NYS’ Push For More Tech In Classrooms Fuels Further Debate

Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

In its third public symposium since Gov. Andrew Cuomo assembled a commission to advise how to best invest a proposed $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act, its members called for faster and more widespread broadband services for all state schools.

The agency, known as the Smart Schools Commission, convened in New York City Sept. 29 to discuss and weigh the best approaches to community and school connectivity and decide the most effective ways to implement technology-enabled education and learning. Two members—Geoffrey Canada, president of anti-child poverty nonprofit Harlem Children’s Zone, and Constance Evelyn, superintendent of the Auburn School District in Cayuga County—posed questions to a panel of eight tech and education experts.

Panelists highlighted improvements ranging from the incorporation of laptops, smart phones and tablets to web-based preparation software students could access from their homes, to the construction of a network of high-speed Wi-Fi and broadband connectivity throughout communities and state public schools, according to a press release about the symposium.

“Our children deserve to receive the best education possible—and transforming our schools with proven strategies that bring new technology into the classroom is imperative to achieving that goal,” Cuomo said in the release. “The Smart Schools Commission is gathering the information we need to truly bring New York’s classrooms into the 21st Century, and I am thankful for all who have come forward to help us invest in our children’s future.”

This shift in education’s technological landscape has brought with it innovative ideas from the marketplace that tap into students’ ever-growing interest in smartphone, tablet and computer applications. It’s also brought debate between tech advocates and developers and instructors.

Front Row, a popular gaming software for the kindergarten through eighth grade set, represents one such example. The app aims to help children learn and advance at individual levels while keeping teachers informed of students’ progress with real-time data.

“What we try to do is make it so that each child can practice at their own pace,” Sidharth Kakkar, founder of Front Row, explains to the Press. “So students who don’t know how to count yet work on counting and students who need addition will work on addition. The students who are much further ahead, the ones who are working on exponents or whatever, they can actually go work on that all independently while the teacher gets information about where each student is and can go help them.”

Launched in September 2013 and boasting more than 7,000 teachers currently using it in schools nationwide, Front Row strives to free up both students’ and teachers’ time by allowing them to focus on the instruction that each individual needs, he explains.

By cutting down on generalized lecture that might not be applicable for large swaths of kids, this app—almost disguised as a fun game—works to meet each student where they are, and raise them to higher levels. A key component is the leaderboard, which shows which students have made the most progress on a daily basis. By encouraging competition, Front Row also hopes to help motivate students to raise their effort level in order to see their own names listed at the top, says Kakkar.

Yet not all new technology being implemented in classrooms are necessarily welcomed with open arms by teachers—at least not on the outset.

Melissa Tomlinson, a special education resource room math teacher of grades six through eight in Buena Regional School District, NJ has some concerns about Front Row and related technologies, ranging from the question of Internet availability for all children to the particular manner in which students learn math application.

“Another issue I have is the loss of math conversation that apps like these replace,” Tomlinson tells the Press. “Especially for my students that are still developing problem-solving skills, these apps do not model the inner conversation that needs to occur, such as what a teacher does with the students when modeling.

“To reduce the function of an app to learning basic facts may be doing a disservice to students, as more emphasis in math is being placed upon application in problem-solving strategies,” she continues. “If the app has a higher-level function, the question I raise is: How does a teacher know exactly how mistakes are being made to help correct and redirect student learning?”

Educational apps such as Front Row could provide instructors with critical insight that might otherwise not be so apparent, enabling teachers to actually increase effectiveness in the classroom by addressing individual students and their needs directly, via this new technology, says Kikkar.

One of the main functions of the application is to give teachers detailed information about where each student is in the learning process and the particulars of their individual struggles, he explains. With classrooms becoming crowded with students at all levels, technology could be part of a solution for teachers who cannot provide individualized instruction for students at both lower and higher levels. Kikkar noted this when he visited a Baltimore elementary school and observed what he calls the “realities of the classroom.”

“What struck me was how hard it is to be a teacher of 30 students at once,” he says. “There’s this disconnect between what teachers know and how they should be ideally teaching and what they can physically do based on the circumstances they have…But if you have 30 students, it’s virtually impossible. For me, it was just like, ‘Well, these are problems that you could use technology to help with.’ ”

Tomlinson isn’t so sure that Front Row’s leaderboard will only work to inspire students, noting that it may also lead to some self-esteem issues with sensitive students.

“Another issue I have is with the increase emphasis on technology, students are showing more of a tendency to attempt math problems in their head and not write down calculations,” she adds. “More errors are bound to occur this way. I have seen students take an entire MAP Math Assessment [Project] without writing a single number down.”

Marla Kilfoyle, a teacher in Oceanside, notes that “In my experience, math is often better done not in isolation, but in a group/peer setting where a student who gets the math can help those that don’t—like in a cooperative group setting.”

Kikkar agrees, adding that a group mode where students can break up into teams to work together, competing against other teams, can be beneficial.

Despite her apprehension, Tomlinson remains cautiously optimistic about what Front Row and technology-based education materials could do for instruction, however, acknowledging its potential benefits.

“I have worked with a few different game programs similar to this,” she says. “We have tracked performance from the beginning of implementation to the end of the after-school program and did note an improvement of performance levels within the program. How that translated into other areas of the student’s education is hard to determine when there are many different structures in place to improve performance.”

Another plus, at least for Front Row, is that the app is offered for free to all teachers.

“We wanted to do what we could to make it accessible for all teachers even if they don’t necessarily have a lot of budget to buy these things, so that’s why it’s one of the only free math programs for teachers,” says Kikkar. “We’re committed to making sure we’re giving the best things available to teachers regardless of their abilities to pay.”

The education world is often in an uphill battle with outside factors getting in the way of the goal that is shared on all sides: students’ education. The unfolding technological revolution has revamped the academic landscape—both in and outside the classroom—and, as Front Row exemplifies, will fuel further debate about the best educational practices and improvements far into the foreseeable future.