Sunday, March 9, 2008

Which Way Is It?

I'm in a kind of strange position when it comes to technology. Most of my job involves acting as an evangelist for the kinds of change that technology can bring. My role is to promote the promise of technology and to help with its implementation in any way possible, certainly a role I embrace. And yet any teacher who has been in a classroom for more than a few years quickly learns that too much technology is not teacher-driven, but rather foisted upon us by those with other agendas. TV's were supposed to change learning, so were projectors and film clips. B.F. Skinner even promised teaching machines back in the 50's. I have seen the reality that technology can distract teachers from real learning ("PowerPointlessness"), that it sometimes only promotes commercial interests over educational (closed-circuit TV's paid for by Coke, free computers from Apple and others), and that it often seems to be enhancing inequities among schools and students instead of diminishing them.
The technologies that are seen likely to be implemented in the near-term, such as grassroots video and collaborative technologies, clearly demonstrate this dichotomy of possibilities. On the one hand, the power of video and other collaborative technologies is indisputable in reaching out to people and connecting them in new and powerful ways. Yet I've seen too many times where this ability is its own rationale, that the assumption becomes because we can do this, that we must do this. Too many times in my career, I've seen teachers scared into embracing technologies not because they need them or understand how they can enhance learning, but because they fear the scrutiny of not being on board with the newest thing. Heaven forbid that you are the only teacher in your grade who hasn't published a podcast. My somewhat different position on that is, you should understand the technology well enough to use it when it does something that you could not do otherwise, or as well. But that is not the pressure placed on teachers. Instead, the pressure to embrace the "latest thing" comes from outside the boundaries of what is educationally appropriate, and that (any veteran teacher will tell you) just drives us nuts.
And then, further down the road, teachers hear of technologies such as "collective intelligence" (wikis, etc.) and "social operating systems" and with a panic realize, oh my, we better get on board with this before some parent, administrator or school board member sees us as the only one NOT using this technology! From my work inside the classroom, working with teachers on how to embrace and exploit technology, I have tried to develop a sense of not cynicism (which too many colleagues do embrace), but rather a professional sense of judgment about which technologies should be used, and how they enhance learning. I worry that the unexamined embrace of technology will lead to situations that do not help teachers, students and learning. For example, in the article, Which Technologies Will Shape Education in 2008, there is a quote about weaving the connections and clues of our lives together, "and use them to organize our work and our thinking around the people we know." That notion clashes (mashes?) with another critique I read recently about social networking, that what is happening is that it is connecting people only with people who think like they do, which is most definitely NOT what the goal of teaching is about.
I feel that the more fully I can help to empower teachers to make their own professional judgment about the use of potentially useful technologies, the more that the embrace of those technologies will be truly deep and meaningful, not merely public relations.