The Skeptic’s Seven Questions About Technology

Well, heck– we’ve got a rubric for everything else, don’t we? I sat down to write about reading/writing and technology, and this came out instead.

I’m not arguing here against tech being a powerful means of delivering information, mind you—for example I think Mr. Mayo’s Skyped conversation with the director for an Ad-Free Childhood absolutely rocks, or Dy/Dan’s love affair with his digital projector. I’ve asked kids to take pictures with their cell phones of grammatical errors in the world.

Rather, I’m talking mainly about tech that claims to have inherent pedagogical value.

So here we go.

1) Does the technology, a priori, add value to the learning?

Have you noticed that good teachers can scaffold good pedagogy around an empty juice box? So why is no one on board with “One Empty Juice Box Per Child”?

Because we know better, deep down. The tech has to teach the student something of value on its own before we can justify asking a teacher to pour energy and resources into using it. And trust me: there’s a lot of tech out there that is just an empty juice box in the end.

2) Does this value-added, teacher-independent learning relate DIRECTLY to my content objectives and standards?

Sorry. “Universally related” or “indirectly related” just doesn’t cut it—this is the open door for uncritical idolatry. For example, I have never understood the lumbering Godzilla-like argument that because our kids are “digital natives,” we should de facto use tech in school. Why? If using tech is as natural to them as breathing, isn’t this like asking us to teach kids to breathe?

Now, perhaps your kids are in Appalachia, as Greg Cruey’s are, and are on the wrong side of the digital divide. At this point clearly you’ve got a stronger argument for spending precious pedagogical minutes on the “how to”s of tech.

However, let’s say you teach in a solidly middle class district, as I do. My students don’t need practice in configuring a web page, podcasting, Youtubing, or uploading pictures. THEY ALREADY KNOW THIS STUFF—a heck of a lot better than I do, in fact. In my classroom, they do need to know about how a main character in a compelling story can help them lead better lives of their own. What tech— a priori, remember—helps them do that? I’m not saying it doesn’t exist—only that we must be very careful in our approach to it.

An important exception would be if your content objective is, in fact, evaluating Web content critically (and it sure should be at some point). For this, obviously, any 2.0 tech can be made to serve your purpose. But even here, it is crucial to remember that is the TEACHER creating the learning: not necessarily the tech itself.

3) Can we learn the basics of the tech (not counting bells and whistles) in twenty minutes?

Yep. Twenty. Any more is a waste of my time and my students’.

Or, barring that…

4) Does the tech have the Dishwasher Effect?

In otherwords, does it provide an eventual incontrovertible savings of oodles of time?

5) If it breaks, is there someone at school who can fix it?

If not, is there a workable Plan B?

6) If it is new to my school, will my school support it (even via oblivion to its existence)…

or firewall it before I can make it work in my classroom?

And finally,

7) Have I sufficiently balanced the use of the tech with the things tech has inherent danger of obliterating:

  • Environmental sustainability?
  • An authentic human connection to the students’ local community: home, school, society, and ecosystem?
  • A multi-sensory, diverse experience of the world?

Not everyone is going to agree with me on this last one, but I’ve included it because it’s where I find myself stuck the most. These three things are absolutely essential to educating our students to be good people, and our schools already don’t do enough to address them. If I am going to pile the siren call of technology on top of that fundamental deficit, I’d better have a darn good reason for it.

In many instances, I don’t yet. Although I’m basically an experienced teacher, I am new enough to my subject area to feel that I haven’t developed my curriculum enough yet to give technology this balance. To me, this means right now I just might be better off figuring out how to get my kids to a play, rather than on Powerpoint.

21 thoughts on “The Skeptic’s Seven Questions About Technology

  1. Heh, I love this post, and I completely agree. You know how I roll though, and I think that #7 is right on. I worry what we lose when our first reflex is to uncritically worship at the alter of the technology god. And yet, I don’t consider myself a Luddite either. In fact, it’s funny/ironic that some of the most technologically capable teachers are also the most critical. Maybe that’s not ironic at all. I think we’re the teachers our students so desperately need.

    I was at a major teaching conference a while back and watched a group of about 50 teachers get all “Coo Coo for Cocoa Puffs” over those little gadgets that allow students to digitally pick the “right” multiple choice question on state exams. Sadly, I see their utility given the educational climate that exists in our public schooling. It was quite a sight to see though. It was like watching birds fight over seeds at a feeder.

    Taking the time to critically evaluate technology with my students makes me feel like I’m trying to slow down the river that I am trapped in so that we can maybe, you know, analyze why we’re even in the river in the first place. Such is education in general though.

    By the way, good use of “a priori”. You should start referring to the environment as “sine qua non”. You know, just saying.

  2. Well stated, though I would disagree a bit with the statement that “they already know this stuff”. Some do, but a surprising number of my middle school students, middle to upper middle class kids, aren’t as sharp with the mechanics of using applications (standalone or 2.0) as everyone thinks they are. They know just enough to cover the narrow range of things they want to do. Thankfully, most of them are pretty quick at learning the tasks when shown, and more importantly, when the pay attention.

