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Education Opinion

Ah, Technology! Always Technology...

By Peter Gow — May 20, 2013 4 min read
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If I’ve learned one thing as a blogger, it’s that people have strong opinions when it comes to technology.

Part of the challenge of being a 21st-century educator, or better, an educator in the 21st century, is to figure out just what we ought to be doing with technology. A zillion new tools are launched every week, and my Twitter feed crawls ever upward with the news that these 11 are essential or those 7 will change every student’s life.

I frankly have no idea who has the time to read all this, much less who has time to play with all these apps and sort through the pile to find the good ones. Surely they shall be blessed, for I know that they are saving the rest of us hours of fruitless noodling. And when I do jump from the inexorable crawl to an actual article, I often find something that is intriguing and indeed even useful.

Another feature of the crawl, one with which I have less patience, are the snarky, or arch, or just too-clever-by-half zingers about schools and teaching. Most of these originate with educational gurus and pundits, often as one-liners in conference keynotes; they tend to have that “So there!” kind of vibe that sets an audience’s heads nodding like so many drinking birds. By and large they contain accusations that were actually tired twenty years ago even if they still resonate, condemnations of “industrial” education and the lecture-ridden, teacher-centered classroom, never mind that not very many high school teachers in my experience actually deliver lectures any more. (My suspicion, incidentally, is that many of those that do are stuck with vastly overpopulated classrooms--because the bureaucrats have found research claiming that class size doesn’t matter, natch--and resort to the lecture as a kind of classroom management weapon of mass destruction, the drone of their own voices filling air time that would otherwise be open for disruptive wisecracks or backchatter; that’s a sad thing, surely.)

At any rate, there is no shortage of voices telling us all about technology and how it’s changing everything, and alas no shortage of those willing to instill guilt in those for whom this change does not come easily.

But I find that there is also no shortage of those for whom even a discussion of technology in its most problematic manifestations evokes passionate responses that paint even the person who raises a question as an uncaring, inhuman devotee of Satanic forces that strip the educational process of its essential humanity and raise technology on an unholy altar.

I don’t happen to believe that computers or online courses or social networks or even smartphones are incarnations of Moloch, to which educators are gleefully sacrificing our children as we dance around our iPads. Neither do I believe that computers, online courses, social networks, and smartphones are sacred ends in themselves. I like, I crave, the face-to-face, relational aspect of education, and I can’t imagine a complete education that doesn’t involve kids working with other kids or adults talking with adults or kids and adults striving together toward some deeper understanding of both content and the meaning of life. (Although just the other day I heard a discussion on NPR about telemedicine--doctors connecting with patients electronically--that made it seem as though it might in some cases be an improvement over harried docs with scarcely a moment to spare on flesh-and-blood patients as waiting rooms fill up and insurers’ time-clocks tick.)

Like lots of educators--maybe even most educators--I’m trying to see how this all fits together, the digital and the human. I used to think it was a matter of balance, but I’ve come to think that it’s actually an individualized three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, with pieces to be fitted together in a certain order to achieve some desired effect.

And I surely don’t have the answers. I’ve written here about my quandaries about technology (quite a lot, actually) and about experiential schools that not even Second Life can replicate. The puzzle metaphor works all too well for me, with some kinds of experiences working well for some students (and teachers!) and other sorts working well for others. Our titanic task is to solve the puzzle with each and every kid.

I’m always going to stick up for face-to-face education, because I’ve seen it work so well. But I also know that online and blended teaching is only going to become better and that the kinds of cultures that virtual communities develop are only going to become deeper and richer.

Mostly I know that we’ll continue to wrestle with all this, talk about it, become excited by it, be grumpy about it. At some point we may even reach some kind of consensus, with blended schools a natural part of a new landscape. But the puzzle has thrust itself upon us, and we can’t just leave the pieces behind that we can’t yet make fit.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

The opinions expressed in Independent Schools, Common Perspectives are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.