07 November 2007

Fight the Future (Fight the Present)

About once a season The New York Times launches an attack on technology in education. That's expected. We'll open the paper and find one more reporter reporting that his or her old friends are constantly bothered by young people in the classroom, especially by young people who are presumptuous enough to carry with them the most common information and communication devices in the world today - computers and mobile phones.

So today's article - New Class(room) War: Teacher vs. Technology - by "old" Columbia University journalism prof Samuel G. Freedman could not rate as a surprise. As is usual in these pieces, the old stories about pornography web sites and the old complaints that "students want to be entertained" (in this case coming from another old journalism prof - Michael Bugeja of Iowa State University) are rehashed, "heroic" stands of faculty against the demon technology are celebrated (in this case Roanoke College's Dr. Ali Nazemi), and the fondest wish for the old days is expressed - oh, education before computers and telephones, aeroplanes and those new-fangled movies. But, in the midst of this nonsense I was forced to come face-to-face with my own institution:

"Scott Carlin, an instructor of teacher interns at Michigan State University, advises his charges to forbid personal use of tech devices in the classroom. Of course he occasionally has to pause in his own lesson to make one of his graduate students stop scrolling through text messages.

'"If the students actually found some creative way to use a cellphone or a BlackBerry in a class demonstration, I’d be all for that," Mr. Carlin said in a recent interview, recalling his own years as a middle school and high school teacher. "Or if they could demonstrate how a chat room or
AOL instant messenger would help them present a project. But what I found in most cases is that it was just a fancy new way of passing notes."'

Here's what's frightening - Mr. Carlin is training new teacher interns - soon to be real teachers - and Mr. Carlin has no idea of how to help these new teachers use the ubiquitous technology of the present in their classrooms. This is frightening because it helps to explain why new teachers in the United States are rarely more "tech competent" in their classrooms than people who entered the profession thirty years ago. It is disappointing because if Mr. Carlin had simply entered into one of the many seminars and events held in his very own College of Education building, he might already be a very different kind of educator, and those who he is currently teaching might become different kind of educators.

The essential conservatism of American Education is a very powerful thing. In my years in higher education especially I have never seen any actual progressive bias. Oh sure, profs mouth support of socialism and equality, but that is all theory. Education in the United States is all about social reproduction - the intent is to make students as much like the teachers as possible - and this is carried out most aggressively through instructor behavior. In order to succeed students must learn to mimic the learning strategies which, and succeed in the learning environments that make their teachers comfortable. "I learned by reading big books and listening to boring lectures, so you must too."

The very idea that contemporary or future students might embrace other choices seems threatening not just to the pedagogy of instructors, but to their very understanding of the world - yet this seems odd to me. What we are really dealing with is a simple choice of what author Alan November calls "learning containers." In an article in Tech Learning this past summer he described his son's learning containers this way, "Dan has five basic tools, or digital containers, for managing his content, communicating with the world, and accessing his entertainment: blogs, his iPod, Instant Messenger, YouTube, and video games. Of course he also has a cell phone, which he often sneaks into school to text message me about how debate went that day. Otherwise, he has no access in school to the tools he loves to use. In fact, he has been taught that they have nothing to do with learning. At home he picks his applications and easily moves from one to another. He is self-taught, self-directed, and highly motivated. He is locally and globally connected."

Why can't students pick the "containers" most effective for them? Why can't teachers (be it Mr. Carlin, Dr. Freedman, or Dr. Bugeja) teach "container etiquette" for 21st Century technologies the way they do for 5th Century BC and 15th Century AD technologies? Why shouldn't we demand that anyone teaching in 2007 be able to successfully teach using the dominant technologies of the age?

