Thursday, June 26, 2008

Technology and the Classroom

Two of my favorite teacher bloggers, Bill Ferriter and Nancy Flanagan are working on a structured debate about technology and learning.

Bill describes a split in the educational community that I think applies to a number of professions. There are those traditionalists who think that today's novices and neophytes should operate as they once did. In the law field, there is a certain relucatance on the part of older lawyers to embrace the modern technology and tools. Bill and Nancy appear to be on opposite sides of the teaching debate as far as technology in the classroom goes.

Bill has been a great advocate of incorporating technology and tools into his classroom, while Nancy appears to be more of a traditionalist, but doesn't forsake the importance of technology.

So the question remains, is one of them right or are the both right. Just because I like the fence post under my posterior, I think they both are.

Nancy makes a good point:
Successful individuals are not creative and collaborative due to fluent use of digital tools. Their success comes from a solid grounding in applied knowledge and skills, integrated into a moral framework that nurtures socially positive innovation. It's worth remembering that technology can also be used very effectively for exploitative and harmful purposes.

We have also not come close to providing equitable access to knowledge and skills, let alone digital tools, for a significant proportion of our public school students.
Incorporating technology in the education of our children is great, if all the students have the same access to technology, but we all know that not to be the case. On the other hand, should we do a disservice to some or all of the students when it comes to technology? Because some percentage of students don't have access to the internet or technology, should we deny all students such exposure? Or should we try to address teh shortfall? Therein lies a significant societal problem.

But Bill worries that Luddites will continue to dominate education:
Think about it: Commitment to toil seems to define nearly every aspect of our professional lives.

We punish kids mightily for turning in late assignments while awarding gold stars for neatness; we celebrate quiet students while constantly scolding the rambunctious; we give 83-question multiple choice tests to 12-year olds to "assess learning," and allow lines and bells to dominate our day.

Most of us take a yeoman's pride in doing things the hard way! We celebrate fingers stained with overhead pens as the marks of good math teachers or brag about the size of our VHS collections. We continue to be confused by websites and generally frown on electronic media of all kinds.

Only in a school will you find dozens of people insisting that Wikipedia is the seed of the devil, that all good research reports need a bibliography, and that a hefty file cabinet is the sign of accomplishment.

No wonder kids hate school.
From his own writing and from no other source, I think Bill may have successfully integrated technological tools into his lessons, which is great and I hope more will follow his lead.

However, my greatest fear is that some teacher will think that technology can solve more problems than it really can. Just like any other field, technology is no substitute for the fundamentals. A lesson plan that is not sound independently of the technology will teach kids nothing just because you add a blog or a wiki. Technology is no substitute for substance.

There is where I think Nancy and Bill converge. Until and when teachers can provide solid lesson plans purely on substance of teh lesson, then the addition of technology will not provide that substance.

3 comments:

Matthew K. Tabor said...

"So the question remains, is one of them right or are the both right."

There's a third option, too.

Bill Ferriter said...

Matt wrote:
However, my greatest fear is that some teacher will think that technology can solve more problems than it really can. Just like any other field, technology is no substitute for the fundamentals.


Hey Matt,

First, thanks for the kind words. Glad that my thinking resonates with you at times.

And your quote above is something I wrestle with as a tech advocate all the time! I worry that I can sometimes be doing unintended damage because people read into my words and jump into technology without thinking through the final outcomes that they most desire.

That drives me nuts, too! My goal is to see instruction change because of technology---becoming more student centered and motivating. When technology is embraced for technology's sake (especially because of my advocacy), the damaging outcomes set change efforts back.

That's why critical friends like Nancy and Dina Strasser over at The Line (http://theline.edublogs.org) are my best digital friends. They keep the conversation focused on instruction instead of tools.

Anyway, thanks for the nod.
Bill

Nancy Flanagan said...

Hi, Mat--and thanks for the mention. A couple of thoughts:

You ask, "Because some percentage of students don't have access to the internet or technology, should we deny all students such exposure?"

Well, of course not. And it's worth noting that Americans never have denied educational resources to those who could afford them, even when other children did not have access. The few times balancing the scales has been attempted (busing for integration, for example) should have taught us lessons about what happens when you tinker with power and privilege. There is a difference between equity and base equality, and we should be working toward equity, not "equal."

My point here is that we need to pay attention to the issue of equity. It's important. While technology can enhance equitable access to communication and power, we can't assume that it's all socially positive. Some people think Moveon.org is an effective tool for progressivism, for example--others think it's a destructive force on national unity in a time of war.

Am I for opening up these critical national conversations? Absolutely, including technological platforms for accruing political power--but what about Nazi skinhead recruiting websites? Equity in access comes at a price, but the price for restricting access may be tearing at the social fabric. We also need to teach our kids how to be both skeptical and critical about what gets dished out on the internet.

Bill and I aren't really on opposing sides here--but we are a few clicks apart, around the circle of opinion. Bill says:

"We punish kids mightily for turning in late assignments while awarding gold stars for neatness; we give 83-question multiple choice tests to 12-year olds to "assess learning," and allow lines and bells to dominate our day.

We continue to be confused by websites and generally frown on electronic media of all kinds."

I guess the one thing that really grinds on me about technology in education is teachers who have adopted tech tools into their practice feeling the need to denigrate more traditional teaching methods. Bells, lines, and standardized testing are technologies, too.

Speaking as a person with a "hefty file cabinet"--there are lots of good, effective, tested lessons in there which haven't reached their expiration dates. I guess I should scan them into documents? (laughing) I know that's not what Bill meant--but Americans are particularly vulnerable to the lure of new and improved, at the expense of the already-working-fine. Let's have a little empathy for teachers here, keeping in mind that most of them learn to use tech effectively on their own time, dime and initiative.

There is knowing how to use tech tools--and there is the deep intellectual work of figuring out how to connect kids and important content and ideas. They are two separate things. Many teachers feel that using Web 2.0 tools makes them better teachers than the ones who don't--but that's a fallacy.

Thanks for the opportunity, Mat.