Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Digital Bandwagon

Tim exits his mom's car and flips open his phone to begin textting. His Ipod blaring as he weaves his way through the halls barely avoiding collisions with others whose eyes are also glued to tiny screens. He rounds the corner and enters my room. He puts his phone away and removes his ear buds and plops into his seat. He takes out his Netbook and frantically checks his E-mail and Facebook before the bell.  He next logs in to begin the lesson for the day using Edmodo and begins working pausing occasionally to check twitter feeds. So Tim has done a lot this morning but he hasn't done one thing, spoken directly with anyone.  Is Tim your son in my class? Probably not as things aren't that bad but we better keep an eye on Tim and his classmates.

Nothing is as attractive or as marketable for schools as digital technology. My neighboring local district is spending more than $2 million to provide each student in 6th-12th grade with Windows based tablets. The adoption accompanied by a flashy new acronym, the Blended Learning to Advance Student Thinking(BLAST). Most schools are increasingly investing in technology as a key improvement strategy.  One to one is coming. 

One to one is the educational jargon meaning that each student has his or her own computer. School divisions, and thus public taxpayers, are pouring funds into equipping students with the latest and greatest digital resources. Smartboards, Promethean Boards, LCD projectors, laptops, Ipads, Computer Labs, Instant Poll Clickers, Software Applications and Information Management Systems and the dizzying amount of unseen infrastructure needed to make them function are sucking up cash like a vacuum. But as decision makers barely pause to reflect on these investments it might be prudent to consider them a bit more.

I think having access to such tools is great for both kids and teachers. Where would I be if in the 1980's Apple IIe hadn't appeared and allowed me to learn LOGO?   (Probably in the same place)  Technology is a great asset in education.  I love computers and what they allow schools to do.    What they are not is a guarantee that learning and education will improve. Soldiers in the military can be more effective with the best weapons. Teachers too can multiply their impact with new tools. But both must know how to integrate them to do their job. Another way of thinking about it is you don't just pass out bazookas. (OK a bit of a stretch but I liked the phrasing) Schools should both pilot technology and also prepare the majority of teachers to utilize such tools. If they don't then they are eye candy and do little to substantively improve what's already happening.   

Technology adoption is more complex that it appears. Worth remembering is that these tools don't stay "new" for very long and as an example that little Apple IIe far outlasted its usefulness.  Equal access across divisions with disparities in funding might expand gaps in resources. The big business side of the adoption process shows when company salespeople court officials and saturate them with information like a DC lobbyist.

Contracts have become big money, and often cut out of the loop are the ground level educators. We (in our division) experienced this firsthand last year with a little disaster called Gradespeed.  Another complicating factor important to remember is that in addition to large up front costs there are also a continuing expenses as long as the school supports a product. Wear and tear, maintenance, infrastructure upgrades, required support personnel all can be unseen costs. What happens 3 years down the road when kids complain that computers are too slow because they take .3 seconds longer to connect?

Technology constantly changes how we operate.  It can motivate some kids in ways other approaches seemingly cannot.   Many are pushing hard for state of the art technology to completely transform our classroom.  As it does we might be wise to remember we can pay in other ways for this blind faith in technology.  A recent NY Times article stated "Even as students are getting more access to computers here, they are getting less access to teachers."  Not a good thing.  

There is a reason we still drive our own cars instead of using onboard computers.  There are social consequences since these things that are meant to connect us can isolate us as well.   Within the classroom, I know once a kid has a computer on their desk nothing you say matters. With the young sometimes technology contributes to a decline in civility.    Many wonderful teachers in the classroom struggle to keep pace with the changes and I pride myself on integrating the newest technology into my instruction, sometimes not pausing to consider the unintended consequences.

  • Am I spending more time on the computer and less time interacting face to face with students?
  • Are kids disconnecting from each other?
  • Are we blurring the line between real engagement and entertainment?
  • Does the outcome justify the expense?
There's much to consider with this panacea.

With this in mind it might be interesting to watch this story unfold and think a little more deeply about all that it affects.


  1. Interesting post. I know my division falls in love with technology just as you describe. As for the clip...no identities with these folks talking about things...come on Fox News! You can tell which people have been in the classroom in the past decade by what they say. Struck by a few phrases
    "Will there still be a need for teachers?"...How about is there a need for you?
    "The whole idea that teachers are monopolists"
    "It's better than having a teacher" says the 8 year old.
    "It's more funner cause we can to speak into the microphone and we get to click on things"...says the other 8 year old

    Not seen is when the boy in the last scene drops his hand after 3 minutes cause no one is around to answer his question.

  2. O.K., you went there with the "soldier" analogy, so how about this one. They say "guns don't kill people, people kill people."

    Well, "computers don't teach people, people teach people." Same idea. A gun can do nothing without a trained person using it. It can do a great deal of damage when mishandled.

    Maybe it's the perfect analogy. Willy-nilly (yes, I wrote that) distribution of technology, whether in the hands of teachers or students, is ineffective. Strategic use of technology that fits an instructional need in the hands of teachers and students equipped to best use the tool to their advantage is a must.

  3. The US does not have a monopoly on information. Would it make sense to outsource teaching jobs using digital technology? Video chat with a teacher in an English speaking nation isn't that far fetched considering how budgets affect judgement. It'll be interesting to look back 10 yrs from now to see where we end up when these digital kids start making our decisions.

  4. Yea, that's a great idea. Why don't we just outsource all of our jobs and none of us will have to work, we can just watch t.v. all day because if there aren't any jobs to worry about then kids won't even need to go to school. But then I guess all of the outsourced workers will be out of a job when the American kids aren't in school anymore.

    Video Chat? How much stress and effort in teaching comes from trying to engage a student personally. Do you know that the primary method for classroom management is having a physical presence, e.g. standing closer to a student who wanders off task.

    Maybe ten percent of the students in an average school are self-motivated to actively guide their own education without the direct influence of an adult in the classroom.

    Why don't you spend about fifteen minutes in a classroom of low-achieving or struggling students and tell me how long they would engage in a "video chat."

    "Hello, reality calling. We really miss you, why don't you come back and live with us for a while."

  5. I agree trying to remove the human element of the process is a perilous path. But I can't help but look around and see it happening and worse those that actually support the idea, as in the video above or any digital instructional approach. It is one thing to offer something digitally if it is not available(like if you don't have a Chinese teacher in a school), it is another to try and substitute or replace teacher/student interaction with technology. As great as some technology is it is meaningless unless it makes us better. EX: I hate watching parents text at a restaurant while their toddlers sit w/o taking. In that way I think I understood what Sept 7 anonymous was trying to say about waiting to see about the future.