Nick’s post yesterday reminded me of how many times we hear about laptop programs that “didn’t work” — and find out it wasn’t the hardware, or the software, but as my old friend, the late Stephen Marcus (one of the pioneers of educational technology back in the day) used to say while pointing to his head, “The problem is ALWAYS the wet-ware.”
Here’s another “laptop’s don’t work” story that’s extremely instructive for what NOT to do…
Patrick Welsh taught English at T.C. Williams High School in
Alexandria, Virginia for more than 30 years. In 2008, 6 months after the opening of the high-tech, $98 million 1:1 school, he wrote an
editorial for the Washington Post called A School That’s Too High on Gizmos. Patrick relates his view of T.C. Williams as a school run by an administration consumed with…
“…technolust– a disorder affecting
publicity-obsessed school administrators nationwide that manifests
itself in an insatiable need to acquire the latest, fastest, most
exotic computer gadgets, whether teachers and students need them or
want them. Technolust is in its advanced stages at T.C., where our
administrators have made such a fetish of technology that some of my
colleagues are referring to us as “Gizmo High.”
As Patrick provides examples of technology gone wild, the story
comes to life. He paints a picture of valiant teachers resisting miseducative practices, hints
of collusion with hardware and software vendors, administrators seeking
glory and headlines, teachers marginalized and ridiculed for not
falling in line. Something is definitely wrong here. It sounds like a
war between administration and teachers, with technology used as a bludgeon.
But read on. That’s not all that’s wrong with this picture…
Of course, the big question isn’t whether teachers
like spending their time learning one new gizmo after another, but
whether a parade of new technologies will help kids learn. From what I
can see, that’s not the case. Says one math teacher: “Math grows out of
the end of a pencil. You don’t want the quick answer; you want students
to be able to develop the answer, to discover the why of it. The
administration seems to think that computers will make math easy, but
it has to be a painful, step-by-step process.”
Math grows out of the end of a pencil? It has to be painful? Did a
math teacher actually say that? Ouch. Laptops will never fix that attitude.
I see the same thing in my classes, especially when
it comes to writing essays. Many students send their papers in over the
Internet, and while the margins are correct and the fonts attractive,
the writing is worse than ever. It’s as if the rule is: Write one
draft, run spell check, hit “send” and pray.
OK, now the point comes clear. For these teachers, the laptops equal “lazy students.” But the laptop isn’t making
students worse writers or setting these expectations. Don’t the teachers have
any responsibility for standards, for requiring excellent writing, inquiry, and research? Are
the laptops to blame for this too?
It seems that technology is a convenient scapegoat for problems
faced by this school. Yes, laptops are supposed to make
teaching more effective. But you have to actually let the students use them for
authentic activities, not for online worksheets and notetaking. It should have been a
collaborative effort with teachers to decide what to purchase and how
to use it. The professional development should have been more than
edu-jargon. Yes, yes, yes–many wrongs here.
But here’s the kicker. To wrap up his editorial, Patrick finds an example of how technology “should” be used.
North Point High School for Science, Technology and
Industry in Waldorf went with ceiling-mounted LCD projectors but nixed
the idea of laptops for all students. “Our philosophy is to have
whatever technology our teachers want to do their jobs better available
to them,” Principal Kim Hill told me. “Technology is just a tool, not
an end in itself. It will never replace good teaching.”
Of course, projectors are the more comfortable way, the way that
ensures that teaching or learning doesn’t change, but gives the
illusion of progress. Notice the false choice set up here.
“Technology…will never replace good teaching.” Who is claiming that
technology replaces good teaching? By the way, did you notice this is
the North Point High School for Science, Technology and Industry!
It’s hard to know the truth of a situation based on one opinion article from
one point of view, written less than one school year into a massive change process. It certainly sounds bad, and possibly is such a
poisoned environment that it will take years to undo the damage. But
from my point of view, blaming technology and laptops, even extreme “technolust”
for the problems described here is shortsighted and only half the story. The other half
of the story is how many ways the best-intended school reform efforts can go wrong, and
how fragile and rare it is when they go right.
So much money, so much potential, so much waste, so much time lost, so much gone wrong. Think technology was the problem? Nope, it’s always the wet-ware.
Generation YES and the GenYES Blog