Monday, March 13, 2006

Should "technology integration" be an important goal in schools?

I was being interviewed the other day by a technology consultant who is writing a chapter for a book about best practices in professional development. One of the questions that she asked me was "What are the most effective ways that schools can increase technology integration in the curriculum." The implication of her question--confirmed when I asked some questions about it--was that technology integration is without a doubt a good thing, and anything that schools can do to increase technology integration is also a good thing.

As someone who works in a university program called "Technology in Education," I would be expected to be an advocate of technology integration. And yet I found myself quibbling with the assumptions of the question, instead of answering it as posed.

What I found myself saying (and, upon reflection, wanted to reiterate here) is that technology integration is not necessarily a good thing. There are both good and bad applications of technology, and schools should strive not to maximize technology integration, but to maximize student learning. When the use of technology increases student learning enough that the negative consequences of using the technology are offset, then technology integration is a good thing.

Some of the negative consequences of using technology are easy to see. Computers cost money that must come from somewhere; often, it comes from other parts of the budget, such as textbooks, materials and supplies, teacher salaries (or from not hiring someone to decrease class size, the extracurricular budget, facilities, science equipment, musical instruments. Even when computers are funded using "new" dollars such as from a grant or referendum, putting the money to computers means that other needs remain un- or under funded. The effort necessary to pass a referendum to purchase computers might be better placed into building a new gymnasium.

But computers can "cost" the school in less obvious and more pernicious ways. Veteran teachers who rely on more traditional methods often are marginalized. Decision-making often becomes heavily influenced by techies on the faculty, in the administration, or on the staff. Computers take up space that might be used for other purposes. Student (and teacher) attention devoted to computers might otherwise be spent on art projects, or face-to-face discussion, or social activities that don't have obvious educational purposes.

Teachers who are pushed to "integrate technology" are differentially affected by this pressure. Younger, more technically oriented teachers, or those predisposed to group work or "open-ended" projects, may find that such expetations help them to do what they already want to do, while other teachers--older, perhaps, or more given to lecture or traditional assignments such as research papers or seat work, or more interested in whole class discussion--may find such expectations distracting or annoying. Some teachers may even become "turned off" from the school administration and spend precious energy on resistance and refusal rather than on doing what they do best.

When a school makes an investment in computers, there is a natural desire on the part of the adminiistration to make them "worth it," and so teachers are pressured to use them, even when such use is not guaranteed to increase student learning. And the truth is that a lot of the ways that computers get used in schools may actually decrease learning. A project that 25 years ago might involve use of the school library might be redesinged to use the Internet, where students are much more likely to use questionable sources, to "copy and paste," and to waste time with endless browsing. Student presentations become protracted opportunities to practice using a variety of fonts and colors in PowerPoint. Activities that might previously have focused on the construction of a diorama or collage shift to a competitioin to see who can find the funniest cartoon about the Cold War.

The best studies of the effects of technology integration show that technology integration per se has little beneficial effect on student learning. Other than the likely effect of increasing technology skills themselves (a relatively minor goal in the wide range of learning objectives), technology integration only improves student achievement when their use is combined with substantial changes in teachning methodlogy, class management, and assessment. Rarely do technology budgets include sufficient teacher training is the mere use of the technology, let alone in the complex contextual alterations necessary to support increased achievement.

If we look at the history of education during the last 2500 years or so, the methods that have "worked" have varied little. The major technological change prior to the late 20th century was moveable type, and the mass production of books that made possible. The advent of books worried some academics, who feared what their availability would do to students' listening and reasoning skills. It would be hard to find someone today who continued to argue that "book integration" is bad for schools. But there is a lot of bad "book integration"--both teaching methods that use books improperly and the use of bad books (such as most textbooks). And if you think about it, the availability of books has certainly had a negative effect on people's ability to listen to lectures or oral storytelling, which has become a nearly lost art.

If we allow ourselves to think critically about the use of computers in education, we will likely find ourselves critical of many of the practices we see in schools. I can think of dozens of scenarios in which I have seen computers misused. There are many more examples of misuse than examples where the use of the computer clearly increased student learning. Most computer use in schools is mindless, unimaginative, and anti-intellectual. Encouraging more of such use is tantamount to seeking more mindlessness, less imagination, and less focus on intelligent teaching and learning than we have currently.

By almost any criteria, we should urge caution in the push to "integrate technology" in schools. Rather, we should urge educators to focus on the desired result--student learning--and use technology only when it helps achieve that goal.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Why is information expensive?

Everyone should subscribe to A Word A Day. For more info see

In addition to a new word every day, the service also provides a new "random" quotation every day. Here's the one from today:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. -Herbert Alexander Simon, economist, Nobel laureate (1916-2001)
The idea that information "consumes" our attention (and even ourselves) us is interesting to me, and it is one of the primary reasons that we need to teach our students how to make good decisions about what to pay attention to, especially since our popular culture is infatuated with "information" that is of little educational value.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

"For their own good"

I was truly gratified and surprised that only a day or so after I posted my first real blog entry (just below this one) that I had 9 substantive, engaged comments from others who are interested in this topic. I thought: hey, this blogging thing might be fun. I also thought: I better watch what I say because people will notice! :-)

It is interesting to me that the comments ranged from "kids will be kids and you can't stop 'em although you should try a little bit but it's really the parents' job" to "the school damn well should inform the parents of what the specific kids are doing because we have to do everything we can to save them from themselves."

