First, a disclaimer: I am a huge fan of technology and a true believer in its potential to fundamentally change how schools are run. Emerging technologies, often called ‘social media,’ are changing how many young people communicate and learn, how they approach learning, and how they process information.
But I think there are three reasons to worry. Reason one, the technology will be unevenly distributed, meaning that the gap between rich and poor will actually widen. Two, schools won’t respond to the creative potential of technology in positive ways. And, three, they will respond uncritically.
First, the technology gap (which I wrote about on this blog a few weeks back). This issue is major, because in most of history the rich have gotten richer, and there’s no reason to expect things to be different this time around. Creating special programs to put technology into schools with poor children won’t work unless those programs are accompanied by serious professional development, because most teachers I know are uncomfortable with computers and even more uncomfortable with the notion that kids know more than they do.
What do poor kids get when schools are their main source of advance technology? Not much! As teacher Esther Wojcicki of Palo Alto notes, kids in school are forced into what she calls ‘the airplane mode.’ “They’re told to sit down, strap in and face straight ahead for the duration of the flight.”
Right now, well off children have access to technology at home, meaning that they will find it easier to cope with the ‘powering down’ that happens when they walk into their schools. Not so for poor kids, who end up suffering through a lot of drill.
My second fear is that schools will resist innovation and become irrelevant. A tsunami, a huge wave of technology in the hands of young people, is approaching, but many educators seem unaware that their students swim in a sea of technology outside the school. They want to continue to use computers and other tools to control students and to manage information, and that’s about it.
Because they fear technology in the hands of kids, they look for ways to keep it out of schools. When a couple of students were found looking at ‘inappropriate’ videos on YouTube in one school recently, the administration decided on the spot that no students would have access to the site. That’s overreaction based on ignorance, and a valuable teachable moment thrown away. Of course kids are going to go to places we don’t want them to, but what that requires is vigilance on the part of adults as well as scads of interesting and challenging work. Even in a high tech world, idle hands (and minds) do the devil’s work.
Imagine the response of the rest of the kids when they learned that YouTube couldn’t be accessed at school. Guess what site they were sure to visit at home?
My third fear has to do with what happens when schools do embrace technology. That is, I worry about the enthusiasm of technology’s supporters. Last week I participated in a 2-day event held at Google headquarters in Mountain View and organized by Sesame Workshop, Common Sense Media and the MacArthur Foundation. At one point we watched a short homemade video of a young man purporting to teach how to solve a quadratic equation. With great energy, the boy lunged at the camera lens and enthused about how easy it is. He wrote on a white board, enthused more about changing the minus signs to plus signs, and concluded by nearly shouting again that it was easy. The audience applauded, but for what? He hadn’t explained why he was changing signs, or anything else for that matter. It was terrible teaching, pure and simple, but technology was being used, and most of the adults loved it!
But ignoring technology is the greater danger. We saw another video in which a high school student told us that he never read books, hadn’t read one in years. Why bother, he asked rhetorically, when you can read plot summaries on line in 30 seconds. He confessed (rather he boasted) that he’d aced a test on Romeo & Juliet without reading a word of Shakespeare’s play.
I think technology is a huge threat to a decent education precisely because it allows shortcuts like that. We know that students everywhere are downloading term papers written by others and submitting them as their own, and now they don’t even have to read the material. We’re producing students with no deep understanding of our culture and a fundamental contempt for education.
There is a solution, of course. It’s not anti-technology, but it does require slowing things down. Take Romeo & Juliet. I’ll wager that it was one of three or four plays the students were assigned to read and the teacher required to ‘cover’ in a few weeks. Under those circumstances, SparkNotes may be appropriate.
But suppose three or four weeks could be devoted to one play? Then the odds would be that no student could get by without reading. And if students don’t give a rip about Shakespeare, change the assignment: put Macbeth and Lady Macbeth on trial for first-degree murder, with kids playing the roles of Macbeth, his wife, Duncan, Banquo, et cetera. Now they’ll have to prepare to give testimony, while the students who are the defense and prosecutors will have to prep for cross-examination. That is, they’ll have to read what Shakespeare wrote, think about the meaning, perhaps watch Olivier or Orson Welles in film versions, and more.
There’s a marvelous role for technology in this. Assign students to videotape the proceedings and prepare nightly news reports ‘from the courtroom,’ to be posted on the web and aired on the school’s broadcast or narrowcast system. To be able to interview intelligently, these students also would have to dig deep into the play itself. So long, SparkNotes!
In a perfect world, this kind of curriculum would be found in our poorest schools, giving those kids the opportunity for deep learning and powerful intellectual challenges, not the ‘drill and kill’ routine they are more likely to encounter.
Today’s path–a breakneck pace through a required curriculum aimed at enabling students to pass cheap bubble tests—is antithetical to the effective use of technology. Instead, students in East Palo Alto, Greenwich, Mumbai, Shanghai and London should be connected, working together on projects to, for example, analyze acidity in rainfall or traffic patterns or election results. (Often they are already connected–outside of school–through Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.)
The choice is ours: We can use technology in schools to support students who dig deep and create knowledge, or we can continue with business as usual, an environment that invites kids to use technology’s power in ways that ultimately hurt us all.