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The question is how, not if, technology will change classrooms

Submitted by on Thursday, 7 May 2009 4 Comments

I’m a Mean Mom with old fogey leanings. It’s the worst possible combination.

Just ask Big Guy, who’s reduced to bartering Batman stickers for Nintendo DS time because I won’t buy him one.

Just ask Boots, whose lovely session of Mario Kart was disrupted when I crashed the party after a half hour.

Yet I’m realistic, and I bought Big Guy Guitar Hero around Christmas, though not the Wii version he yearned for.

We have “educational software” too, though Reader Rabbit didn’t teach Big Guy the alphabet and the sounds they make. Actual human beings did that; the games served  as a reinforcer.

In this era, you’re doing your kids a disservice if you don’t expose your kids to technology. It will drive their worlds.

But I’m not ready yet to concede that classrooms filled with kids who game the day away is the solution.

That’s why overblown statements about the value of educational gaming bug me. “Recent research on this game concluded that playing it had a positive effect on student math achievement in a public high school setting,”Centers on Media and Child Health wrote this week.

The game is Dimension M by Tabula Digita. The state of Virginia agreed this week to a four-month pilot program involving the game.

“Clearly the state Department of Education recognizes what current research supports: that students can learn and perform at higher levels when using technology-based tools that are relevant to students,” company Chief Executive Officer Ntiedo Etuk said in a news release.

OK, let’s look at that research, a report done last year at the University of Central Florida and posted on the Dimension M Web site.

Researchers did indeed find that specific games improved math scores, but with an important caveat: Gaming in computer labs alone did not work. It had to be combined with classroom instruction that first taught the concepts. Drat. There come those pesky humans again.

And here’s the interesting thing about the group of 193 students involved in the study: 63.4 percent had low or very low math skills at the start of the study, while 74.1 percent were proficient or power computer users.

Anyone else disturbed that almost three-quarters were proficient at computers while nearly two-thirds were bad at math? Is it possible the first caused the second? Other research suggests precisely that. How ironic if educators turn to the gaming industry to solve a problem the industry helped create.

No where in the University of Central Florida report does the word “remedial” appear. Yet that’s exactly what the sample suggests.

Also keep in mind that it’s much easier to move the needle in a study if you start with a base of low achievers.

For example, if you begin with an average score of 30, you need to improve only 3 percentage points to jump 10 percent. If you start with an average of 60, though, you need to improve 6 percentage points to make that same 10 percent gain.

In essence, the study took kids who were very good at one thing (computers) and very bad at another (math) and used the first to teach the second. No surprise that the students improved.

Ay, but it cured their math phobia, teachers said in interviews.

How did they become math phobic? They probably weren’t born that way. It’s likely a fear learned and reinforced by years of poor performance.

So why not solve the problem before it becomes a problem, by making sure kids have access to quality preschool and enter kindergarten at least knowing how to hold a pencil and scissors?

Why not provide intensive help in the beginning rather than coming up with a flashy interactive solution after kids have experienced years of failure and become drop-out risks?

Yes, today’s children must learn technology. But it seems cruel, bordering on Munchausen by education, to invest on technology on the back end, after students are struggling, instead of on help on the front end, when they’re still eager and curious.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • janarius said:

    Excuse me, your citation to my blog post does not support your arguement about the relationship between computer skills and academic performance. Please reiterate the full-text article, it can be found through google scholar.

  • Debra said:

    Sorry to offend. I was merely trying to give credit to the original writer, which to me seemed to be professional courtesy. I’ll happily remove it, though.

    And to me, the study as you quoted it made the point of that passage perfectly, which is that educators could be seeking a solution from the industry that’s causing the problem: “As video game usage increases, GPA and SAT scores decrease.”

    Granted, there are a lot of caveats in the passage you quoted – and I’ll note that you didn’t link to the same abstract that you’re scolding me for not linking to – as there are with any studies into this area simply because it’s such a relatively new trend. That’s why schools need to pause before spending money on an unproven technology rather than investing heavily in things that have been proven to work.

    Remember back in the 1980s, when IBM-backed Writing to Read was the latest greatest thing and districts rushed to invest in technology because this was the solution to solving reading problems in schools ? Obviously, it wasn’t. Now, remnants of Writing to Read remain a part of the curriculum. But it’s no longer regarded as the solution, but merely a tool.

    And that’s why taxpayers need to look beyond claims of companies with vested interests – the UCF research brief is posted on a gaming company’s site – to evaluate what’s really going on.

    Here’s hoping Virginia uses a legitimate sample in its pilot program instead of skewing it toward low achievers. Maybe such a study would help provide some answers.

  • ParentingPink said:

    Leave it to my good ‘ol state of Virginia to pave the way to academic computer-based success in our schools :-) It’s great timing that you wrote this post because Kindle just released their “larger” version reader and there is talk that it will someday be used to replace text books in schools. I really do like the idea of technology in our schools, but there is something nice about picking up a book every once in a while too!

    Btw, next time Bruce is in town, we’ll have to see him together. Maybe if we scream loud enough he’ll sing Cover Me! LOL

  • Debra said:

    Interesting! Kindle replacing text books could be a smart innovation. Particularly for college texts, where the students (hopefully) aren’t as likely to lose the device and publishers change a few words and charge hundreds of dollars for a new edition. I’m sure they’d still find a way to work that scam digitally, but maybe at a $50 gouge instead of $100. :)

    And I agree with you: Can’t curl up with a Kindle at night. Though as infatuated as I am with my Crackberry right now, it’s tempting.

    I am so with you on the “screaming at The Boss” thing, too. “Cover Me” followed by “Dancing in the Dark.” Must plan next year’s trip back east around the tour.