Marrying Technology and Education

19cover-sfSpan The New York Times magazine was devoted to technology and education this week. Yay! Too bad the articles were worthless, except for the interview with Arne Duncan.

The magazine devoted way too much time to sexy gadgetry (A Pen That Helps You Take Notes!!) and silly philosophies (Let's Just Let the Kids Learn By Playing Video Games!!) All that stuff is fine. Gadgetry and cute curriculum mashups (William Shakespeare Meets Facebook!!) is just fine for average middle class kids. This stuff won't hurt kids in good schools, because they are actually reading Shakespeare and learning how to take notes. Technology becomes toxic when teachers are forced to use it in their curriculum or when video games entirely replace reading.

It's too bad, but the Times didn't give enough attention to the real, albeit unsexy, applications of technology in education, such as distance learning. Year ago, I interviewed teachers in rural Wisconsin who told me about satellite classrooms in the country for kids who lived too far from traditional schools. The kids did all their classwork on the computer, so they didn't have a two hour bus ride every day.

These satellite classrooms could also work in urban areas. City kids don't have a hard commute, but their lives can't conform to a typical school day.

When my buddy, Suze, was doing her student teaching in Manhattan, she taught a first period English class. Even though there were supposed to be 30+ kids in the room, she usually taught just a handful of students. Some kids would trickle in during the class, but most didn't show up at all. The school didn't even take attendance until third period in order to boost their attendance rates.

These kids were from families that didn't go to bed until late and didn't have adults that forced the kids to go to school on time. Sometimes the entire family would go to the Dominican Republic for a month right in the middle of the school year.

Wouldn't those kids be better served by online education? They could complete their studies at their own pace. Maybe they needed to attend school from 11 to 5. They could go to a satellite classroom, log on, do their studies. Maybe there would be some teachers who could walk around and answer questions. 

The promise of technology and education isn't sexy. It isn't a talking pen. It should be about bringing in the kids who are lost in the present system.

9 thoughts on “Marrying Technology and Education

  1. I’m not sure that hoping or imagining that technology will solve problems that aren’t really about the medium of instruction in the first place is any more what we should be looking for than digitopia-style celebrations of new technologies. When the issue at hand is (for example) poverty or inequity or a lack of cultural and social buy-in by communities, a computer doesn’t change the structure of things any more than a pencil does. Yes, it lets the rare child who is trapped in a bad situation out by giving them a fantastic new window on the world, but that’s an old story that we know very well (the exceptional person who escapes via books, or performance, or imagination, etc.) Whatever the structural fix might be (cultural change, funding changes, political changes, even major curricular or instructional changes), technology’s likely to be no more than a small portion of that, whether we’re talking sexy or unsexy approaches.
    On the other hand, for kids who are already in school, from middle-class families that are likely to ensure that they stay in school, but who are relatively uninspired by old-media approaches and will just kind of muddle along? New technologically-mediated approaches may radically transform their experience of education in ways that are good, ways that are troubling, and ways that are neither, just different. (I think the just-different is by far the biggest type.) And in any event, whether the education of these kids prepares them for the job market they’ll face in 10-20 years is a gigantic question of immediate and serious import. Technology is a part of that as well: middle-class kids who can write an essay fairly well but who haven’t been allowed to write online or taught to search for information systematically are arguably prepared for a white-collar work environment which won’t exist when they graduate.
    I think it’s a mistake to rush past the experience of school-positive kids in districts with adequate funds and competent administrations.


  2. Yeah, I get your point, Tim. I can’t help but get contrary when I read too much gee-whiz stuff on technology in schools. It’s not a magic bullet.
    Nobody knows what the job market is going to look like in 10 to 20 years. Nobody. So, I don’t want to prepare my kids to make podcasts, when most likely, podcasts will be long outmoded in 10 to 20 years.
    I was going to pull out the pro-video game studies in the next post. You know they found that playing violent video games helps girls on visual spacial ability. Really interesting.


  3. The visual-spatial research is interesting. Also: There’s a scholar named Ian Bogost who does very interesting writing about games and what he calls “procedural literacy”. The short version is that games teach you how systems work, and the problem with educational uses is that they try too hard to have them teach you about something else that’s best taught with other material (say, about science or math etc.)
    If you’ve ever played a video game that’s well-designed in terms of starting with simple tasks or skills and then layering them on and on as the game grows more complex, you can see what Bogost means. If the goal is sufficiently desirable (more content, more experience, more pleasure, being able to zap more of your friends better, etc.), players will stick to that process of learning more and more of the game’s system of play and not even realize that they’re learning.
    Now if we could design something like that to help students learn how a system worked (like a database or a social institution), I think the results could be a form of knowledge and competency we’ve never really seen before. Arguably that’s what people who are really good at social media have learned how to do. The problem is that the goal of game learning has to be intrinsic to the system of learning, and it has to be fun or compelling. Games are a totally crummy way to learn about something extrinsic to the game.


