Teaching With Tech

The digital classroom of the 21st century is here. Is the technology delivering on its promise?

As laptops, tablets and smartphones have become ubiquitous in society, many would say the debate is no longer whether to incorporate digital learning in schools—it’s how to do it effectively.

“We don’t want to be driven by bright and shiny objects,” says Andy Calkins. He’s director of Next Generation Learning Challenges, an initiative of the nonprofit IT advocacy group Educause, which has distributed $85 million in grants to school districts that focus on technology-enhanced learning.

School policies around digital learning should include a “fully developed…definition of student success and an understanding of what kind of learning models and student experiences will help develop a whole range of competencies,” Calkins says. Only then, “should officials think of the role technology should play. If technology is the cart driving the horse, then they have a problem.”

How does one evaluate the effectiveness of classroom technology? Standardized test scores? Parent satisfaction surveys? Graduation and dropout rates? College acceptances?

At press time, APS was still figuring out which metrics to focus on in evaluating its Digital Learning Initiative. School officials say it’s tough to correlate the use of iPads or laptops with higher or lower test scores, just as it’s impossible to connect test scores to the use of pencils and paper.

But computers do cost more than pencils and paper. According to APS, the individual devices issued to 22,301 Arlington students in grades 2 through 12 during the 2017-18 school year—at an average cost of $511.50 per device—added up to $11.4 million.


Some would argue those costs are not only worthwhile, but a necessary investment in preparing students for future jobs. Among them is Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise, a nonprofit authorized in 2008 by Congress and President George W. Bush to solve challenges facing K-12 schools through the use of learning technologies. She says any device that allows deeper exploration and problem-solving is critical for those entering tomorrow’s workforce.

“Technology can augment each teacher’s ability to meet every student,” Cator says. “You can have kids engaged…in a much deeper way than a school library.”

Digital instruction can also democratize the classroom. It can level the playing field for low-income students who may not have access to computers at home. It can empower students with disabilities and learning differences who benefit from adaptive software. Proponents argue that it marks a significant step up from a one-size-fits-all teaching model.

Nick Joseffer, a fourth-grader at Nottingham Elementary in Arlington, has been using an iPad since second grade. He says apps like Reflex Math “challenge you on your math, so you have higher expectations and do better.” He used Book Creator for a class assignment to design his own country, and uploaded a photo of his summer vacation to Seesaw. He says it’s easier to type up his work than to write with a pencil.

Nick’s sister Grace, a seventh-grader, is more ambivalent. Looking back on her own time at Nottingham, she remembers one teacher who insisted that students do multiple drafts of writing assignments in longhand and then type the final text into their devices, which felt overly time-consuming.

After Grace started sixth grade at Williamsburg Middle, she says the school’s mid-year switch from Google Classroom to Canvas threw some students into a tailspin. The new portal made submitting homework confusing, she says: “It took a month to set up and we had to jump between programs, so that wasn’t fun.” On the other hand, Grace likes the idea of using less paper, which is better for the environment. She says she wishes she’d had access to some of the learning apps her brother uses now.


Private schools are similarly figuring out the new rules. At The Sycamore School, an independent secondary school in Arlington, every student receives a laptop, says founder Karen Ewart, but lunch, art and music periods are tech-free zones.

Last spring, when Ewart noticed students logging onto Google Chat during the school day, she declared a tech-free week. For some students, it felt like detox. “Some kids were not pleased,” she says. “ ‘How am I going to access my stuff? How am I going to do research?’ I told them to get creative.”

At Congressional School, a pre-K-8 school in Falls Church, students receive school-issued iPads or Chromebooks, according to Andrea Weiss, the school’s director of innovation and learning. “We do not use technology for technology’s sake. The use of technology to deliver lessons in the classroom is intentional,” she says—for instance, when science students use apps to do a virtual dissection or a roller-coaster simulation.

Congressional’s teachers also talk to students about how not to use technology, Weiss says. She cites the school’s counselor who tells older students: “If you’re going to have a relationship, you better be willing to break up in person and not online.”

Categories: Education