I received an e-mail last week from someone who is sure to become one of my heroes — an electrical engineer turned high school math teacher. He was concerned about the proper use of technology, especially iPads, in the classroom, and had quite specific suggestions for what to do. We’ll probably get to that in my next column but here I’d like to consider his more fundamental idea, which is that technology in schools can be, in many ways, more a distraction than a solution.

“The problem is that I’ve found that all these things that are purported to improve student learning ignore the number one factor in student success, which is the student’s attitude toward learning and motivation,” wrote my new friend the math teacher.  “The truth is that if students are motivated to learn, they will learn, pretty much regardless of the specific format or technology that is used in the lessons themselves.  Conversely, if a student is not interested in learning, the details of how lessons are presented, technology, etc. don’t matter very much…the student will find whatever way is available to avoid learning…they may socialize with their neighbors, or frequently ask to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom, or simply try to tune out and take a nap during class.  Thus, while we focus on how teachers teach, I’m finding that the real key to student success is not so much how you teach but how you go about motivating students to want to learn, and how the systems you use in the classroom help support and encourage students to succeed even when they are not intrinsically motivated by the subject.”

He’s correct. In an ideal world students want to learn and teachers want to teach and the two meet in a common space where knowledge is transferred. Except how often and how well does that really happen?

It happens all the time in some places, like at Stanford where my students used to chase me back to my office after class arguing over some point or other. But not every school can be a Stanford and even there, as at many research universities, much of the faculty doesn’t really want to teach.

Ironically, there was a time when I taught simultaneously at Stanford and Foothill College, a junior college just down the street and a million miles way.  I used to joke that Stanford students couldn’t write but at least they could read. But you know that was unfair to my students at Foothill, many of whom were just as dedicated and hard working, though with different expectations.

A lot of this comes down to expectations. And our expectations of technology in education more often than not come down to it being a tool for compensation, either working like an instructional Hamburger Helper to stretch teachers across more students or to literally teach what the present faculty cannot.

One sure-fire success would be a truly great calculus teacher in a box. What would that be worth? Maybe $50,000 per year times 5,000 high schools? There’s your educational startup idea.

Which brings us to costs. Steve Wozniak, who spent a decade and several million dollars working two days a week in the Los Gatos Public Schools when his kids were students there, taught me an important lesson about the price of educational technology.  “A desk lasts 25 years, a textbook lasts a decade, and a computer is good for maybe three years: which of those costs the most?” he asked. It was only by putting a decade of educational technology on his credit card that Woz was able to create an ideal environment in Los Gatos, giving every student a notebook computer and Internet access, yet even he would be hard put to say with certainty that it made a consistent difference in student outcomes.

School administrators hate technology, whether they admit it or not, because they don’t understand it and it takes funds away from hiring more teachers. If we go back to our math teacher’s quote, above, you can see why.  Because technology for technology’s sake is a crap shoot while hiring teachers who are known to be good at their jobs of inspiring students to learn is pretty close to a sure thing.

Fortunately two things are happening to change these facts of educational life. Technology is getting cheaper, better, broader, and deeper. It’s not good enough or cheap enough yet, but the school PC of today has five times the utility for one fifth the price of 25 years ago (not Moore’s Law numbers, but this is utility, not cycles, we’re talking about).  That 25-to-1 improvement is a trend that is only going to get better faster, but I’d say we are still a decade away from the critical mass needed for a true educational renaissance, which I’ll describe below.

The other thing that’s happening is parents are changing. I’ve written about this before but it bears repeating. This week I’ll turn 59, but my kids are 9, 7, and 5 and I talk to the other parents — many of them young enough to be my children — as we wait to get our kids from class or band practice or chess club or science club or basketball practice, or Odyssey of the Mind. Parents aren’t the same as they used to be.

These parents all use computers every day. They grew up with computers. They don’t know a world without computers. And so they may be frustrated by technology as all of us are and may always be, but they aren’t afraid of it and they see its potential. A decade from now one of those parents will be running the school system and another will be running the state department of education. Only then will things really change. And the cool part is that’s about when I think the technology will finally be where it needs to be.

A decade from now technology will be cheaper and the lubricity of acquiring knowledge will be dramatically improved. I think time and space will cease to be factors in the educational experience with the result that the best teachers and the best students will have a far better chance of finding each other. But for the best that’s, what, maybe a 10 percent improvement? After all, these are the already motivated we’re talking about, not the kids who need a little help or a lot.  It’s the very normal kids I hope will gain the most from technology, far more than 10 percent.

This goes back to my math teacher quote, above. Motivated students succeed, but since every student is different and every student has a different way to learn best, unless we can design an individual curriculum for each kid, the system won’t be optimized.

My kids go to the best public school in Sonoma County. I know that because I chose my house based on that research. But when Cole finishes his math problems in a quarter the time it takes anyone else in the class, his teacher has him insert a wait state by putting his head down on his desk.  Conversely, when some other kid never quite gets the problem set finished, ever, well he/she never gets a rest and never masters the material, either.

The current system is unfair to both kids.

The only solution I can see is one teacher per student. And the only way something close to that is going to happen is through technology.  And it’s coming.