23 April 2011

Technology and Underpants Gnomes

A rather funny (and not too offensive) episode of South Park involves a pack of gnomes who "collect" underpants at night.  Their motive is profit.  The problem is that there is no bridge between the two; "phase two" is missing.  I bring this up because it seemed particularly fitting of a conversation about using technology in high school classrooms.  In some (and probably in many) states, there is a legal requirement for teachers to use technology in the classroom, the assumed end being that doing so will result in better educated students.  What "phase two" is, what it consists of, no one can say for sure.  But there is it: the means and the dreamt-of end.  One thing the underpants gnomes have over administrative and state education officials is that their "phase one" (underpants) are tangible.  In many districts, it would be a stretch to say that there is enough technology (largely measured by numbers of computers) to even pretend to meet mandates.

But to be locked into that conversation - how much technology must be used - means ignoring another, more fundamental question: what purpose does a bit of technology - be it a computer, internet access, a "smart" board, etc. - serve the classroom it is in?  For instance, is it more effective for a student to read an article, a short story, or a novel on a computer screen or on low-tech paper?  I would argue that paper is far superior.  Reading from a CRT monitor is hard on the eyes, flat panels a bit less so but more expensive (unless we're building from zero).  Paper is easy on the eyes.  Paper is also portable.  Students can write on paper.  Put those two together - students can write on and take their studies with them.  That sounds like a great combination for teaching and learning.

Of course, low-tech generally means low cost, and low "wow" factor.  A video of, say, a classroom full of kids discussing a story and referencing notes taken on their own copies of the story doesn't make for a scintillating presentation if the audience has already determined that technology is "phase one" for better educated students.

Both options, paper and various technologies, are rather parts of "phase two" techniques.  They are methods of delivery, of communication, and each has advantages and drawbacks.  If the goal is to teach grade school kids fundamental math, what would be the point of mandating the use of technology?  Do mouse clicks help young students memorize their multiplication tables?  If the goal is to teach high school students geography, where might technology be of use and where might it be a hindrance?  But if the goal is to teach students to use technology - and this seems to be the only plausible educational goal of technology mandates - then technology becomes the subject, the class, the focus.  Using other classes to primarily teach technology is to substitute a goal with a means, and that is a mistake.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Didn't realize there was a mandate to use IT in the classroom. Unbelievable. Love the point of connection with the Gnomes. Silly ideas :)