Monday, December 16, 2013

Truth in Advertising

I've seen this commercial so many times in the past month it is now nauseating.  What's worse is that it makes something rather complicated sound so simple.  "The role technology should play in education."  And, many people buy in based on that approach.  Provide students a shiny new device(in this case Microsoft's Surface Tablet) for "real work" and then poof...they learn better and bearded teacher with the tan vest is doing a better job.  Obviously no work can go on without this device or any other.  The description of the spot online reads "This Teacher knows change is coming, but with the new Microsoft Surface his students can do just about anything, even do their homework."   Boasting that if kids have keyboards they can go home and Skype or play games all night or find out what is due or even do homework.  They appear happy, magically more productive and obviously are better students.  Maybe so, maybe so.

But let us reflect on this "old fashioned" teacher in the commercial.  On a superficial level, or on the surface(excuse the pun but it was low hanging fruit and I couldn't resist) I can tell he's not actually a teacher.  How?  Well any seasoned teacher can just tell.  If he was I'd believe him but I don't.  His real name is Bobby Richards and he appears to be a very talented actor.  He plays someone who, based on his classroom decor teaches history or geography. The ad implies he has his students looking up information on Mozart. Upon closer inspection, when the bell rings it appears he teaches twelve students. Twelve!   More on that later.  Would such a device be a useful addition to such a classroom...probably.  But whether or not it is the best choice to improve things is another matter entirely.

Change Can Be Good
You might think I am motivated to discuss this ad by fear of change or because I have it out for Bill Gates.   You'd be wrong.  I embrace just about every real improvement that comes my way in education but I tire easily of the superficial panacea that are peddled by for profit entities or pushed by ill informed "reformers."  I love technology but can't stand using technology for technology's sake.  In essence pressing play on a VCR is about the same thing as posting a video on Youtube.  Working in groups with a piece of paper sometimes is preferable to a virtual meeting.  Our infatuation with computers can be all consuming.

 I only want stuff that helps my students learn, helps me teach and saves me time.  Things that make me a better teacher.  Computers have that potential but let's not oversell their ability to motivate, engage and wait for it..."teach."  That's my job.  One way to help me would be to give me 12 students and watch how much more effective I am.  Guaranteed.  Believe it or not that class might be too small, but easing my student load and giving me more teacher currency...time, would likely result in far more gain for my students than any technology.

I use technology a lot in my class but I don't keep using it if it doesn't provide what I think my students really need.  Face to face, creative, tactile and active learning never goes out of style.  Neither is the much maligned "lecture" which if done well is as engaging as anything.   Sure with new technology the first few days are pretty cool but the novelty wears off.  Some of my students have overtly expressed to me that they do not always prefer to work on computers.  Hopefully we realize that all this talk of flipping and technology integration is mostly absent one key voice, the student.  We assume it is better and they prefer computers that are invariably "needed."  Who might know best what students need in the classroom more than the teacher?  Most companies aren't thinking about kids first and their agenda is quite different.  But they can still do some good.  Microsoft's tablet might be a good thing here, or it might not be.

What's for certain is that technology like the Surface alone will not solve any of the real problems plaguing our education system.  It is just an electronic tool.  Despite what the teacher says in this commercial about the future it is not really any more revolutionary than a chalkboard or even ...wait for it... textbooks were in their time.  The advantage they have is those things have a pretty much unlimited shelf life.  They require no maintenance and in the hands of the right person, can prove just as effective

 Reading is still reading.  Right?
Meaningful change in education will come slowly and incrementally and technology will and should be a big part of that.  We should not wait for it to happen and should demand movement forward.  But, the temptation to leap ahead haphazardly for fear of falling behind can create as many problems as it solves.  Enter the flashy new gadgets marketed at schools, school boards and the public.  Does giving teachers free tablets make these devices the best use of public funds?    Do parents, politicians or administrators really give thought as to what providing every single kid a device might mean in the actual classroom or even outside of it?  Do they provide opportunities for teachers to visit schools that have taken this step?  Do they consider the long term social, economic and other less obvious impacts on students,  classrooms, budgets and schools as a whole? Do they make efforts to educate and involve parents in the adoption of technology?  In my case I think they do for the most part.  But I am lucky, but that doesn't mean the decisions made are ones I always agree with.

