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Technology in Moderation

by Samuel E. Abrams - November 04, 2011

Technology clearly warrants a place in today’s classroom but must be kept in place. At stake is the cognitive and social development traditional classroom activity and discussion have long proven crucial in cultivating.

In flipping through education journals today, one gets the impression from one article and advertisement after another that better instruction requires more technology, especially more integration of online learning.  Technology clearly warrants a place in todays classroom but must be kept in place.

On the one hand are concerns about academic effectiveness, as exhibited in three detailed front-page stories recently published by The New York Times.  One story focused on heavy investment in technology in Arizonas 18,000-student Kyrene School District since 2005 with no evidence of educational benefits six years and $33 million later (Richtel, 2011a, p. A1).  Another delved into studies done by the U.S. Department of Education finding Carnegie Learnings Cognitive Tutor along with eight of nine other software products for teaching math to have no statistically significant effect (Gabriel & Richtel, 2011, p. A1).  A third described a computerless Waldorf School in Los Altos, California, and its academic appeal to Silicon Valley computer scientists who send their childen there (Richtel, 2011b, p. A1).

On the other hand are concerns about the atomizing impact of online learning.  Students are already spending so much time at home on Facebook and in between home, school, and everywhere they go either listening to their iPods or chatting or texting on their cell phones.  School could and should remain one place where we maximize the opportunity for students to engage in face-to-face discussion with teachers and fellow students about books, labs, equations, and current events.

Advocates of online learning nevertheless repeatedly present variations on the following argument: if a doctor fell asleep many years ago and woke up today, he or she wouldnt recognize an operating room; however, if a teacher fell asleep many years ago and woke up today, he or she would, unfortunately, be right at home in a classroom.  For students to compete someday in a high-tech global economy, these advocates maintain, the classroom should be infused with technology connecting them to the virtual world.

While facility with technology is no doubt critical, the classroom as a forum for discussion retains its importance.  The Socratic method conveyed by Plato has certainly in this regard lost none of its potency.  The Core Curriculum introduced at Columbia College in 1919with twenty students meeting around a table with a professor for several hours a week to discuss philosophical and political texts in chronological order from ancient Greece to the presentand augmented in 1937to include poetry, drama, history, and fictionis likewise as powerful generations later.  The same holds for the large oval Harkness Table, introduced at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1931 and since adopted by countless secondary schools as a way to encourage participation in discussion.  Finally, as any veteran teacher can attest, students crave the give-and-take of old-fashioned intellectual discourse with peers and benefit immeasurably from the unforeseeable vistas it opens.

According to Per Ledin, the CEO of Kunskapsskolan, a pioneering Swedish educational management organization that integrates online and conventional learning in modern buildings outfitted with airy computer labs alongside traditional classrooms, it is for precisely this reason that his company has had more success operating middle schools than high schools.  As his company had projected, Ledin said in a March 2011 interview, middle-school studentsand their parentsappreciate the autonomy conferred by a mixed approach based heavily on self-paced work done online, but more high-school students than expected prefer a more social learning environment (Ledin, 2011).

Like old-fashioned intellectual discourse, online learning also opens new vistas, advocates rightly argue, and does so regardless of ones socioeconomic status.  Online learning thus levels the playing field, they say.  Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City school system from 2002 to 2010 and now CEO of the Educational Division of Rupert Murdochs News Corporation, recently made this argument in a long essay in The Atlantic.  Klein moreover argued that first-rate lecturers online could replace subpar teachers in the classroom and thereby deliver better instruction at great savings (Klein, 2011, p. 77).

In his book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (2008), Clayton Christensen made a similar case.  Schools need a new system, he wrote.  The proper use of technology as a platform for learning offers a chance to modularize the system and thereby customize learning.  Student-centric learning is the escape hatch from the temporal, lateral, physical, and hierarchical cells of standardization.  The hardware exits. The software is emerging (Christensen, 2008, p. 38).  As a case in point, Christensen cited Virtual ChemLab, created by a professor at Brigham Young University and serving 150,000 students with more than 2,500 photos and 220 videos (p. 105).

John Chubb and Terry Moe built on Christensens argument in Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education (2009).  Exogeneity is a uniquely powerful source of change, they wrote.  Sixty-five million years ago an asteroid hit the earth&.  It created a new environment. And in this new environment, new species emerged and existing ones either adapted or died out.  One of the hardiest of all vertebrate animalsthe dinosaursdied out.  For Chubb and Moe, the dinosaurs of education today are classroom teachers as we know them as well as the unions that represent them (Chubb & Moe, 2009, p. 151).

In Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning (2010), Paul Peterson in the same vein praised the technological sophistication of many virtual courses and cited one projection that by 2019 half of all high school courses will be taught online (Peterson, 2010, p. 231).  In the long run, Peterson wrote with approval, brick-and-mortar high schools may become places where they [students] meet their friends, get help from their coaches, and engage in group activitiessports, music, theater, and other extracurricular activities (p. 256).

Against the advocates of this new paradigm, Larry Cuban and Patricia Burch have contended, respectively, in Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (2001) and Hidden Markets: The New Education Privatization (2009) that much educational technology is the product of manufactured need, benefiting makers more than consumers.

This warning about manufactured need in education is not a new one.  Horace Mann, the inaugural secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, wrote in 1845, A great mischief & is suffered in the diversity and multiplicity of our school books&.  An edition once published must be sold&. All manner of devices are daily used to displace the old books, and to foist in new ones (Mann, 1969, pp. 27-28).

While online learning may or may not be the product of manufactured needor a path to real savings once long-term effects are calculatedthere is a longstanding and learned case against the potential of technology in the classroom.  Jacques Barzun, a professor of history at Columbia from 1927 to 1975, wrote more than half a century ago in Teacher in America (1945), In all three modes of teachingby lecture, by discussion, and by tutoringit is evident that the effective agent is the living person.  It is idle to talk about what could be done by gadgetsgramophone disks or sound films.  We know just what they can do:  they aid teaching by bringing to the classroom irreplaceable subject matter or illustrations of it&.  But this will not replace the teachereven though through false economy it might here and there displace him (Barzun, 1945, p. 58).

Barzun continued that if technology could truly replace the teacher, the book would have long ago done so, for the original lecture was reading from a costly manuscript to students who could not afford it.  To buttress his case, Barzun quoted the nineteenth-century Oxford theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman:  No book can convey the special spirit and delicate peculiarities of its subject with that rapidity and certainty which attend on the sympathy of mind with mind, through the eyes, the look, the accent, and the manner, in casual expressions thrown off at the moment, and unstudied turns of familiar conversation (p. 59).

With the cautionary words of Mann, Barzun, and Newman in mind, we should innovate in moderation.  Technology as an aid to the teacher, as Barzun wrote in 1945, makes eminent sense yet not as a replacement.  In the classroom and forever after, the interpersonal is vital to cognitive and social development.

In his essay On the Art of Conversation, published in 1580, Michel de Montaigne made this point with distinctive feeling and clarity.  To my taste, he wrote, the most fruitful and most natural exercise of our minds is conversation.  I find the practice of it the most delightful activity in our lives.  Montaigne continued:  When I am contradicted, it arouses my attention, not my wrath.  I move towards the man who contradicts me; he is instructing me.  The cause of truth ought to be common to us both&.  I welcome truth & in whosever hand I find it; I surrender to it cheerfully, welcoming it with my vanquished arms as soon as I see it approaching from afar" (Montaigne, 2003, pp. 1045, 1047).

But for such dialogue, Montaigne feared four centuries ago, we would fail to develop trust and discover truth.  The same holds today.


Barzun, J. (1945). Teacher in America. New York: Atlantic-Little, Brown.

Burch, P. (2009). Hidden Markets: The New Education Privatization.  New York: Routledge.

Christensen, C. M., Horn, M.B., & Johnson, C.W. (2008). Disrupting Class:  How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.  New York: McGraw Hill.

Chubb, J. E., & Moe, T.M. (2009). Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cuban, L. (2001). Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gabriel, T., & Richtel, M. (2011, Oct. 8).  Inflating the Software Report Card.  The New York Times, p. A1.

Klein, J. (2011, June). The Failure of American Schools. The Atlantic, pp. 66-77.

Ledin, P. (2011, March 8).  Interview.

Mann, H. (1969/1855).  Lectures in Education.  New York: Arno Press.

Montaigne, M.  (2003/1580). On the Art of Conversation, The Complete Essays.  Translated by M.A. Screech.  New York: Penguin.

Peterson, P. (2010).  Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Richtel, M. (2011a, Sept. 3).  In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores.  The New York Times, p. A1.

Richtel, M. (2011b, Oct. 23). A Silicon Valley School that Doesnt Compute. The New York Times, p. A1.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 04, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16584, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 9:32:59 AM

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About the Author
  • Samuel Abrams
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    SAMUEL E. ABRAMS is a visiting scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University, writing a book for Harvard University Press on school reform. He was previously a teacher of history and economics for eighteen years, the last nine of which at the Beacon School, a public high school in New York focused on technology and the arts.
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