Two schools in the Washington DC area are taking a completely opposite approach to technology in the classroom. One, the Flint Hill School in Oakton, has classrooms filled with latest electronics, and equips all its students with Macbook Air laptops. In the other, the Washington Waldorf School, classrooms look about the same they might have looked at the turn of last century, where pens, notebooks, and a chalk-wielding teacher in front of a blackboard still play the starring roles.
Both schools are independent, which gives them the freedom to make such choices for their student body. Although other schools in the area don't tend to either extreme – most fall somewhere towards the middle of the spectrum defined by Flint Hill and Washington Waldorf – all of them have to grapple with the decision of how much of a role technology will play in education.
Those looking for guidance aren't likely to find it in academic research. According to the Washington Post, there are few studies on the benefits of digital learning, and those that have been published show contradictory results. Few would argue that kids are being exposed to media at a higher rate than any other time in history, and yet what the impact of that exposure will be is hard to determine. A recent study commission by PBS found that some kids between the ages of 3 and 7 showed an improvement in their vocabulary skills after using an app called "Martha Speaks." And educators often praise the ability made easier by technology to personalize lesson plans and classroom experience to better reach their particular group of students.
On the other hand, child development experts say children are developing shorter attention spans and mulch-tasking too much online — habits that will become more ingrained over time. Technology is changing the way kids learn, too; ideas aren't as original when cobbled together through Google searches and recycled from opinion blogs, teachers at Waldorf say. And students are increasingly skipping over basic disciplines such as spelling and handwriting — practices that have diminished in importance in the workplace but are still key to wiring the young brain, some child-development experts say.
Districts around the country are now grappling with the U.S. Department of Education mandate to switch from traditional to digital textbooks by 2017, a call also backed up by the Federal Communication Commission. The plan mimics a similar one adopted by South Korea a few years ago. Ironically, South Korea is now rethinking this plan, and seeking to delay implementation, citing concerns that electronics are too prevalent in students' lives already.
This is an argument with which Natalie Adams, Washington Waldorf's faculty chair, can heartily agree.
"What is the rush? There is a time and a place for technology, but children need to first relate to the physical world around them."