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Getting a grasp of technology in education

It's the moment you've all been waiting for — my annual New Year's column about what to expect in education in the year ahead. Cue the trumpets and commence the drum roll, please.

Actually, hold the marching band, because I'll surprise no one by revealing that almost all the discussion is somehow or other related to technology. This has been the case for a long time, and many of us have begun to feel a bit jaded by all the grand prognostications about technology's promise to revolutionize education.

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But if you could put aside some of your weariness for a moment, you might notice that as 2018 dawns there is a slightly different note to the predictions that education experts are offering. There is a growing sense that we've now reached a point of no return regarding the ways that technology is impacting how and what students learn.

In other words, these experts really mean it this time when they say that the future they have been talking about for many years has finally arrived. There's a lot that's good about that, and some that's bad, but there's no turning back now. Like it or not, technology now permeates virtually every aspect of education.

I don't pretend to understand half of it, but as an outside observer who pays close attention I can decipher a few key aspects to this development that we will increasingly notice in classrooms throughout the nation.

Technology's integral role in education is evident, for example, in the growing focus on content and not just hardware. Yes, there remains the issue of getting devices into the hands of all students. But as mobile devices become more ubiquitous, attention is shifting to what runs on them — to creating and identifying effective online curricula and learning-based apps and games.

The good news is that some of the solutions we're seeing developed are undeniably powerful, innovative, research-based programs that open a world of learning opportunities for students. But there are still many dangers and potential conflicts, not the least of which is that it's often big corporations bringing those opportunities into the classroom.

As some in the education community salivate over "augmented reality," "visual technology," and other pieces of the "edtech" landscape, it's important to remember that those corporations are driven by the profit motive; they use the care and feeding of young minds to further their own interests. It's something to keep in mind every time you hear about the "Googlification" of the classroom, and other terms that are eerily reminiscent of every creepy science fiction story about mind control.

Another facet of this new tech-enabled, corporatized world of education that warrants scrutiny is the prevailing idea that there should be a straight line from what students learn to good-paying, in-demand jobs. That belief is what's driving all the talk about prioritizing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), STEAM (STEM with art thrown in), or whatever tech-related acronym is in favor at the moment.

When we hear predictions about robots replacing humans in the workforce it tends to create panic. And panic isn't the most thoughtful place from which to determine policy, education-related or otherwise.

While the need to make today's students ready for the growth industries of tomorrow is clear, there's also ample risk that in our rush to foster job-ready skills students will lose out on some fundamentals of a rich, meaningful education. Too many times I've heard complaints by instructors in higher education about students coming to them with an appalling lack of writing and communications skills, for instance.

It's great if kids learn to code. Obviously, someone will need to program all those robots that are going to replace us. But we also need to make sure that students are, at a minimum, literate and capable of critical analysis. There should be a few things we can still do better than robots.

Aside from technology-related matters, there's another topic we've been grappling with for quite some time that we're likely to hear lots more about in 2018, particularly in California: how to hold schools accountable.

For a long time, the state's method of grading public schools was pitifully oversimplified; it reflected almost exclusively performance on standardized tests. The new accountability plan overcorrected, giving us color-coded charts that are meant to show school performance in a variety of metrics but are instead so complicated they're nearly incomprehensible.

Whether California will revise the new system to make it clearer and more understandable is a question for this year. The answer will affect when and how intervention will occur at low-performing schools.

Finally, keep in mind that 2018 is an election year. It's easy to focus exclusively on high-profile statewide and congressional district races, but we should not overlook what's happening in our local communities. Many school board seats will be contested this year. We should all reserve a little time to study the issues and candidates so we can make informed choices about matters that directly affect our kids.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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