Sunday, August 22, 2010

High Tech Classroom -- commentary

I was pretty excited when I was offered a job last school year in a school that had gone high tech: a laptop computer with internet capability for every student and an interactive white board and document camera for every teacher. Since this is the coming trend, the latest savior of American education, I need to share my experience.

I am certainly no techie nerd, but I am fairly adept at using technology and quick to learn new things, so neither am I a Luddite. I could see real possibilities. I took the job with a good bit of excitement. That excitement, however, turned to ambivalence and then to negativity in about two months.

An internet connected computer is a great tool for the serious student. For the rest, which is most, it is the biggest distraction you could possibly provide.

Let me use an analogy we country folk can relate to. Let us say you are a farmer, and when your son comes to breakfast, you tell him you have gassed up the four wheeler, put the post hole digger on it along with the shotgun and a hand full of shells. You tell him there are a dozen fence post holes that need digging in the back pasture. He has to go through the woods to get there, so you tell him to bring home a couple of squirrels for supper. He knows there are no short term consequences for not getting the holes dug. Please answer the following questions: At the end of the day, how much gasoline will be left in the fuel tank? How many shot gun shells will be left? How many post holes will get dug? Now think about the electronic classroom with all its distractions and ask similar questions concerning school work.

Aside from the distractions, there are other real problems. Put yourself in a classroom of 25 seventh graders who have been assigned to go to a particular web site, but the computer can’t make connection. Fifteen minutes later, a third of the class still can’t connect to the site. These students are not going to sit quietly while waiting. A textbook would have been so much easier. Fifteen seconds will get you to any page you want.

Consider the day an assignment is due. The high tech equivalent of the dog ate my homework kicks in. “I had it all done, but it disappeared.” “My battery is dead and I don’t have my charger,” and so on. For those who turned it in, you must check closely for cut and paste jobs, which is so much easier than old fashioned copying from a friend’s work.

All these headaches would be worth it if in fact real learning was being enhanced, but it is not. I read a quote recently and regret I didn’t note the source, only that it was one of our big shot techies, maybe one of the founders of Google. In essence he said if you want real learning to take place, shut off all the screens, the computers, the Ipods, the televisions, the cell phones and open the books.

Technology is the latest fad. It is being pushed by the technology industry. We are being told that kids’ brains have become wired differently in the high tech age and so they learn differently, or that they need the technological experience to be able to compete in the world of work. Nonsense! If kid’s brains are wired differently, it means in some way they got rewired. So, apparently they are malleable. Wire them back. And since technology changes so rapidly, we don’t really know what to prepare them for. They will learn on the job the technological skills needed no matter what we provide for them now.

The technology, unfortunately, is producing a generation of kids who can’t work with a block of text, study it and think about it. They must have lots of graphics with short cut lines or they move on (the perfect mind for the 30 second, political sound bite).

A computer at every desk brings more problems than benefits. Instead focus on the teacher, giving each one an interactive white board, a document camera, a good laptop computer with support software and training. Then, equip the school with quality computer labs, with the ability to monitor every computer from a central place, for those projects truly enhanced by internet access.

If your school is going high tech, it is because the leadership is falling for industry propaganda. Listen politely, but for the rest of the story, for the side not getting told, read “High-Tech Heretic” by Clifford Stoll. For good reasons, Stoll is a techie very skeptical of the claims made by his industry for the classroom.

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