Having honey poured in your ear by technology sometimes results  in getting things we don't really need.  Schools are no different than other parts of our throw away consumption driven world.  We are really good at generating piles of antiquated stuff that is no longer useful.  If we buy something it should be based on a real need, not so much a want.  Separating the two is the tough part.

There is no real litmus test.   Do students need computers in schools today?  Yes.  Does having access to the internet make things better or easier.  Probably.  But lets not overlook the hidden costs.    Network  infrastructure, upgrades to software, time until replacement, repair and maintenance, training and must be factored in.  Bottom line is that it will end up being the classroom teacher bearing the brunt of any implementation such as this.  One to One means we on the front line have a lot to consider.  With technology growing more and more intuitive and integrated to daily life do we really need to flood the hours of a student's day with even more?

So with a little truth in advertising, what would this spot say?   
"Hey we've got this fairly low priced tablet that can access the internet, do some light word processing and can for a fee include a keyboard.  If you, your students or your school don't have access to technology on a daily basis this might be a low cost solution.  We have a bunch of extras and if you use it we might also be able to improve our market share in education.  The Surface also has some significant limitations that many find frustrating and we hope the low price will offset those.  Maybe that's why it isn't selling too well to the public...but... ah ha ...schools.   It could be like charity and we could write it off.  Seems a good use for unsold inventory.  Maybe its not a computer and you have might have trouble joining a domain, networking with other devices, saving and keeping software up to date but that said we are confident that many schools, teachers and students will like our product and that is why we are offering a whole bunch of them to a whole lot of schools so that maybe, just maybe they'll catch on.  Give us a try ...please."

Is the surface a good tool and good addition?  I'd start by asking teachers who use it.  Seems for  the most part reviews are favorable.  But many point out the limitations and unknowns.  Get their input and don't rely on top down implementation.  Understanding what is going on in this commercial is really pretty simple. Microsoft refocused and redirected its excess inventory at schools and launched a reward system as a means to gain entry into the education market.  Not that much different than a label drive from soup cans or some other means it makes sense to get everyone involved and behind the effort to fund low cost computers/devices in schools that want them.  Will it work?  Time will tell but I suspect that the Surface will be no different than many other forms of the latest greatest thing.

"Didn''t Care what you thought then.  Still Don't"

Truth in Reform
So now a little truth in reform.   What would leaders, politicians and decision makers say, or at least what SHOULD they?
Truth is refreshing.  To hear someone say "Hey I know this isn't exactly what you want but here's why we are doing it " would mean a lot.  I broke it down into sound bites to cover some of the major points.

"Hey...we know it isn't really the teacher's fault but someone has to be held accountable for these low scores."
"True, we haven't really given much thought to how to use the computers for instruction, but clearly we have to use them if we are going to keep up with all the affluent districts."
"Online learning might be great for motivated learners...but its not a viable option for all learners...we know that...but fact is it is a heck of a lot cheaper than hiring teachers. "
"I blame you...since no one else can be held accountable."
"It is not the type of learning we care about if you can't show us the data."
"I don't care about what you think, I care about what I think and I think I know better."

I could at this for hours...maybe in the comments section some of you could share what you wish reformers would say since it is what they mean.

Maybe some of that is too strong?  But the Appearance over Substance Paternalistic Movement for the Sake of Movement style of leadership that is rampant in this nation is wearing me thin.  It may not be any more responsible for problems than bad teaching, but it can certainly infect and interfere with quality teaching on a much greater scale.  As a part of this, buy the wrong devices or software and deploy them in poor manner and you have caused a lot of undue stress.  That is not good for students, not good for parents... and definitely not good for teachers.  Believe me, I know.

Technology in Education 
So back to the panacea of technology.  Big time movers and shakers are often far too cozy with computer, software and technology folks and do not pick up on the limitations.  They might get enticed with their own free version then commit and represent the tool as indispensable.  Forgetting the ever important mantra of K.I.S.S.     Having an out of the box access point for kids is in most cases a good thing.  But does the included Office software offer only a trial version?  Will the school division have to re-license applications and programs in a few years?  What happens if the device might break down(if you weren't are hard on stuff)?  How long before this device is no longer useful.  Does a kid want to stare at 8" screen 7 hours or more a day?