This latter type of comment is the kind of reaction that I saw from some of those veteran teachers at IL-TCE, and which led me to make my post in the first place. The impulse to do whatever it takes to protect the kids, even to the point of "telling on them" to their parents, makes sense if you focus entirely on the harm that could come to them if we don't. It certainly is "for their own good" if by informing their parents we save them from abduction and rape and if their parents or the school can make an example of them and save lots of other kids from making these stupid mistakes in the first place. If we ONLY focus on the benefits of "extreme intervention" then extreme intervention is always justified.

(This, of course, is part of the reason that so many Americans support the so-called War on Terror or the so-called War on Drugs. If by curtailing the civic liberties just a little bit of every American, or by jailing just a few more American citizens for drug and gang behavior we can prevent another 9/11 or save a 13 year old ambitious young black girl from being shot by an assualt rifle while looking out of her front window, well then it's worth it!)

Yet.... Yet... Yet....

I'm sorry to say this, but we also have to look at the negative consequences of these extreme interventions. And there are negative consequences. The loss of civility resulting from every tiny little increase in our fear of strangers in the streets is eventually palpable. Eventually, we lose everything if we give up "only what is necessary" to be "completely" safe from terror, or random violence. We become nothing more than bats huddled in the proverbial cave if we can no longer let ourselves lay without a care on the soft grass in a city park, or take a bus downtown with our kids to visit the museum. We lose an immeasurable amount of parental involvement and fatherly love by locking up so many young men for relatively minor crimes. (Where have all the fathers gone?.....)

What I'm saying is that EVERY social intervention, minor or extreme, has unintended consequences. When teachers become "the MAN" who cannot be trusted because they will inevitably "tell on you if they find out," children put less effort into school, view every rule with suspicion, and begin to work even harder to hide their behavior, becoming "hardened criminals" (instead of just naive kids) well before their time.

I think it makes sense for the tech-savvy teachers to educate their colleagues on the dangers of myspace, and to make sure their students and their students' parents understand these dangers as well. That's our job as teachers: education. But when we start "informing" on kids to parents we immediately begin to tear down whatever trust exists with our students. I realize that in many schools there is very little trust to begin with. My message is that this, too, can probably be traced to things that we or others did in the past, allegedly "for their own good."

I look forward to further discussion.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Loving teachers who love too much

Last week I attended the Illinois Technology Conference for Educators (IL-TCE), an annual event that, for me, is primarily an opportunity to spend time with old and new colleagues and see what the vendors are trying to sell to the schools. Sometimes I attend a session that offers an interesting and novel approach to using technology in the classroom, although most of the sessions are more mainstream, reflecting the "dissemination" phases of a new technology rather than innovation.

Oftentimes, I am more struck by what is being discussed in the hallways and lunchtables at the conference. This year, my ears perked up as I was walking from the exhibit area to the lunch area. I passed a group of veteran female teachers talking animatedly with each other. I paused briefly to take in a bit of their conversation. One teacher was saying to the others "and so, by going to her page and following the links, I was able to find out who her friends are and what they are doing as well." It didn't take long before I realized they were talking about, an Internet site that allows anyone to post a personal "home page" with links to friends, photos, music, and various other stuff too eclectic to be described.

As the conversation proceeded, the theme that emerged was that these teachers have come to realize that offers them unprecedented access to the private lives and private thoughts of their students, and they are APPALLED. I mean appalled at the things that some of their teenage students are thinking about and doing (parties, drinking, sex, drugs...). It amazes them that their students aren't even embarrassed to admit to these things on myspace, and that in fact their students seem proud of their exploits (or, in many cases, their desired exploits). "Don't they know that anyone can read this stuff on the Internet?" exclaimed one anxious teacher?

The other thing that emerged from the conversation (I was looking at the program, appearing not to be paying too much attention) was that these teachers really are anxious for their students, especially their female students, and their protective, teacherly instincts are kicking in. Several of the teachers described new efforts in their school districts to systematically explore the myspace pages of their students and to either confront the students with the idiocy of putting this stuff out there for the public or even informing their parents. Many of the teachers believe that they have a public duty (as the most technologically savvy of the caring adults in their communities) to act to protect their students.

While I applaud this impulse and believe it to be a manifestation of the eternal moral duty of teachers to guide and protect the young, I also find it a little disturbing, that the teachers feel so adamantly that it is their duty not only to counsel the students but, perhaps, to inform their parents. I think I would take a somewhat less activist approach, and instead send home a letter from the principal to all the parents letting them know about this new form of PDA (public display of, um, whatever it is) and urging the parents to talk to their students about the advisability of putting certain kinds of information out into public.

Without a doubt, every parent of a youngster, age 10 to 20, who has regular access to the Internet, ought to be wondering how his or her child is responding to the opportunities and challenges of this new information age. Any parent who doesn't know what his or her teenager is posting on myspace or elsewhere is abdicating his or her duty to protect and counsel them. Teachers who are similarly informed are, perhaps, going beyond the call of their duty, but you've got to love 'em for it.