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What is the best technology to put in a middle-school classroom — assuming money is no object?

Technology is just a tool, so be wary of shiny objects. (But a 3D printer could be really cool...)

By Jason M. Rubin

Considering that middle school classrooms are full of hormonal teenagers, an electrified fence might be a good start. But if the issue is helping students learn, the options are many, according to Brandon Muramatsu, senior IT consultant at MIT’s Office of Educational Innovation and Technology. “EdTech is hot right now,” he says. “That means more software, websites and gadgets that school systems may or may not be able to afford, and that teachers may or may not want to use.”  

In many middle-school classrooms today, students walk around with more digital computing power in their backpacks than NASA had at its disposal to send a man to the moon, or even on the now retired Space Shuttles. Their smartphones, tablets, and laptops give them access to practically everything there is to know. But are they learning anything in school?

Educational technologies tend to be grouped in one of three categories, Muramatsu says: classroom management tools, access to content, and performance analysis tools. Classroom management technologies are time- and labor-saving tools that enable teachers and students to assign and submit homework online, make it easy for teachers to share and update information with the class, and automate the grading process. By streamlining such activities, teachers theoretically have more time to teach. Access to content is a broad category in which students can access information on the Internet or educational applications on the school’s network. An increasing number of online communities for teachers are making it easy and inexpensive for educators to learn what others are doing and purchase lesson plans online. Performance analysis includes data mining and analytical tools, typically for administrators, though teachers can benefit from them as well. Users can identify patterns in their students’ academic and non-academic behavior, analyze their performance trends, and manage how resources are being allocated in a classroom or across a school.

“There are times when technology is new and interesting, and everyone thinks they need it,” says Muramatsu. “But you have to consider how teachers and students will interact with it. Folks can get more caught up in the technology than in its effectiveness in the classroom.” Muramatsu’s preference is quite a bit simpler. “At MIT, everything is hands on,” he says. “We learn by doing, by building things. It’s great to design a solution on paper but when you can build a prototype you can find out if your ideas were really sound. A lot of educational technologies are about consuming content instead of creating it. So I would recommend a low-cost 3-D printer (about $2,500) that allows students to build tangible things.”

But the real solution to high-performing students and teachers, Muramatsu says, isn’t really about technology. Schools need three things to be successful: trained, talented, and well-compensated teachers; committed principals, superintendents, and school committees; and bright, enthusiastic, well-fed, and well-rested students with parents who are involved and invested in their children’s education.

That may be a lot to ask, but probably easier than installing an electrified fence around every classroom.

Thanks to Stacey Klesitz of Butler, New Jersey, for submitting this question.

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