  3. found you from dan, wanted to thank you for the post!

    i think your final paragraph is exactly where i am with all this tech stuff. i’m not yet experienced enough in my subject to add in many tech-heavy projects, because jeff is right, the idea of digital native is bs. the skill level is just as distributed in tech / web 2.0 as it is in any other subject.

    to illustrate via anecdote: my school has 1 laptop for every 2 students, almost all have at least one machine at home. digital natives, these kids should be. however in each grade level there are a handful of students who are able to routinely lose their files. the students are smart about tech in that they all know which of their friends to ask when they screw up something on the computer…

  4. We *should* be getting to the point where this isn’t an interesting discussion, but we haven’t yet. You *should* have hardware which is inexpensive enough that the cost of giving every kid a simple, robust laptop is offset by savings in book purchases and other efficiencies. These computers *should* run free software which is more useful in your classroom than the crap we have now. We need better technology, stuff really designed for learning. The design of OLPC is right for this; whether or not they can pull it off is still very much up in the air.

  5. As a student teacher, uncritical idolotry is the biggest problem with my peers. Moreover, some of them seem to have the idea that technology is a magical pedagogical gnome who makes everything work perfectly in the classroom.

    Tech are tools. If they do not, as you say, a priori add value to learning, they aren’t worth the time.

    Well done.

  6. The only thing I disagree with is

    let’s say you teach in a solidly middle class district, as I do. My students don’t need practice in configuring a web page, podcasting, Youtubing, or uploading pictures. THEY ALREADY KNOW THIS STUFF—

    I did ectech stuff in a very middle class school where _every_ student had a laptop. I’d say 90% had no idea what a podcast was let alone how to make one. I think most can upload videos and audio to the web but at this point doing that is push button simple. It doesn’t require any real knowledge.

    I think the digital native idea is certainly over stated in general. I’m not saying school’s the place to make it true (there’s a lot that’d have to happen to make that a reasonable option) but I do think it’s important to realize most kids don’t know much about using computers.

  7. Its never been technology just for the sake of using technology. I don’t think anyone really believes that a kid will learn because a computer is placed on their lap.
    As far as I am concerned, the computer and “the Network” is just a conduit to the all the knowledge that is being freely shared. It is the job of the teacher to put students in touch with the knowledge. It is the job of the teacher to teach the appropriate skills to be effective human beings in the culture the students are being brought up in. That has never changed. But students today ARE digital natives. They have been surrounded by computers and video since they were young, but that doesn’t mean they are all technologically saavy. The teachers job is to help them make sense of the world they live in…
    The computer is not much different that the pen and paper, really. It is JUST A TOOL, to share knowledge, but its a really powerful one.
    Sorry this rambled on…

  8. Part of my attraction of using technology in education is teaching students how to learn on their own. What I find most valuable about technology tools is how the best ones open more doors than a teacher might have time for. For example, in English, Google Earth Lit Trips helps make a novel they already have to read more interactive and something they can “touch.” In science classes, we have probeware and software for it so that students can do actual real time science experiments, rather than reading it from a book. A community blog can create a sense of collaboration that simple journal writing could never do. Using tagclouds to decipher historical documents as a great way for students to understand the general before getting into specifics.

    Technology for technology sakes never works. But in many cases, teachers can easily go beyond the basics of a SOL/NCLB world by using simple technology tools that allows for in-depth learning, self directed learning, and 21st century skills.

  9. Nice analysis of the use of technology in schools. I named my blog “Sustainably Digital” because I wanted to focus on the integration on technology into teaching that would actually be possible (3, 5, 6) and effective (1, 7).

  10. Yes, this is an interesting list of “reasons to avoid technology.” Unfortunately, all I read were the reasons why the teacher may or may not want to use the technology. Where are the reasons students need to learn using technology, about technology, and how to make informed decisions about what to use when? The last collection of questions refers to authentic experiences. When I began as an editor in 1986 the idea of not using a computer for creating, editing, and communicating my articles was a non-issue. Of course we used the technology. That was almost 22 years ago. That was authentic then, and is now.

  11. @Judi – I think you are misreading this post. It’s not a list of reasons to avoid technology at all. It’s a list of reasons to use technology in a way that’s pedagogically appropriate. It’s been my experience that teachers too often use technology as a way to glitz up what is really just more “sage-on-the-stage”, teacher-centered instruction. Not all technology is authentic or useful. In fact, I think we’re giving up an authentic part of ourselves when we use it, but we’re gaining much too. It’s about cost-benefit analysis with any pedagogical technique, and I think that’s what Dina’s trying to develop here.

  12. Thanks for this post. It was a great read. Seems like too many educators forget that something is often lost with the adoption of technology. Just look at the car.
    It’s nice to know that there are people out there thinking critically about the use of technology, because I tell you, sometimes they can be hard to spot.
    I watch kids walk across my campus, one of the prettiest I’ve ever worked at (full of tropical plants), never to look up to take their eyes off their cell phone/pda to notice the beauty that surrounds them.
    “Sine qua non. You know, just saying.” Ha!

  13. @ H: Sorry, friend. Mr. Mayo’s doesn’t see to allow direct links to posts, oddly enough. It’s the 1/11 entry referencing Susan Lynn. There used to be a podcast snippet of the conversation there, but it seems to have disappeared.

    By the way I meant to tell you how fascinating I found your Rose Project link. Very cool.

  14. This one’s going to be printed and circulated around the faculty lounge.

    Thanks for succinctly stating what’s taken me a few dozen posts to come near to tackling….

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