Well, obviously... Mr. Carlin, Dr. Freedman, and Dr. Bugeja are all locked in the past - and whatever their personal merits they will likely be failed teachers - unable to truly prepare their students for the world into which they will graduate. Imagine a maths instructor who insisted on students using only sliderules - An English instructor insisting that students write with quill pens they had made themselves - A history instructor insisting on only memorization and verbal response (the old ancient Greek way) - we'd all say, "There are better ways! We've invented graphing calculators - factory-made pens - literacy!" Because, yes, if we are intelligent humans, and good teachers, we embrace the technology of the present and we anticipate the technology of the future. We use the tools which we, as humans, have created in order to learn better and do more.

We simply cannot accept anything less. We need to bring all these technologies into the schools and we must learn to use them effectively, to offer choices and opportunities - and thus, to offer true educational success to those not exactly like today's educators (for a great start, please download - free - Dr. Norbert Pachler's great research agenda on Mobile Learning - from the Institute of Education/University of London - pdf format).

Mr. Carlin is working in a state with the highest unemployment rate in the US, a state struggling to replace old-line manufacturing jobs with good jobs in the knowledge economy. Also a state with a 26% university completion rate, with an ugly high school drop out rate, with persistently troubling scores for minorities on standardized tests. Dr. Freedman is writing for a newspaper that has never quite figured out how to use the internet well and profitably. He teaches at a university far behind in offering its educational services to wider populations through technology. Perhaps the elitism behind their attitudes is not serving the cause of their employers well. Perhaps they should open their doors, head outside, and meet the world that is coming.

- Ira Socol

for a prior exchange between
The Times and me on this issue, click here.

Dr. Freedman writes back to me simply saying "
We'll just have to agree to disagree here." - I guess he is unable or unwilling to actually debate in the face of a challenge - or is it that I sent an email rather than a telegram?

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com.

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book


mary said...

Mr. Carlin is also teaching in a state that requires at least one online/distance learning experience be completed by every high school student before graduating, or am I mistaken in this understanding. My reading from a bit more than a year ago set Michigan "ahead of the game" in recognizing the importance of preparing students for the digital learning environment. ...don't have the time to confirm my facts today, Ira, but if I am remembering correctly, this make Mr. Carlin's offense just right past any neglect that can be dismissed with an "agreement to disagree."

One other note: Not only teachers are pushing for the pen and the quill, I regularly receive resistance from students who believe me out of line for requiring that there papers be typed. The issue in my classroom at Purdue is as often that students believe themselves unnecessarily put-upon by assignments that presume technological literacy as they do by any "ban" I might impose. As a teacher trying to do my part in bringing our emerging electorate up to speed, I find myself often discouraged, especially when Mr. Carlin's teacher evaluations can subsequently look so much better than my own.

And there's the end of my "whine" session ... back to the classroom for me, computer and all! -mg

Unknown said...

All true Mary - Michigan high school students are now required to have at least one on-line course experience. But will we now insist on a specific device to get them on-line? ("No smart phones, please!"). Will we do zero preparation for this in "classroom" courses? How are students supposed to learn any of these skills if technology is not routinely in the room?

But, of course, you are also right. The students are often already locked in old behaviors. They have been trained - and if they are at a university like yours or mine - they have already truly succeeded by adopting the attitudes of the adults around them. So, put it this way - they can write with a pen, but they still must insure that their writing is accessible to all, those with dyslexia, those who are blind, those who are not physically present in the room with you. This makes it an equity issue for them, and offers a chance to explain why we are embracing the 21st Century.

KM said...

watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o
and visit the site cited there:

why is this so hard to figure out?

Unknown said...

theory: schools are not "learning environments" - that is, schools do not learn. The school as-we-know-it was not created to learn, or created to adapt or adjust - it was created to "teach" - to "reproduce" - to "impress" knowledge on "raw material" the way a giant machine stamps out auto parts.

When schools do learn, they transform students and society. So, no, technology is not "the answer." Technology is "a tool" - but a transformative one.

