Tech devices are powerful – but not motivating

The optimists among us see technology creating schools full of self-directed, collaborative workers, using the power of the internet to advance their own learning at light speed.

The pessimists see technology allowing teenagers to become image-conscious dabblers, skilled at manipulating their Facebook profiles, taking selfies and playing games — but not much else.

This digital divide keeps surfacing in my reading, work and conversations.

Both sides can’t be right, but where is the disconnect?

Last week, I read the New Media Consortium’s 2015 Horizon Report — a five-year projection of education trends reflecting the research and opinions of “56 education and technology experts from 22 countries on six continents.”

According to these experts, “All around the world, schools have been shifting the roles of students from passive consumers of content and knowledge to creators of it.”

The trends toward “Bring Your Own Device” and “1:1 technology” are “creating the conditions for student-centered learning to take place.”

It sounds utopian, and they cite anecdotal cases of schools where students are learning to write, using apps, or researching “topics they are passionate about.”

But then my 17-year-old son Sam, who plays the online game StarBreak on our home computer, told me a story that paints a starkly different portrait of students using 1:1 devices.

Over several months, Sam said, StarBreak players have become increasingly annoyed by a large group of Ceres, California, 5th and 6th graders who have been playing the game all day long — inside of school and out — on their school-issued Chromebooks. These middle schoolers have been spamming the chat room and sharing personal information. Apparently someone at the school finally got wise and cut off access, but players have already gotten past the block.

Ceres brags on its website that its students are “1:the world with technology.” Indeed.

I know this isn’t an either/or situation. There are millions of students in American schools, and some of them are using technology in productive ways, while others are literally playing games. But we can’t jump into the digital future by celebrating the first group and ignoring the second.

Isn’t this the teacher’s fault? Sure, teachers who let middle school kids use Chromebooks for hours on end without checking what they’re doing deserve at least some of the blame. But anyone who has tried to watch over a kid’s shoulder while they quickly manipulate and shift screens on a Chromebook, iPad, computer or phone knows that it’s not that easy to keep track of what they’re doing.

I think the real problem is a misguided assumption. Tech optimists assume that if we put technology in students’ hands, they will be motivated to learn.

I mentioned this to a colleague this morning, and she quickly responded, “That’s the dumbest assumption I’ve ever heard.”

I agree. It’s not that students can’t learn in a 1:1 device setting — in fact, the opportunities for learning with new technology are amazing and getting better every day. But if students weren’t motivated to learn before they got a Chromebook, they aren’t going to find motivation on the internet. We’re naive to think otherwise.

While we spend millions to put devices in the hands of students, we need to dedicate just as many resources to developing student motivation to use these resources for learning. Otherwise, we’re just giving them new ways to waste time.