Ed Tech as the Also-And

This week’s New York Times Magazine cover piece on the launch of the Amplify tablet continues to flog false choices, including the classic “invest in people not technology” and “face time not screen time.” Here’s a sample:

Still, if everyone agrees that good teachers make all the difference, wouldn’t it make more sense to devote our resources to strengthening the teaching profession with better recruitment, training, support and pay? It seems misguided to try to improve the process of learning by putting an expensive tool in the hands of teachers we otherwise treat like the poor relations of the high-tech whiz kids who design the tool.

It’s certainly true that teachers deserve more training, more prestige, and yes, more salary. But why pose technology as a trade-off, rather than a support, for this goal? I’ve seen too many nonprofit work environments that scrimp so excessively on IT that human resources go wasted — as when email goes down for hours or even days. A low-tech work environment that relies 99% on sweat does not help a profession become prestigious and will, with a new tech-dependent generation entering the labor market, likely get in the way of attracting talent.

More irksome is the author’s self-professed “kneejerk repudiation” of educational technology, particularly in setting up the debate as one over “screen time” (with support of the usual suspects like Sherry Turkle). There’s a strange disconnect with reality whenever this issue arises. The reality is that the modern workplace for which schools are preparing students is all about screentime. What’s more, children already spend huge hours on-screen outside school — what’s wrong with recapturing some of those hours for, gosh forbid, learning? Finally, and most importantly, broadside critiques of “screen time” ignores content. It makes a big difference if students are reading a digital textbook, playing a simulation game, or — as I’d like to see more of — scaffolding more effective face-to-face time.

To summarize: we need to stop debating “screen time” in the abstract and start looking at what’s on the screen. The “dashboard” metaphor for technology is a good basis for responding to undifferentiated criticism like this. A well-designed car dashboard provides critical information like whether your engine is overheating or if you’re speeding without distracting the driver. It’s time to move on from whether cars should or shouldn’t have dashboards and get into the details of which gauges are helpful and which ones get in the way.