Digital Divide

What students really think about technology in the classroom

The grownups who make and debate education policy disagree about a lot of things, but they often take it as a given that kids love technology. And tapping into that love of gadgetry and games is a way to make students “more engaged” in learning, or so many believe.

Interviews with students in the middle-income, rural district of Quakertown, on the outskirts of Philadelphia’s suburbs, suggest that kids’ relationship with technology in school is more complicated than the adults may have imagined.

Yes, most kids jump at any chance to play educational games, search the Internet to research a project, connect with classmates and others online, and even do their homework digitally.

Quakertown middle school student Jonathan Wulffleff loves taking some of his classes online, although he says distractions sometimes slow him down. (Photo: Sarah Garland)Zach Werner, 14, loves the freedom he has in his cyber courses at Strayer Middle School in Quakertown. “Instead of being textbook based, it’s a more open world,” he said. “It’s not placed right in front of you.”

But many students also saw drawbacks to the increased use of technology in schools. In particular, students worry about the distractions and temptations of “self-paced learning,” something many advocates of digital education have touted as a way to get away from one-size-fits-all education to a more personalized experience.

Jonathan Wulffleff, 15, an eighth grader in Quakertown, is a fan of the cyber courses he’s taking in addition to his face-to-face classes. “If you have issues, you can watch the video again,” he said. “With a class, you only get it once and you have to remember it.”

Still, he said, “I slipped for a little while and was really upset, because last year I did really well.” The reason? “It was distraction related.”

“I decided I could do all my classes at home and get it done faster,” said Maia Costanzo, 14, an honor roll student at Strayer. “It was pretty good, except I didn’t get a lot of my work done.”

The pluses and minuses of cyber learning prompted a heated debate between two high school students, Cheyenne Knight, 18, and Brian Benes, 17. Both spend part of their day completing cyber lessons in a lab at Quakertown Community High School.

Quakertown teachers say students are usually more successful if they combine cyber courses with face-to-face classes. (Photo: Sarah Garland)

Quakertown teachers say students are usually more successful if they combine cyber courses with face-to-face classes. (Photo: Sarah Garland)

Although Knight enjoys her online classes, she is sometimes concerned that they’re not as rigorous as “live” classes. “You can take tests with your notes right in front of you,” Knight said. “You don’t have to memorize anything.”

“But in the real world, it’s not like somebody’s going to be watching over your shoulder,” Benes said.

“You don’t have that live, face-to-face contact,” she countered. “If you’re in cyber, you’re not learning social interaction.”

“The majority of social interaction in class is negative,” Benes responded. “It’s not necessary, and we’re getting enough because we’re here,” he added, gesturing to the dozen students gathered in the lab.

At that point their teacher, Nicole Roeder, who had been grading work on a computer across the room, joined the debate. “It’s true there may be certain things you don’t get, but there are other things you do,” she said. “I think there’s some give and take.”

Knight conceded the point. “You do know how to handle yourself in a cyber world,” she said. And that, they all agreed, was something they would need to know how to do in their future careers.

“It’s good we’re learning those skills,” Knight said.

Find out more about how technology is changing schools.


Sarah Garland

Sarah Garland is the executive editor of The Hechinger Report. She started out in journalism reporting on murders and mayhem in New York City for… See Archive

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