Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Gizmo High

Over the weekend, I saw this in the washington Post talking about the technolust of some school administrators. Teachers at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA have taken to calling their school "Gizmo High" for all the technology that is given to them.
Last September, we moved into a new $98 million building in Alexandria, one of the most expensive high schools ever built. Natural light floods the classrooms, and each one is equipped with a ceiling-mounted LCD projector, which transfers anything I can put on my laptop computer -- from poetry readings at the Library of Congress to YouTube interviews with Toni Morrison and other writers -- onto a large screen at the front of the room. Students' behavior seems much improved: A cafeteria that looks like something out of an upscale mall has had a curiously pacifying effect on them, as has the presence of 126 security cameras.

So you'd think T.C. teachers would be ecstatic. But it's just the opposite -- faculty morale is the lowest and cynicism the highest I've seen in years. The problem? What a former Alexandria school superintendent calls "technolust" -- a disorder affecting publicity-obsessed school administrators nationwide that manifests itself in an insatiable need to acquire the latest, fastest, most exotic computer gadgets, whether teachers and students need them or want them. Technolust is in its advanced stages at T.C., where our administrators have made such a fetish of technology that some of my colleagues are referring to us as "Gizmo High."
The problem of course is that some teachers, and not just the older teachers who are as author Patrick Welsh put it "immigrants to the internet world," don't like all the technology. The measure of teacher quality is now how "paperless" their classroom is.

While incorporating technology and technological concepts into classroom teaching should be encouraged, and some teachers are moving in that direction to the extent they can, the conundrum is this: unless the teacher learns how to use the technology to its maximum potential, it can easily become a distraction, or even worse, a drag on teaching.

Some teachers are objecting that the use of computers is hindering the ability to develop relationships with their students and colleagues, even their principal:
Apparently administrators really do believe that computers are the key to building relationships. The human voice and face-to-face contact have been replaced by e-mail and Blackboard, a computer program that allows teachers and students to communicate via the Internet. I've always thought that in some ways schools should be like families, but as one experienced teacher puts it, "We're becoming like a correspondence school where all communication is faceless."

You can walk around T.C. and peer into offices and classrooms and see administrators, guidance counselors and teachers staring at their computers instead of interacting with students. To some, T.C.'s principal of two years seems more comfortable in cyberspace than in face-to-face interaction. His preferred method of communicating with teachers seems to be via e-mail, and some say they think he doesn't know who they are or what they teach.
If the latter sentence is true, then you have a management problem and not a technology problem.

But as for "We're becoming like a correspondence school where all communication is faceless," I think I will have to side with the technologists here. As Bill Ferriter wrote not too long ago:
Many teachers that I meet seem resistant to digital dialogue simply because electronic relationships "don't feel real" to them---and I can't say that I blame them. After all, most of today's teachers have grown up in an era where technology just didn't play a very significant role in one's day to day life---and anytime email constitutes the extent of your digital interactions with others, you're bound to be skeptical about the value of a relationship built online!

But is it possible that those teachers are making judgments about what kinds of relationships are "real" by looking through their own (somewhat tarnished) digital lenses?

Think about it----our students have spent their lives connected. They've sent thousands of instant messages and texts. They have personal web pages and blogs. They play online versions of video games with "partners" thousands of miles away. They spend hours behind a computer screen, plugged into an iPod or talking to someone on their cell phones, don't they? They've got webcams and they're not afraid to use them!
So the fact is that while relationships may not be face to face doesn't make the relationship any less meaningful and the students themselves don't really distinguish between a face to face relationship and a "virtual" relationship.

But we are still left with the question of whether the technolust will actually improve learning? T.C. Williams may or may not provide an answer. But as I have said it in many contexts, technology is no substitute for substance. I have said it when it comes to politics and when it comes to education. Technology is a tool, it is not an end unto itself. If a teacher can be just as effective with a whiteboard and dry erase marker, why should they have to use the latest and greatest technological tool?


Anonymous said...

Matt asked:
If a teacher can be just as effective with a whiteboard and dry erase marker, why should they have to use the latest and greatest technological tool?

Great question, Matt...and one I'm not sure I have the answer to yet. I wrestle with whether or not we really can be just as effective without incorporating digital experiences into our instruction.

Here's what I mean: The content that we've taught on our whiteboards for generations is going to be remarkably obsolete in an incredibly short period of time. Toeffler calls it "obselodge" for obsolete knowledge:


So success in tomorrow's world has less to do with how well we learn content and much more to do with how well we can access, manage and interpret the vast amount of information that's a few digital clicks away.

Now if that's all true (which is as debatable in education circles as global warming is to politician!), then a teacher today who isn't showing kids how to use digital tools to consume and manage information really isn't being "effective."

They may have good test scores, but their kids will leave school unprepared.

That's where I think the great disconnect is in education today. Our definitions of what effective teaching look like and what successful kids look like are (I think) becoming out dated pretty darn quick....but no one seems to recognize that we're falling behind.

Does any of this make sense? It doesn't feel finished in my mind, so I'm certain it doesn't sound finished in my words!

Rock on,

Nancy Flanagan said...

Bill says: "So success in tomorrow's world has less to do with how well we learn content and much more to do with how well we can access, manage and interpret the vast amount of information that's a few digital clicks away."

Really? Doesn't this fly in the face of what we know about application, evaluation and synthesis of knowledge? What good is a vast amount of "information" if we can't use it to solve problems?

And you don't think a school where everyone--adults and children-- interacts via screens is a problem? Where administrators sit in their offices sending e-mail to living people whose classrooms are yards away?

Technology tools hold great promise for transforming learning. No doubt. But teachers who aren't showing kids how to use digital tools to "consume information" may have more important things to teach. Respect for peers, for example. He who wins the technology race is not necessarily the most effective teacher.