Technology in Education: A Reality Check

Like many teachers, the first of August brings about return to an educators mind set. I begin to jot down lesson plan ideas, visit bookstores, and re watch a slew of videos. One additional event is my annual reading of Clifford Stoll’s thought provoking work, High Tech Heretic. It is an excellent counter-weight to my tech-teacher mind set. It is not a dry ponderous read, just the opposite, a very snappy and sharp questioning of where our educational system is heading. I equate it to a weekend conversation around the BBQ while the meal is cooking. For those of you who don’t know, Stoll is astrophysicist at the University of Berkeley and a critic of how computers have permeated our society. He was a commentator on MSNBC’s “The Site”, in my opinion the best program that network ever broadcast.

In High Tech Heretic, Stoll goes after the foolish implementation of computers in the classroom as a savior for education. According to his thesis, computers are used as a clean, artificial replacement to hands-on learning. He writes: “When I teach astronomy to sixth graders, I start with an evening under the stars, not by passing out floppy disks crammed with Hubble Space Telescope images. A love of astronomy-an awe of the universe-begins by looking at the heavens, not by staring into cyberspace.” (p. 8) On this point and many other examples he gives of actual versus cyber experiences Stoll is absolutely correct. The real thing is always a better learning tool.

Each chapter in the first half of the book takes a look how in his estimation, computers have denigrated the learning process. One of his major themes is that the idea that “Learning is fun” takes away the sense of scholarship. This is where I diverge with Stoll. I believe that overall learning can be a fun, enjoyable process. Granted, not every moment will be this way. At times hard work is necessary, writing note cards will never be construed with Nintendo. However, the excitement I see in my students when they discover a new fact gives off the same kind of energy that a good laugh does. The sense of gratification in discovery and demonstrating new knowledge to a teacher is one of the great rewards of education for both student and teacher.

Stoll correctly points out that the push toward computer based learning has cost students some quality in terms of education at times. The dirty little secret of technology in education is the hidden costs. Most high schools must have an IT on staff just to keep the network running. In addition, updates, repair costs, seminars, all cost money. The sad truth is that other areas get cut because the computer network is untouchable. What he doesn’t mention is that the hardware costs have dropped dramatically since the first publishing in 1999. Also, many junior high and high schools have become quite innovative in controlling costs from computer down time. Specifically, training students to troubleshoot and fix hardware and software issues. As any school IT person will tell you, 95% problems are easy to solve. By having students do the work, the IT person is left to work on the truly difficult issues. Using students is this way is no different than student aides in the office that schools have used for the past 100 years.

Since 1999, when the HighTech Heretic was published the concept of laptops have evolved in education. Originally, laptops were proposed to replace textbooks altogether, just pop in a CDROM and voila! In the last two years with the advent of Airport and other wireless systems the laptop is now used as a computer lab on wheels. Students no longer need to shuffle back and for with materials for projects, etc.. Study becomes a continuous flow from one learning tool to another. The state of Maine is still focused in on the original model with its iBook purchase program. If implemented properly it will provide a great deal of quality learning models for the future. Unfortunately, Stoll sees no good in laptops at all. He only recognizes initial costs and scatter-shot usage programs. One cannot tell me that there aren’t any good computer-aided units of study out there that have increased students learning on all fronts. The key must be a well thought out education program.

In the end, Stoll reflects that a balance must be found in all things in life. Unfortunately, his argument is that when it comes to computers in the classroom the balance is none. History teaches us that once something new has been introduced there is no turning back. The first example is the Pope’ Rebellion of the Sante Fe area in 1680. After kicking out the Spanish colonists Pope’ (a medicine man) ordered that anything Spanish must be destroyed including farming tools and techniques. Even though some of his people were caught and killed after using Spanish tools Pope’ could not rid his culture of the Spanish influence. The second is the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Much like Pope’, the Ayatollah tried to rid Iran of everything western. Instead, the culture has gone underground. Women wear makeup during in-home parties. Western television is watched behind closed curtains. The key to balance is to adopt and expand upon the best and leave the rest behind.

This review of High Tech Heretic may read like a trashing of Clifford Stoll’s book, quite the opposite. I appreciate the effort he put into publishing a thesis that brings out an honest questioning of education’s newest silver bullet, especially in his reader friendly prose. It is the book’s readability that makes its message so powerful. Had this been a typical dry education theory book I would have never read it. Instead, I use it as a tool to improve my professionalism. The High Tech Heretic focuses my teaching into avoiding the easy traps of technology and points it towards an expansion of student scholarship.

Next time, some of my ideas for solving the problems of computers in the classroom as brought up by Clifford Stoll.

Mark Marcantonio

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