Sunday, March 27, 2011

What Ed Tech Can't Do

In Fahrenheit 451, one of the characters describes what school is like in the near future:

But I don't think it's social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running, another hour of transcription or painting pictures, and more sports, but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don't; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film teacher. That's not social to me at all. It's a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and then telling us it's wine when it's not.
Now, read a Tweet from a teacher in LA:

f2f is going 2 end up being security aka paras 2 make sure kids dont get on facebook in jr college f2f will disappear.
If Sir Ken Robinson (and many others) are right that the way schools are set up now was to prepare workers for factories, what are we preparing our kids for now, increasingly relying on computers to teach them? How to follow orders from a machine?

This is, of course, a dystopic view of the future, fueled in part by the fact that I am currently teaching Fahrenheit 451. But, I can't help but wonder, are we really helping our most vulnerable students when we increasingly rely on technology rather than more traditional face-to-face instruction. Where are the mentorships, the relationships, the systems of support, of learning how to "think with others"? Certainly, we need to prepare students for a world that is increasingly interconnected through technology, but when do we say, enough, and start valuing, really valuing, personal interactions, rather than seeing it as an unnecessary cost, a budget line that is easy to eliminate.

Apparently, technology and online education is the real disruptive influence in education, allowing us to offer degrees for less than $10k. Having written about this very issue for the University of Venus recently, I remain skeptical. In the comments, the author of the post on creating a degree that costs less than $10k addresses my concern about teachers needing to eat with a response of only wanting teachers who are truly passionate about teaching. Great. More about how teachers are supposed to sacrifice everything for the greater good of "education. " I am all for a more entrepreneurial approach to education, but I think we are trying to think bigger, rather than the true disruption coming from going smaller. If anything, money is being spent in the wrong place, in infrastructure instead of people.

I'm starting to see the movement in education as analogous to industrial farming; we all embraced farming technologies because food got cheaper, safer, more plentiful, and easier to grow (ok, education hasn't gotten any cheaper, but isn't that the goal of increasingly using technology?). But we now see that it might be cheaper, but it isn't any healthier (and in many cases less healthy), it is more devastating to the over-all environment, and only economically beneficial to a handful of massive multi-nationals. Is this really the kind of education we want to offer our children, particularly our poorest and most vulnerable? In poor neighborhoods, they'll be fast food and private online edu.

The disruptive innovation in farming and food isn't in technology; it's in scaling down, finding balance, quality, and over-all sustainability. Organic farmers, growers, and animal ranchers, urban farmers, and others are changing the way we think about food. We might see disruption coming from similar sources in education. Take for example a movement in England where people have taken over abandoned buildings and turned them into schools; curious people, some smartphones, and voila, learning. No bells, no whistles, no nothing. That's disruptive. Not providing standardized pre-packaged education online offered by underqualified individuals with little to no support. Government, school boards, and universities need to reinvest their money in the people who teach and create knowledge; the rest can clearly fall away and not impact education. In fact, it may facilitate it.

Next fall, I will be integrating a lot more technology in my classroom, in part because of forced standardization and accountability. But part of it is trying to make my class more effective. My job is to teach, but it is also to coach my students, particularly my developmental students. It's to disrupt their worlds in order to encourage critical thinking or knowledge creation. A computer program might be able to award a student a "badge" (again, what is that preparing students for in their professional futures?), but  a computer program can't look a student in the eyes and tell them that they can do it, they can write, that they truly did a good job, ask them the right questions to get the heart of whatever problem they're having, care enough to keep asking, or even express sincere disappointment when they let you down.

There's a reason why the children of professors overwhelmingly go to small liberal arts colleges. There's a reason why rich and middle-class parents fight to send their kids to good schools with small class sizes and good teachers, and will continue to do so, no matter how expensive it becomes. Technology is a tool, not a replacement, nor a silver bullet, especially for our most vulnerable students.

Maybe none of this matters. Maybe we are training our most vulnerable students to listen to machines rather than people. Workers of the future.


  1. Whether communicating online or f2f, communication skills such as written communication are still key. We need to teach students how to communicate effectively in a variety of contexts. Given the prevalence of social media, we as English or other teachers cannot afford to neglect this form of technology in our teaching. Perhaps what we need to do is emphasize the human element in using these tools. We also need to emphasize clear communication of ideas and solid background knowledge in what we choice to communicate about online; otherwise, we propagate ignorance and erroneous information.

  2. So ironic that you use a blog to write this viewpoint that people (not computers) read. If you are looking at computers as a way to just to connect to information, and not others (which you have done in this post), you are looking at the wrong thing. I am wondering what you think using technology can do?

  3. I don't think there's any irony at all. I've written elsewhere about what tech and ed tech CAN do:

    I think we need to be careful when we declare that THIS will solve all of our education problems wholesale. I don't see anything wrong with integrating technology and using it strategically. I do have a problem when technology becomes a complete and total replacement for human interaction in the classroom.

  4. It's important to stay skeptical of the claims of technology; however, I reject the premise that only in-person, face-to-face interaction is the most legitimate (or that it is somehow inherently at odds with technology). There is such thing as high-touch, high-tech, and I have found that my students feel much more attended to by me when they can reach me via text messaging and when it is easy for them to have Skype conferences with me. Some things face-to-face encounters are not good at, especially timeliness and spontaneous interaction.