April 8, 2012

Changing education through technology

How technology has changed our educational system is a topic that's sometimes hot, sometimes not.

It was a very hot topic about 15 years ago and seems to be making a comeback recently, despite tough economic times and despite the truth in the old joke that it took 25 years for the overhead projector to migrate from the bowling alley to the classroom. It may surprise you, however, that money spent on education in the United States exceeds our defense budget, if you take into account state and local as well as federal expenditure.

My interest in this topic was rekindled by a recent "On Point" NPR radio podcast "The Digital Future of Textbooks," hosted by Tom Ashbrook.

The show has an interesting structure: Ashbrook invites several experts in the field who, by answering his questions, lay out the issues, which are supplemented by questions and comments from phone callers and Internet comments. An enlightening and entertaining discussion usually ensues. This podcast discussed the pros and cons of using digital textbooks, running on portable computers, within an educational setting.

Even when you factor in the cost of providing small computers to the students, this still remains a viable economic option. Printed textbooks at the college level can cost students anywhere from $500 to $1,000 dollars per year; a tablet computer can be acquired in the $200 to $400 range. In grades K-12, textbooks degrade fast — pages go missing as all students are not as fastidious as the teachers might wish. Yes, students will also drop tablet computers, but insurance plans are available that amortize costs and lead to the student owning the computer by the time they graduate.

Another possible negative effect is that the money spent on digital texts will be diverted from traditional subjects like art, music, sports and even woodshop. Who is to say that the loss of these subjects outweighs any of the benefits gained with more technology? And how can we be sure these digital textbooks don't devolve into digital comic books? And what about the digital divide — will this advance in technology further exacerbate the divide between the haves and have-nots?

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