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  • From pencils to pixels, technologies won't fix our schools

    Schools that once saw laptop computers as the best thing to hit the classroom since the invention of paper are starting to view laptops as overpriced electronic pencils that can’t connect the educational dots.  According to the New York Times (“Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops,” May 4, 2007), one school dropped its one-laptop-per-student program after finding that, when they weren’t crashing, computers didn’t raise students’ scores but instead offered them new ways to cheat, download pornography, and hack into local business sites.  Other schools, finding little return on their computer investment, are logging off as well.

    Supporters of computers in education are responding to this story by blaming teachers for not understanding or correctly deploying the latest technology.  The computer brings the world to each student’s desktop as no library ever could, they explain.  All you need is the right method and the computer will do the rest.  As for the non-educational activities that laptops inspire, these apologists remind us that students cheated with chalk and pencils too, not to mention passing notes and drawing dirty pictures.  Like defenders of the right to bear arms, they insist that you can’t blame the technology if people misuse it.

    But skeptics scoff that hand-drawn sketches are nothing compared with gigabytes of hardcore jpegs, that pigtails dipped in inkwells and extorting lunch money pale before the large-scale theft of credit card numbers and the downloading of term papers.  Computers enable perversion on a larger, more harmful scale, these critics warn.  Worse still for education, computers focus us on the machine, not the task, dazzling us with bells and whistles while we fail to grasp essential truths.

    Earlier gee-whiz technologies raised the same sorts of hopes and fears we see with educational computing.  Radio also promised to bring the world into the classroom.  In 1952, when I was in third grade, we listened to educational radio once a week in class, but children used the hour to daydream while the teacher worked at her desk.  Film was going to show us the educational world that radio couldn’t, but when the lights went out and the projector flickered, students napped.  Television was the next agent of classroom change that changed nothing.  Of course radio, movies and TV remain vital for news and entertainment, but so far as education is concerned, chalk and pencils were just as effective, and a whole lot cheaper. 

    Even the now-all-but-extinct typewriter was going to boost learning.  In the 1930s, two university researchers placed portable typewriters on students’ desks in selected schools around the country and discovered that typing all their schoolwork raised test scores by as much as seven percent for children from kindergarten through sixth grade.  But for once the schools didn’t jump on the type-to-learn bandwagon.  It was the Depression, after all, and districts couldn’t afford an expensive technology that had to be locked up at night and needed constant maintenance.  Besides, while the students took to the machines eagerly, it proved too difficult to train teachers to load the paper, change the ribbons, clear jammed keys, and master touch typing.

    Now computers, the technology of choice for desktops in offices and homes across the nation, promise to do what teachers and earlier technologies could not: change the face of education for the better.  There's evidence to suggest that's happening, and counterevidence to indicate it's not.

    But whether it’s television or typewriters or the computer, we look to technology as a remedy because we’re convinced that schools are broken.  Those who warn about the evils of technology do so for the same reason: as they see it, teachers aren’t teaching, students aren’t learning.

    Does technology put learners at the cutting edge or distract them from learning altogether?  In practice sometimes it does both and sometimes neither.  But those aren’t the key questions to ask.  Instead, we should be wondering, why have schools repeatedly bought into technology when no educational machine's performance never matched its promise? 

    The cycle of ed tech disappointments suggests that it’s a mistake to expect computers to work differently in schools than they do at home or on the job.  But it’s more of a mistake to expect that learning can be mechanized.  Schools are always dependent on technologies ranging from the pencil to the pixel, but schooling is messy.  Educating students is not efficient, like using robots to make cars.  It's not something that can be made teacher proof or student proof.

    Education will always depend a lot on the vagaries of human communication and interaction.  Learning involves mistakes.  it involves improvising when things go wrong.  It doesn’t benefit from economies of scale.  

    What's more, technology is never neutral.  Even pencils put a spin on writing that hadn’t been seen before, and computers are definitely changing the way we do things with words.  That’s something our schools cannot ignore.  It’s true, too, that there’s a lot wrong with our schools that needs attention.  But the answer won’t involve taking the human element out of the learning equation.  If the broken dreams of earlier educational technologies are any guide, it’s going to take much more than a chip, a screen name, and a FAQ to change how teachers teach or students learn. 

#1
hochmanw1@southernct.edu May 8, 2007 5:18 pm

I think any writer should be proud to coin the phrase, "From pencils to pixels" and I was glad to see you up date your fine essay in this blog. Just by chance, my classes have final meetings this weeks. I think your blog is a great "live" update from an author my students have learned to "use" to deepen their ideas in essays about education, technology, and exploring cyberpspace. I intend not only to send them the link but will also suggest reading "The Web of Language" as a way to continue our good learning experiences together.

 

Thanks again,

Will Hochman

Southern Connecticut State U

#2
rlhunter@wisc.edu May 8, 2007 6:18 pm

(a bit of a rant here): I found it interesting that the only technology cited for production (the typewriter) was shown, in that particular study, to increase test scores.  Yet, the rest of the conclusions drawn by those now deciding that computers aren't helping our students do better spoke only of the computer as a means of consumption.

Even the supporters seem to be missing the opportunity they have: "Supporters of computers in education are responding to this story by blaming teachers for not understanding or correctly deploying the latest technology.  The computer brings the world to each student’s desktop as no library ever could, they explain."

Library? Sure, a computer is a great tool for finding information.  But it's also a great tool for multimedia production.  As with all those other "gee-whiz" technologies cited, seeing computers as just another device through which to sit back and take in information is misguided--simply focused on consumption rather than production--reproducing all the ways we see other reception media.

I also, find it interesting that when "they [the computers] weren’t crashing, computers didn’t raise students’ scores but instead offered them new ways to cheat, download pornography, and hack into local business sites."

If only the schools could have found a way to channel the energy put into cheating and hacking with some other sort of production.  

"Instead, we should be wondering, why have schools repeatedly bought into technology when no educational machine's performance never matched its promise?"  I can't speak for the past.  Maybe it's simply that we always know we could be doing better as educators, and we're willing to experiment with new things.

But I do think the computer can be a tool for change, if we stop thinking about our student as empty vessels needing to be filled with knowledge ("look at how easy it is to find scholarly articles!") and, rather, begin to see them as smart and creative people with the potential to produce wonderful things with their cultural resources and technology. 

I'm lucky to work with many intelligent undergraduates each semester and see how energized they become when they learn, for example, to write a Wikipedia entry.  They get to see what it's like to produce for a potentially world-wide audience and experience a community of knowledge construction working together to set and maintain standards.  And during the process they learn how to evaluate (and consume) information in this space.  I can't see any way of making this happen with pencils and paper, no matter how fantastic the teacher.

So, in the end, I agree with this point: "Supporters of computers in education are responding to this story by blaming teachers for not understanding or correctly deploying the latest technology."

We need to look to those educators that have already found engaging ways to deploy the latest technology and take what we can for use at other locations.  I don't know what the situation(s) were for those mentioned, but perhaps they did the best the could with the knowledge they already had and the training they received.  I agree that "the answer won’t involve taking the human element out of the learning equation."  At this time, the 21st century, it seems education needs both the human and the machine because neither is going away any time soon.

 

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