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.
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