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Technology in the Classroom

Technology in the classroom
Matthew Exline

A guaranteed way to start any teacher talking is to ask him or her about the proper role of technology in the classroom. In many public school districts—and many universities too, for that matter—technology is revered as a magic bullet. Within the smaller circle of classical Christian education, however, the opposite view is common. Many classical educators view technology with deep suspicion and distrust, castigating it as a distracting influence that interferes with learning. The philosopher Aristotle emphasized the concept of the “golden mean,” the idea that virtue lies at the balanced midpoint between two extremes. Let us, like good classicists, try to find a way to apply this ancient wisdom to a distinctly modern problem.

On the one hand, the classicists have a point that giving a failing student in a failing school a fancy tablet and an internet connection does not replace effective instruction. Professor Firefox is not suddenly or automatically going to make floundering students into star pupils, or their school into Plato’s Academy. This realization has even begun to dawn on some large school districts, leading them to cancel or revamp ill-conceived and poorly implemented student technology programs that have wasted millions of taxpayer dollars. Even without institutional incompetence, though, tablets can be dangerous. The Internet is a wonderful and terrible thing. A robust content filter mitigates the worst dangers, yet the lure of an always-on internet connection can distract even a disciplined student. The strong suspicion that students are watching cat videos when they should be paying attention is demoralizing for any teacher. It is awfully tempting to throw out the high-tech gadgets simply to get the students to pay attention for a change.

On the other hand, our students need to be prepared to live and work in the 21st century, which means they need to be comfortable with technology, cat videos and all. We cannot turn back the clock to the 20th—or the 19th, or the 9th—century, nor would it be advisable to do so even if we could. (Feudalism and Black Plague, anyone?) Nor am I convinced by the argument, common among classical educators, that students do not learn as well if they are no longer forced to write by hand. That does not square either with my own personal experience as a student or my observations as a teacher. Penmanship may be a vanishing art, but the solution is not to prohibit typing. The modern college experience revolves around technology. Virtually every one of my students will take at least one online class at some point in their lives. Beyond the university, computer literacy is non-negotiable in a vast array of potential occupations. Banning computers altogether in the upper grades I teach would be doing students a grave disservice.

Thus, in the Aristotelian tradition, I strive for a workable compromise, seeking to maximize the benefit of technology while minimizing the harm. I integrate technology into my teaching, not for its own sake or to impress administrators, but when it helps me. For now, at least, I welcome the presence of iPads and computers in my classroom and expect my students to take full advantage of them, especially the ability to do internet research and to type papers and class notes. Computer use can be limited to when it is truly necessary, and I continue to experiment with various methods of enforcing note-taking expectations, much to my students’ chagrin. The iPads and the internet are not the teachers, though, and I am realistic in my expectations as to what they can accomplish.

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