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Google chairman pushes tech in schools at Education Nation

Google chairman Eric Schmidt spoke to host Melissa Harris-Perry at Sunday's Education Nation Town Hall about technology in schools.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Google chairman Eric Schmidt spoke to host Melissa Harris-Perry at Sunday's Education Nation Town Hall about technology in schools.

A high school in White Plains, New York, has taken the controversial step of going all-digital, eliminating paper textbooks and replacing them with laptops. Where some critics see concerns about the digital divide and functionality, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt sees future employees. “We’re going to hire these students,” he immediately responded upon watching a video of the students in White Plains. “We need more of these sorts of people.”

Schmidt expressed enthusiasm for the turn towards digital classrooms in his discussion with host Melissa Harris-Perry at MSNBC’s Education Nation Student Town Hall last Sunday. He praised the emergence of technology in schools for offering students a wealth of information otherwise unavailable to them. “When I was a student,” Schmidt related, “you knew essentially nothing except what was in the textbook and what your teacher told you. Now you can literally know everything.”

But Schmidt suggested that the utility of technology might be part of a larger change in the structure of our education system. He believes many students are bored throughout the school day, and hopes the introduction of technology means they can convert that boredom into learning–with the caveat that young students must resist games and instead pursue scholastic interests. His vision leaves the role of teachers in the classroom unclear.

In response to a student question, Schmidt shared that he does not believe the digital divide is a problem; rather, the question will be how teachers incorporate digital technology. That may be a hard directive for schools with technology far behind the latest standards due to a lack of funding, particularly given the rapid rate at which technology progresses.

“Pretty much everybody has got access to computer of one kind or another,” said Schmidt. Yet the quality and quantity of those computers dramatically change their utility in the classroom. According to a February Pew survey, more than half of teachers of lowest income students describe lack of access to digital technology as a “major challenge” to incorporating digital tools into classroom teaching. And 39% of students from low-income households characterize their schools as “behind the curve” in using digital tools.

Schmidt also rejected the notion that moving technology into schools creates a profit incentive for companies who create the software and products schools purchase. “There’s relatively little money to be made,” he said. But with a $10 billion textbook industry, according to the Association of American Publishers, there seems to be a lot of money to be made by pioneering digital education software and the hardware it comes on. “What we would pay in this country to corporations to fix the education system and make it easiest for everyone to be brilliant” asked Schmidt on Sunday. The answer may be in the millions, if that “fix” is the turn towards digital classrooms.  Amplify, an education-based division of News Corp. that develops tablets and software for schools, has already received a handful of multi-million dollar contracts, including one worth at least $16 million from Guilford County in North Carolina, and a $12.5 million contract from Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to develop tests for the Common Core.

Schmidt did convey some concern about the move towards digital classrooms after being asked by a student about its impact on analytical and critical thinking. “I worry about the loss of deep reading,” he said. “Are you taking the hours it takes to read a long and hard book? I suspect we’re losing that.”