"Someone adopt me ...please"
I know I wouldn't have to look too hard to find storage closets full of old I-touches, unsupported computers or other fancy items destined for the Island of Misfit Tools.  That place is just as sad as the one in the Christmas classic.  Bottom line is most of this stuff represent budget busting Big Ticket Items.  As a teacher I see it as a means to divert more funding, energy and attention away from the classroom.  (<----Read that sentence again)   A narrow view perhaps, but one built on long experience.  The more we spend away from students, classroom, and actual learning instead on indirect support of the learning can mean we get less return on our investment.

I instead would focus on hiring good people.  Giving them what they need and a few things they want.  And, working very hard to make them feel supported and valued.  In today's world that means yes, technology should play a vital role.  But we must never forget what motivates and interests Microsoft, Apple, or any other for profit firm when they enter the realm of education.  Rest assured it is not what motivates those who can make a real difference in the lives of young people.   If we simply throw technology at our problems in an effort to improve, we won't even get past the surface(sorry...did it again).  Would I take some Surface tablets?  Why not?  But I don't feel I need them and I most definitely would not stand in front of a camera and blindly share my thoughts like this Timothy Busfield "teacher" did in this commercial.  But the tan vest...nice.


  1. Fantastic post. Shared all over the place, because I'm tired of being called a Luddite because I am not sure tech is the panacea we are looking for (see comments on my Atlantic article about PowerSchool). Thanks for writing this.

  2. An old pun I often say is ,"You can lead a girl to Vassar, but you can't make her think." Teachers can employ the newest technology available, but critical thinking, analysis, and creativity are developed by the oldest teaching method iin the world devised by Socrates: keep asking questions. Technology helps us derive answers more quickly and see the microscopic and vast cosmos in ways unimaginable just a few years ago, but thinking creatively still requires cerebral ingenuity, and no technical device can provide that.

  3. I didn't write this post, but Jessica, I think it is unfortunate that so many would be quick to play the "Luddite" card. I teach across from Rich and I'd put him in the top 20% at least in our school regarding his use of technology.
    He's tried enough to know that when something doesn't work it's best to discard it and move on, and when something promotes learning in the classroom he uses it, adapts it as needed, and moves on when it becomes no longer useful.
    I don't think people understand that like many efforts in life, teaching and learning aren't "easy" or "natural." They require effort, hard work, creativity, (and yes, innovation).

  4. Thanks for the comments. Jessica I'll check out the Atlantic article and Sandra it is funny you mention Socrates as we just read the Allegory of the Cave and did a Socratic seminar on it. I facilitated the discussion by simply asking "what do you think" and they discussed non-stop for 90 minutes.

    I must add that I think you both should be directing a major school division somewhere. :) Maybe I just suffer from technology fatigue but it seems that too many folks accept the latest and greatest w/o much thought to what it means for students learning. They are kind of like kids watching commercials for new toys. Wheels are set in motion and by the time we find out about it or are affected it is too late to change the momentum. I use technology in what I do but try not to let it define my classroom.

    Tech will and should play a role and perhaps a key role, but it is not THE answer. Doubt there is ONE answer. But it as you suggest does not mean we should stop asking questions. :)

    And Turner only put me in the top 20%. Wow. That hurt. He has obviously not seen some of my vintage late 1990s PowerPoint animations.

    Thanks again for the comments. (Except Turner who is only in the top 21% even if he does have a smart phone)

  5. "...maybe in the comments section some of you could share what you wish reformers would say since it is what they mean."

    Your channeling of the unedited thoughts of so-called reformers was refreshing! Here's a couple of my own:

    "Sure, we know that the math used to calculate teachers' performance on student standardized tests is deeply problematic, and as a result, some excellent teachers will get canned. But hey, it'll also flush out some bad teachers. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet."

    "All of you who critique my ideas and actions, I don't really believe it when I say that you are being totally selfish and failing to put kids first. But you know, when I say this, it's a great rhetorical defense, since it makes you look like a moral midget and completely shuts down the debate. I'm sticking with it!"

    Education Firestorm (