  4. “…a computer doesn’t change the structure of things any more than a pencil does.”
    I think it does, actually. Computer games are motivating in a way that pure paper and pencil problems aren’t, even when there is no tangible reward.
    My MIL got us a Wii a year ago, around the time that my oldest was just finishing up a course of physical therapy. When she started the physical therapy, C had very poor balance, a tendency to walk into things, poor muscle tone, a general disinclination for physical activity, and little stamina. She improved during physical therapy (twice a week), but what really dramatically improved her physical condition was the Wii Fit and Wii Sport that she did during winter break after the physical therapy was finished. The skateboarding and other similar exercises were very good for her balance and sense of her body’s position in space. C is a pretty competitive critter, so the Wii structure of intangible rewards has been very effective with her. For quite a while, she was doing about an hour a day, and I think that time on task was very valuable, and something that we could never have achieved without the reinforcing Wii structure to spur her on to more records and personal bests. Anyway, I was so impressed with the results that I called up the physical therapy place to talk to them about it and discovered that they had just gone through a training on how to use Wiis in physical therapy.


  5. Strangely enough, I’m giving a workshop on technology basics for faculty today. And I mean “basics.” You’d be surprised… well, ok, probably you wouldn’t be surprised how little some faculty know about technology.
    I’m a total tech enthusiast, but I agree with Laura. It’s no magic bullet. And having taught online courses, I’m not sure it’s a great answer either. I don’t mind hybrid courses, but then I think we need to flip education anyway. I just read this by Dan Pink about having kids take in the info/lecture at home and apply it in the classroom. These are the things that technology could be good for.
    I’m intrigued by the gaming stuff in theory, but my bias is that I hate playing video games that don’t involve wordplay or Wii-type movement games. Super Mario Galaxy? Halo? WoW? Whatever.


  6. Oh, boy. A huge thing to add to my reading list.
    Okay, here’s the thing–and I’m saying this without having read the articles, but I promise I will. Increasingly, I see smart exposure to technology in schools as a way to get kids interested in Technology with a capital T, and even Computer Science, an area where the US is woefully underproducing. But, it has to be smart. When I taught a course this past spring to pre-service teachers on using technology in the classroom, I was told to use a book. I threw out the book after the first week when I ran into the phrase CD-ROM. The book was published in 2010! But that is likely the instruction that most teachers get. I was by far the youngest member of the faculty, and I am 42. Not that being older = lack of tech savvy, but it sometimes does.
    I have always, always said that tech is no magic bullet. Doing it in a smart way is very, very hard, as I am finding out in my current job.
    If you care or are interested, the CSTA (computer science teachers association) has recommendations for teaching computing, which in the early years involves simple things like double-clicking. Also, the ISTE has technology standards, with which the CSTA has aligned its model curriculum. These standards involve things like thinking critically about technology, the social implications of technology, as well as learning specific skills.
    If you haven’t read James Paul Gee’s What Video Games have to teach us about learning and literacy, you should. His web site is also full of shorter articles on the subject of learning and games. I’d also recommend taking a look at MIT’s education school, where games are at the forefront of their research. Plus they have some really cool educational games you can play. 🙂


  7. Video games have a double burden: not only do they get hit with the well-practiced loathing that people who grew up heavily indebted to one media form have for a successor form, but they get a extra dose of contempt from people who are heavily indebted to a certain form of productivism, that any time-consuming activity which doesn’t count as labor is worthless by definition.
    The first rejection is an old thing and is overcome in time simply by use and familiarity–who out there is still fretting about radio (there were many, once upon a time) or novels (there were many, once upon a time)? The second, I’m not so sure, that’s a deep modern and American structure of feeling.


  8. We had a long conversation about technology and pedagogy after reading this article and comment thread precisely two weeks after sending our daughter off to a very traditional kindergarten. At least a few of the writers there seemed horrified that the lack of technology in the classroom wasn’t equipping kids for the 21st century. Despite both being software engineers, Sara and I were not so concerned.
    I want my kids to learn the dreary things that make them better at using technology — especially typing, which is rumored to have disappeared from middle schools around here. I’d like them to do some straightforward programming, and worry that David Brin’s “Why Johnny Can’t Code” may be an accurate description of the world today. Beyond that, I really feel that poorly-done technology is far worse than none at all.
    But you can’t separate theory from the personal unless you’ve got good hard numbers. In part my distaste for the tech-advocates I perceive in that thread is defensiveness of my own school experience. History came alive for the first time for me in 6th-grade class in which the teacher stood in front of a chalkboard and lectured. It was fantastic, and I’ve found that with only a few exceptions I thrive in a lecture-and-practice format. I can’t escape the suspicion that these advocates are out to ban something that worked very well for me.


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