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SPECIAL REPORT: U.S. Schools Embracing Technology?

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By Linda Dobson

While homeschooling in the 80’s, my kids got a kick out of learning with a computer. After all, we had the latest and greatest: a Commodore 64 complete with all those floppy disks (when floppy disks were actually somewhat floppy) that made learning fun. There were color and shape matching for the youngest, and the Oregon Trail for the older kids – and Mom.


Let's hope the schools take note of the plethora of confirmation that abounds today to extend an alternative to children struggling in schools.

Times and computers have changed, but kids still get a kick out of learning with a computer. In “Educational Video Games More Effective than Teachers,”  Unschooling Examiner Sara McGrath explains:

Mims’s Bits, an MIT Technology Review blog posed the question “Should math education be replaced by video games?” after findings of a study showed a significant difference between a members of a control group who received traditional mathematical instruction and a treatment group who played DimensionM, a video game designed to teach linear algebra.

DimensionM transports kids to a multiplayer, three-dimensional world, giving them the opportunity to compete and cooperate toward challenges which require mathematical skills to accomplish.

The study involved 200 kids in a relatively low-achieving school in the Southeastern U.S. The MIT Technology Review author suggested that “a growing body of educators are already arguing that the world’s worst-off children are better off being educated by machines.”

(Check out Parent at the Helm’s “Mix Kids, Computers and Self-Motivation Get Learning that Sticks” for more on this topic.) Sara also writes:

On a related note, according to Jonah Rehrer’s “The Attention-Allocation Deficit,” on Prefrontal Cortex, a Wired blog: “…recent evidence suggests that people with ADHD have plenty of attention – that’s why they can still play video games for hours, or get lost in their Legos, or devote endless attentional resources to activities that they find interesting.”

Home educators around the world already know these comments to be true, and have been rescuing children with ADHD from “educational failure” for decades. Let’s hope the schools take note of the plethora of confirmation that abounds today to extend an alternative to children struggling in schools.

On another note, Education Week reports that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to change rates this week in an effort “to support off-campus wireless connectivity for mobile learning devices, help schools connect to the Internet via fiber networks, and enable the possibility of creating ‘school spots’ where schools can use E-rate funds to provide Internet access to the community after hours…”

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski states that the E-Rate program “has met its goals that were set up in a dial-up world, but of course it needs to be taken to the next level now that it’s in a broadband world.”

One of the most interesting of the possible provisions is a plan to better enable learning via mobile computing devices. Many of the folks I talked to for a story about mobile learning in our upcoming issue of Digital Directions said they longed for changes to the E-rate program that would help them expand mobile learning programs using school-issued devices. Currently such devices cannot be taken home if purchased under the E-rate program.

In “Anytime, Anywhere,” Carlo Rotella shared with New York Times readers that online courses have become a standard part of normal public education.”

According to a study by the Sloan Consortium, at the K-12 level, there were 50,000 students enrolled in wholly or partly online courses in 2000. By 2008, there were more than a million. Most of the students are in high school (many taking courses in subjects their local districts find it inconvenient to offer in classrooms) or in credit-recovery courses intended to lower the dropout rate by allowing students to pass a previously failed or incomplete subject. About 200,000 students are in full-time virtual schools, getting all of their schooling online.

Caprice Young, the former chief executive of KC Distance Learning, says, “In 2008, our primary clients were alternative schools and charters, but in the last year our client base flipped to predominantly traditional schools.” Online courses have typically catered to some of the most motivated students — those seeking Advanced Placement credit, for instance — and also to some of the least motivated, especially those at risk of dropping out. But now, as it becomes a standard part of normal public education (70 percent of school districts had students enrolled in an online course), online learning is increasingly reaching all types of students.

Sound pretty positive? One would think so, but then Carlo ends with questions of the skeptica – an his vision of school-attending avatars:

Proponents of online learning warn that we’re falling behind, but skeptics should be asking: Is the instruction good enough? Will some teachers lose their jobs? Is online learning just another concession to the electronic shrinkage of public life? Is it a fancy way for government to abdicate some of its responsibility to educate?

For better or for worse, imagine a near future in which your avatar can attend high school in a Second Life-like environment, your body no longer required to sit quietly in a row and your mind no longer obliged to settle for what the local district can offer. You won’t need a locker, and if you realize with swooping horror that there’s a big test today and you’re not ready, you can stop time and study until you are. And your avatar’s skin is clear. And you can fly.

At the same time, Wall Street Journal is reporting on the growing problem of school refusal in “I Hate School: Extreme Edition” by Andrea Petersen. One mother who had quit her job to attend school with her young son states, “He was the star of the football team, the guitar player, a straight-A student—and now, the minute we’d step into the parking lot he’d shake and start to cry.”

The article spends a lot of space quoting medical professionals sharing thoughts on various therapies to fix the children. Unfortunately, it follows the status quo of  “fixing these obviously broken children.” Someone needs to think about giving children an educational experience that excites about learning, rather than sickens.

Maybe a good dose of learning in freedom, utilizing the vast resources contained on computers, could help the mental, emotional, and physical health of children. Maybe U.S. schools need to stop dipping their toes in technology and take the plunge.

Beginning Sept. 26, NBC News is taking an in-depth look at American education. Watch it, but make sure to watch who gets to speak about education, and then take it all in with a grain of salt.


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