There's been a lot of commentary on the Times' A1 story about an Arizona school district that spent $33 million on fancy high-tech toys, like Smart Boards and educational software, but saw test scores stagnate. I agree with Robert Pondiscio's common-sense take: "Maybe the medium is not the message"--in other words, the what of learning (curriculum) matters just as much, if not more, than the how (via a laptop vs. a textbook).
That said, I've been giving a lot of thought lately to media literacy, and I think it's incredibly important for schools to use technology to teach young people how to find information sources and determine whether or not they are reliable. Before I describe a high school social studies lesson I oberved that did just that, a quick anecdote: Over Labor Day weekend, at a restaurant in a well-heeled Hudson Valley town, I overheard a middle-aged man bragging to his dining companions about a "USSA" bumper sticker he had affixed to his car.
"Since Obamacare passed, the government controls over 50 percent of the economy!" the man said. "And that's the dictionary definition of socialism! I looked it up online!"
(Actually, health care spending accounts for just 16 percent of the United States' GDP, and the goal of health reform is to lower that number, bringing us in line with other developed world nations. But I digress.)
When I was researching for my book this past spring in various Rhode Island public schools, I sat in on Jennifer Geller's 10th grade Contemporary World History class at the Providence Career and Technical Academy. That day's state-mandated lesson objective was to "trace patterns chronologically for events leading to World War II in Europe." But Geller, a 12-year veteran in the district, used technology to layer a more ambitious and contemporary media literacy skills-building session on top of the dry history.
First the sophomores read the following paragraph in their Prentice Hall World History textbook:
With the [German] government paralyzed by divisions, both Nazis and Communists won more seats in the Reichstag, or lower house of the legislature. Fearing the growth of Communist political power, conservative politicians turned to Hitler. Although they despised him, they believed they could control him. Then, with conservative support, Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933 through legal means under the Weimar constitution.
Geller asked the kids to go to the back of room and pick up individual laptops, which had been borrowed for the day from the school's library. Their task for the rest of the period was to search online for additional accurate information about Hilter's rise to power that had not been included in their textbook, and then present it to the class.
Geller engaged the kids in a conversation about how search engines work. "Does anyone know how the first link on Google becomes the first one?" she asked. "It's not the best -- it's that the most people linked to or clicked on that site. You should not always trust the first thing you see!"
Geller encouraged the students to look at Wikipedia, but skeptically. "Anyone can write these articles," she explained. "The fact that anyone can change them or fix them means if something is wrong, it can be fixed. You have to be careful with it, just like you have to be careful with your textbook."
Geller continued, "Who do you think gets to write a textbook? And how often is it updated? Maybe a downside is the textbook doesn't change much from year to year."
After searching online, the students learned that it wasn't just "conservative politicians" who supported Hitler. In fact, a full third of the German public had voted for the Nazi party. "That's why you use two sources!" Geller proclaimed.
The lesson was relevant to both historical research and day-to-day fact finding online. It also gave the students something pretty disturbing to think about regarding the relatively broad support enjoyed by Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1933. This struck me as an ideal classroom use of technology -- and all it required were laptops and a wifi connection.