemistry or physics.

New York students’ math performance has come under scrutiny after Wednesday’s release of statewide test scores showed just 38.1 percent of test takers were proficient in math. A silver lining: That’s a 2 percent increase from 2014, and a 7 percent rise from 2013.

Davis presented an optimistic picture, asking the crowd “that you be patient” about math scores and the algebra whirlpool, and emphasizing the significance of the slow and steady “incremental gains” in test scores.

Vardi responded with pragmatism. “Teachers in elementary school are the Swiss army knives of teaching. They are not necessarily experts at math,” he said – one of his many zingers of the session as he pushed for new, innovative ways of teaching.

Vardi and Davis’ differing perspectives show what make big ideas in education so complicated. What works in one classroom will not necessarily work in one down the hall. There is, after all, a certain cadre of teachers who will be standing in front of classrooms this fall who learned on smartboards throughout middle school and high school. For instance, one self-described millennial teacher at the conference, Stephanie Plachy, didn’t like the panel’s smartboard insults. She tweeted, “Woah, throwing shade at @SMART_Tech #SMARTboards at #OnEducation... I love mine!”

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