Richard Davis: Technology can't replace humans in the classroom

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 12 2014 5:00 a.m. MST

Thanks to recent legislatures and governors, Utah has fallen further behind in investment in humans, i.e. the teachers in the classroom. Frankly, there are too few of them for the number of students in our schools.

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What is the best way to put your children to bed? Is it to read them a book and inculcate a love of reading? Or is it to hand them an iPad? The answer is obvious. But the recent proposal by Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart looks more like the latter approach.

Lockhart wants the state to spend upwards of $300 million on placing technological gadgets in the hands of Utah’s public-school students. Her idea is not new. Other states have invested significant funds in technology. Maine buys laptops for middle-school students. Some school districts, such as Los Angeles, are providing iPads for all students.

But her proposal should be rejected. Here’s why:

Since no taxes would be raised to fund it, and therefore no additional education money provided, her proposal would just transfer funds from other education needs to technology. Not only is that robbing Peter to pay Paul, but it means that money to pay for more teachers in the classroom will be spent on electronics rather than humans.

Moreover, the benefits of such a massive investment in technology are questionable. Research on the effects of technology in students’ hands indicates this is no panacea. Math scores for Maine’s seventh- and eighth-graders have risen over the past decade since its laptop program was implemented, but so have scores for students at that grade level nationally. And reading scores among those students rose by only 1 percent. A Texas study following students with laptops over a two-year period found the same result.

Lockhart’s proposal needs to be turned around — money for new teachers first and technology second.

Anticipating the very concerns I have just raised, Lockhart says she wants her program to include teacher development as well. But it isn’t enough that a teacher in a large classroom knows how to use an iPad and can teach students to do the same. Rather, it is essential for the teacher to provide personal attention to the student first, not using an iPad as a substitute. That requires more teachers, not more iPads.

Thanks to recent legislatures and governors, Utah has fallen further behind in investment in humans, i.e., the teachers in the classroom. Frankly, there are too few of them for the number of students in our schools. Other states get that and have provided the funding for smaller class sizes first. They have placed the human component first. Utah still has failed to do that. Class sizes are large and have gotten larger over the past 20 years. Until that trend is reversed, technology must come second in priorities for education funding.

Obviously, Lockhart wants a signature accomplishment for her upcoming gubernatorial election. Putting an iPad or some other technological device in the hands of Utah’s schoolchildren would be a tangible campaign tool for her. But a far more significant accomplishment for her last session would be to devote that money to class-size reduction.

If the speaker really wants to help education, she should redirect most of that $300 million to hiring new teachers to enhance the human interaction each Utah student has with a teacher, not a device. She might follow the example of South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, who has asked the state legislature there for $160 million in new education money, with only 18 percent of it going to technology.

She also could ask voters to pay for her proposal directly. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York is proposing a statewide “Smart Schools” bond that would increase use of technology through a vote of the people. With voter approval, technology money would come from additional education funds. If Lockhart adopted that approach in Utah, new education spending for technology would not impinge on current education programs.

The legislature should reject Lockhart’s proposal until she reverses her priorities and places teachers above technology. This could be a test of her ability to be a good governor. If she is willing to shift her attention toward investing in more teachers in our classrooms then she would demonstrate her ability to move beyond the typical Republican legislative approach to public education and truly serve the interests of Utah’s schoolchildren.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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