Caracotsios: High-tech gadgets no substitute for good teacher

Caracotsios: High-tech gadgets no substitute for good teacher

Julian Caracotsios, Summer Columnist

I stumbled upon an article in The Economist the other day and – being a math major – had a rather startling thought: As much as education technology is touted as the way of the future, my math classes at Northwestern have been taught overwhelmingly with nothing but chalk and a blackboard.

The startling part was that back in high school math, we had all kinds of gadgets: ELMOs, SMART Boards, tablet PCs, etc. Granted, I grew up in one of Chicago’s affluent suburbs, so the money was available, but in retrospect, most of it was superfluity – and pricey superfluity at that. The cheapest projector on ELMO’s website has a $400 recommended retail price, and the most expensive, the self-proclaimed “Ultimate Faculty Enhancer,” stands at an astronomical $2,990. The textbook industry’s planned obsolescence isn’t helping our pockets, either. The calculus textbook my dad gave me for extra practice worked just as well as the one handed out in class, the only difference being that the copyright date was 1972. Whatever the school board may say about “updating to modern versions of books,” I can guarantee you that single-variable calculus hasn’t changed a wink in the past 40 years.

Mind you, I’m no education specialist – the most experience I have is a few years of tutoring – so I should avoid categorically demonizing these high-tech gadgets. As a matter of fact, I’m sure that there are plenty of instances in which such devices come in handy. An expensive ELMO projector might be quite useful in a large lecture hall where students strain to see chalk-and-blackboard lectures (but certainly less so in a small high school class of 30). Furthermore, as the Economist article states, educational software that tracks students’ progress and abilities can actually create much more personalized lessons and exercises than a standard lecture.

Regardless of the benefits, I am concerned that the emphasis on education technology is taking the debate in the wrong direction and in the process, wasting a lot of money. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to plan, measure and study technological innovations than it is to delve into the murky, subjective ideas of what makes a truly good pedagogue. Yet somehow, we all know a good teacher when we see one, and to be honest, I’d rather sit in the school’s basement using beat-up 40-year-old textbooks with one of them than in the most posh, technologically endowed classroom with any of their mediocre colleagues. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot turn a bad teacher into a good one, and no technological surplus can overcome a pedagogical deficit. Let’s not forget that as we stare wide-eyed at all our new gadgets.

Julian Caracotsios is a rising Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, leave a comment or send a letter to the editor to [email protected].