“Tech or Die:” A Response

Dangerously Irrelevant, a technology and education blog, posted a strong opinion that we should not just accept that some teachers eschew digital technology because they are either oblivious to it  or choose not to embrace it. 

To the post itself, I reply that I agree with the sentiment that digital technology is imoprtant to teach.  I have to admit that I did not appreciate the slightly over-the-top tone.   The conversation in the comments is frank and nuanced though – I highly recommend spending a few minutes reading (and joining) it.

For me, a huge problem with using digital technology in the classroom is Plan B.  Specifically, Plan B is extraordinarily difficult.  If my pencil breaks, I can sharpen it or use a different pencil.  If I suddenly can’t get onto the internet, there aren’t usually options; I don’t generally have a spare router in my purse.  I either wing it or use the analog activity that took an additional, unrelated two hours of prep to create “just in case.”  (Note: prep time is often uncompensated.*) When you look at it like that, it’s a major drawback to even starting to use digital technology in the classroom, let alone relying on it.

Support for lessons like the one I taught Monday tends to be quite weak, and that’s problematic.  Teachers don’t have to go find and haul their own textbooks.  They don’t have to change the fluorescent lightbulbs in their classrooms.  But they’re apparently supposed to keep their class moving forward while fixing the networking problem** that’s causing hotmail to think that one person is trying to sign up for six email addresses at the same time.  It seems out of sync with other expectations.

No, teachers should not be allowed to pretend digital technology doesn’t exist.  But education systems and reformers should not pretend that unpredictable SNAFUs don’t happen all the time with digital technology.  Steve Jobs of Apple had major technical difficulties while unveiling iPhone 4 a few months ago (scroll down to 1:44 and 2:05).   Even in a high-powered professional setting, technical difficulties and the efforts to fix them were noted as being “awkward.”  Imagine if Jobs were less savvy, and if he didn’t have a team of experts working with him to fix the problems.  “Awkward” would have become “total and prolonged waste of time” – which, incidentally, is the teacher’s nightmare.

Sadly, teachers don’t usually have a team of experts dedicated to just their classroom.  They and/or their tech support are generally not able to rapidly fix problems.  Rapidly switching to a similar digital alternative is also generally impossible.  In my experience the other choice has been to move to a non-digital activity while the tech problem is resolved or given up on.   

Add to that situation the typically outdated equipment and rampant understaffing schools of all kinds face, and we are just not setting up teachers for smooth or succesful tech-based lessons.  No wonder so many want to avoid it.  There’s a great potential for a huge mess, we will almost always face the mess without adequate (or sometimes any) help, and we will be held accountable by our students and our managers for the learning that is not happening while the computers unfreeze.

Is this enough reason to just not “do” digital technology in the classroom?  No.  It has a lot to offer, and as I said Wednesday, I think it’s worth the headache.  But we need real, constant, broad support, not just “should.”

* I know that students come first, but one reason we have trouble recruiting exceptionally talented folks to be teachers is that we don’t respect teachers’ time and skill with an adequate paycheck.

**Really, the teacher would probably not have the permissions to fix the networking problem.  The way I see it, (s)he would have two choices:
1) wait for the overworked tech staffer to get to it and go analog in the meantime, or
2) hack into the system to fix it her-/himself, risking termination and imprisonment but keeping the class on task.
OK maybe that’s a little overly-dramatic, but the point is that there is a LOT outside a teacher’s control even when the teacher is a serious computer expert
.

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