Learning in a Digital World

by Michelle Then, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy
I still remember my high school days when the back-to-school list consisted of pens, pencils, and notebooks.  But my back-to-school list for pharmacy school consisted of a laptop and a list of operating system and software requirements.  All of this seemed like a bogus language to me. When I came to class the first few days, I brought a pen and notebook and left the laptop at home, not realizing that the professors expected us to follow the slides and even do real time polls using my laptop during their lectures. This was my first dose of technology in the classroom.
According to a recent New York Times article about technology in the classroom, questions have been raised as to whether the use of technology helps to increase learning and a student’s understanding of concepts.1  Proponents argue that this technological upgrade for classrooms is inevitable, but that’s a good thing because “digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy, and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.”  Opponents believe that, “absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills — like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools — at the expense of math, reading, and writing fundamentals.”  Technology advocates, the opponent say, have it backward – acquiring new technology first and asking questions later.  Indeed, opponents contend there is no strong data to show that technology in the classroom improves learning.
In the Kyrene, Arizona, the school district made a big investment in a futuristic vision of technology in the classroom with laptops and big interactive screens. However, since 2005, reading and math scores have stagnated in Kyrene, even though statewide scores have increased. “But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.”1
The NY Times article explains how the concept of technology in the classroom is continuously “sold” to educators. This is evident by the science and technology committee assembled by President Clinton that urged schools to equip themselves with technology without evidence of benefit. It also talks about how the role of a teacher in this environment is becoming less of a teaching entity and more of a guide or facilitator to the technology.
I think this article brings up a lot of great points to play devil’s advocate in our technologically advancing world and is relevant to our course since we are learning in a virtual classroom. As a future educator and a past student who lived through an era of technology conversion, I can definitely see the pros and cons of technology.   Technology is constantly evolving and as users, we must constantly keep up with it.  Going through pharmacy school at the University of Maryland, I was part of the first class with a new satellite campus (Shady Grove) and all the technology delivering the curriculum to two physically separated groups of students entailed. Just like our Educational Theory and Practice class, we had live, synchronous and asynchronous classes. However, the technology didn’t always work as planned - many lectures started late or were interrupted because of technology glitches. Even in this class, we have experienced several difficulties related to the technology.
On the other hand, the convenience of being able to participate from different locations increases access. I also love the utility of Powerpoint and Blackboard for our coursework because it makes note taking and reviewing lecture materials simpler.
The use of technology may not have enough data to support its benefit in learning, but as future educators we can develop ways to gain from it and use it as a teaching assistant, instead of allowing it to become the teacher. An ABC Nightline piece entitled “The $50 Billion Gamble: Will computers improve public school education” highlighted a school with improved student performance, but “the 20 million dollars worth of technology had little to do with the school's improvement. Rather it was an old fashioned commitment to hiring, developing and providing necessary resources for teachers that was the source of the student success.”2  This highlights the importance of having quality teachers as a priority over spending money on more technology.

1.  Richtel, M. Grading the Digital School: In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores. The New York Times. 2011 Sept 4: Sect. A1.
2.  Ahern T. Will Technology Really Change Education? From Blackboard to Web. Teachers College Record. 2001 Nov 1;103:136-138