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School Technology: Pros Outweigh Cons?


Switching gears now. By now, most students are settled into the new school year, so we wanted to talk about bringing technology into the nation's schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District - the nation's second-largest school system - has started ruling out a $1 billion effort that will put iPads in the hands of all of its students. Education leaders around the country are paying close attention to this experiment to see whether these devices engage students or just distract them.

Joel Klein is one who believes in the future of tablets in the classroom. He formerly served as the chancellor of New York City's Department of Education. He's now the CEO of Amplify. That's the education division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Amplify was recently profiled in a New York Times Magazine piece titled "No Child Left Untableted." And he is with us now once again. Mr. Klein, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

JOEL KLEIN: Thank you, Michel. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: In the New York Times piece, you were quoted as saying, K-12 isn't working and we have to change the way we do it. I know a lot of people have opinions about what does and does not work in K-12. So just tell us your opinion, and tell us why you think bringing tablets to the classrooms will fix what's broken.

KLEIN: So what I think the tablet will do, Michel, is enable teachers to be more effective at what they want to do, and it supports them. Let me give you a simple example. As everybody knows, in a class of 25 children, you can have some who are really moving ahead quickly, some in the middle and some who are lagging behind. And what a tablet enables the teacher to do is customize the learning experience. So in that sense, it's really a digital assistant for the teacher.

And from the child's point of view - what a tablet enables the child to do is really get the personalized assistance, almost like a tutor that's online for the kid. So all in, what this is really about is empowering our teachers and enabling our students to get more engaged.

MARTIN: Well, you know, on a gut level, you can see why this is attractive to people who are particularly concerned about leveling the playing field. On the other hand, though, there are people who are concerned that this is just another educational fad. I mean, why do you think it isn't?

KLEIN: Well, first of all, your point about equalization is critical. I mean, one of the great issues in America today are these just gaping achievement gaps between kids who grow up in poverty and challenged circumstances. Here's a way to not only engage that kid more effectively, Michel, but to really extend the day, extend the year. Think about a kid who's sick at home, who can't get to class, can now, literally, dial in and experience a class. So I think that's very powerful. I also agree with you. We don't need fads. What we need is to do what we know how to do right, which is support our teachers, make them more effective, make our kids more engaged, and those are the things we're focusing on.

For years I've said, giving a kid a tablet or a computer or some kind of device isn't going to change the equation. That just seems cool but not effective. What we're trying to do is really strengthen and build on the things that we know that work. And I've been quite amazed at how excited teachers are about how effective these tablets can be and this curriculum can be and these games can be in doing something that I think we all know needs to be done, which is to reinforce effective learning across the spectrum for every kid of every color and every income level.

MARTIN: But the critics of this approach say - the classroom teacher, quoted in the magazine piece, was concerned that giving tablet computers to students meant she would have less time to actually engage with them. And her view is it's often that personal connection, which is actually what makes a difference for kids, especially kids who aren't getting a lot of stimulation and support for intellectual activity elsewhere in their lives. What do you say to that?

KLEIN: I agree with her. I think that personal connection is critical, and everything we're about is supporting that personal connection. One of the things we have - a feature on our tablet, literally, is teacher can see every kid's tablet and clicks and says, eyes on teacher, and all the tablets shut down. On the other hand, think about how little day-to-day feedback a kid in a class of 25 or 30 gets. Through the use of the tablet, the teacher can give much, much more feedback - in class feedback, out of class feedback. Those connections really matter. And so what we need to do is focus on the things that work, and the I-thou teacher connection to the student is a critical part of everyone's education.

And anyone who tries to eliminate that, I think is going to undermine something valuable. But that doesn't mean you can't give more feedback, better personalization, other ways of effectively supporting what the teacher does. And that's what we're trying to do.

MARTIN: But the other criticism is that there really is no data to support this theory. I mean, one of the sharpest criticisms that I've seen was published in the Washington Post by Valerie Strauss who argued that, you know, part of the problem is that influential people, like yourself and like companies, have become invested in these particular products and ideas. She says and as a consequence, there really isn't the data to show that what's behind the successes that have taken place without these kinds of new technologies. I mean, isn't that fair?

KLEIN: No. I - to response to it - when you do something new and different, of course there's no data. I mean, does that mean we should never try new things in K-12 education? A system that every one of your listeners now knows is failing a massive number of our kids. I mean, a recent ACT and College Board numbers show that one out of four graduates - and not every kid is graduating - one out of four high school graduates is college ready. Should we sit back and not try new and different things?

So, of course, until you try the things, you don't know. But what we're doing, we've piloted it. We've gotten feedback from teachers who want it. Everything I've said is if the teachers are not interested and excited in this, it won't happen. And in that New York Times article, that teacher herself said she found that it was effective in helping her move forward. Second of all, there are some data. It's early in the game, but there are some data that are very reinforcing. A New York Times article just recently - and I was amazed that people didn't focus on this - in San Jose State in California this year, they used total online, and I'm not a supporter of total online except in rare circumstances, and in three out of five courses, the kids who took it online did better than the kids who took it in the classroom, and that's a very recent data.

There are other data in a Brookings report that showed that kids that are doing this online, in a blended model like we have, are getting good results. There was a charter school out in California called Rocketship and they had an analysis done and showed that with a blended model, you get better results. But in the end, if this thing is not working for teachers and doesn't lead to better results, it won't work. And there's nothing that will enable us to circumvent the reality that the teacher has got to embrace it, make it effective and it's got to engage the kids and get results. And if it doesn't, it shouldn't work.

MARTIN: Finally, looping back to where we started, this isn't just a matter of belief or ideology with you, this is also your business. At a time when, you know, every day we're talking about how tight government resources are, where's the money going to come from?

KLEIN: Well, I think government resources are always tight, but we want to make sure they spend intelligently. And so this is a kind of investment and, increasingly, the cost of these tablets is becoming cheaper. Think about how much we spend on textbooks. Do we really need kids to carry around these massively heavy textbooks when we can have a much more enriching online experience? You can reposition money. Schools have been buying computers since anybody can remember, in the last 10, 15 years. The question is, can they use them effectively? Can they support what the kids are doing? So to me, I've always said, you need to be intelligent about how you spend your money.

And the things that work, the things that teachers embrace, the things that engage kids, those are the things that we ought to focus on. And I think technology can do it. It's done it in every other industry. I mean, let's be honest with ourselves, where else, other than education, has there been a sort of - the kind of resistance to the technological transformation? Everything that you do and everything that we do in the media and everything that we're doing now in medicine is based increasingly on sophisticated technological advances that will enable us to do things more effectively, more efficiently, and in the end, better for kids and teachers. If this is not better for kids and teachers, we shouldn't do it.

MARTIN: Joel Klein is the CEO of Amplify. That's the education division of News Corp. He previously served as the chancellor of New York City's Department of Education, the nation's largest school system, and he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Joel Klein, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KLEIN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.