I often start here - Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner - Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969). And I start with this thought of theirs - "Teachers should be prohibited from asking any question they already know the answer to"

HomerTheBrave said...

a) Apropos your last entry: Lisa emulator, which probably runs on your computer at about a dozen times the speed of the original machine... :-)

b) On Second Life yesterday, I was at a talk on multimedia in virtual worlds, specifically streaming audio. We discussed the various ways in-world objects could have their own media streams, pulled in from the web, including mapping arbitrary video and images and sounds onto objects.

At one point, because I was a newbie and it's acceptable for newbies to ask things like this, I asked, "Why would anyone need to do these things?" They all laughed. "Because we can," was pretty much the unanimous answer. No discussion of implication, just plowing forward technologically.

Then I had to go. An author was giving an interview on the intersection of sexuality and politics in American culture in another sim.

But yeah, suppose one could argue that I didn't learn anything at all within the confines of this new technology, because it didn't come from academia or established curricula.

Michael Bugeja said...


Why would you ever resort to using the derogatory term "old" when referring to me? In addition to being insensitive, it is largely an unchecked opinion, as you do not bother to find out my age (55) or other information about me as a technologist and educator. Yet, you work at our peer institution, Michigan State; would you use the word "old" to describe a colleague there in a faculty meeting? And if you did, what might be the result? Why would you ever use that term as a descriptor in an educational forum? I'm not being politically correct here; I'm being an educator challenging the stereotype that "old" has nothing to do with knowledge or lack thereof of technology use in the classroom.

How can you justify rhetorical assertions like this:

"Well, obviously... Mr. Carlin, Dr. Freedman, and Dr. Bugeja are all locked in the past - and whatever their personal merits they will likely be failed teachers - unable to truly prepare their students for the world into which they will graduate."

Failed teachers? Locked in the past? Can you not even use Google for a fact-check on that with my Maltese surname and "outstanding teacher" or "technology"?

I've published extensively in top scholarly journals and Oxford Univ. Press on technology. We just disagree on certain points, which is the point of educational debate, especially at Carnegie I institutions. I can send you my course evaluations since 1986 if you like and you can do the math, but a simple check on Google would have shown that the entire student bodies of two research institutions voted me "outstanding teacher." My record is not the point, but your assumptions here are. Moreover, they illustrate what I am coping with in the wireless classroom when fact-checking is viewed as more boring than expression.

You're free to express what you want, of course. And I have rights of reply.

My fight is against the rampant consumerism embeddeed in digital gadgets, which are making a select few CEOs in this consumer society rich at the expense of learning.

What troubles me about all this is that we have had email exchanges before about shortcomings of Internet citation, which is part of my research (see http://www.halfnotes.org).

You thanked me for my communication, assistance, and efforts. Why this, then, in your blog?

What pains me is that technology has come between two teachers who have in mind the best interests in students. As we learned through scholarly dialogue in email, we probably have more in common than you think. For instance, I see that you write creatively in fiction. I'm a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in fiction. A Google check would have shown that, too.

To be sure, you have rights of expression and I have rights of reply.

In the future you can call me "old" and a "failed teacher" or anything else you might fancy without fact verification. But I will except more of you. Anyone who works in or advocates for technology has an obligation to use it correctly so as to model the behavior in students.

I'm sure you and I along with your readers can agree on that.

Unknown said...

Fair criticism Dr. Bugeja, and I apologize and will create a new post to do just that: "old" was unfair, though I did not mean it chronologically - I meant it in terms of an "old boys network" which leads The New York Times to repeatedly quote a circle of journalism professors in their war against educational technology. "Failed" may also be unfair, except that I will continue to insist that the fight against in-class use of technology is an absolute failure - that students will be distinctly less prepared for the future if educated without the use of the basic tools of the 21st Century.

And yes, you are absolutely correct - as I would hope that you (and Dr. Freedman) would model proper technology use in your classrooms, and adopt reasonable instructional tolerance for student's technological behavior, I should blog with more caution - and at times - more research, modelling what I hope to demonstrate.

Again, I apologise, and again, I will follow up, but this time, I'll take a bit more time.

-Ira socol