Education Opinion

From Mad Magazine to Facebook - What Have We Learned?

By LeaderTalk Contributor — March 10, 2009 10 min read
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I believe all schools should allow students access to all forms of technology and their educationally beneficial applications.

To allow anything less is an inexcusable ignoring of the most valuable educational tools available to us, a lazy way of avoiding the inevitable, and an irresponsible dodging of a very real public safety issue.

I realize that any discussion regarding students being given access to the full range of technologies and their applications quickly becomes a mixture of issues which are as difficult to resolve as they are easy to cause offense to many. Few can agree on common definitions of “age-appropriate"; “freedom of speech"; “in-loco-parentis"; “censorship”, “offensive web sites”, or “inappropriate material”. The problem is that while we argue these social, ethical, political, and legal points, technology marches on, and we fall further and further behind our students.

We cannot allow education in general or ourselves in particular to become antiquated.

Far too often, the very mention of allowing students the in-school use of cell phones, access to email, access to social networks, or the freedom to surf the internet as part of their learning process is immediately met with either a deafening silence of disapproval or a chorus of righteous objections, concern for the safety of our children, or - my favorite - a vaguely mumbled argument that sounds like “butwecannotcontrolitandmightlosecontrolofitandwhoknowswherethesekidsmaygowithit”.

Bear in mind we are not discussing a new song here. The tune is the same, only the lyrics have changed. It seems schools have always taken issue with any perceived threat to the safekeeping of social norms - from banning certain books and materials to questioning the benefits of certain technology.

When I was twelve years old there was a magazine that seemed to find particular disfavor with the teachers and administrators of my school. Mad Magazine. Wow! If you dared to take a copy to school, everyone was warned of dire consequences. Yet, you know where I saw my first Mad Magazine? Mrs. Miller’s 5th grade class. Yep, at school. Something about it being off-limits made it seem all the more enjoyable and subversive when I actually got my hands on it. Of course, after reading it, singing the parodies, and looking for the magically transformed picture after folding the back cover until the arrows met, imagine my disappointment at finding nothing the least bit evil, libelous, or sexually inappropriate. Maybe Mad Magazine didn’t have any practical educational use, but it, like the millions of impressionable young minds that were exposed to it, has managed to survive to this day.

Then there’s the calculator and that little ol’ company right up the highway from my school: Texas Instruments. We all knew that the first handheld, cheap calculators were created by mad scientists out to destroy the math abilities and reasoning skills of every school-aged child. Seven times eight was always my downfall. But now, all one had to do was push the right buttons in the right order and there was the answer! Fifty Six! Right there on the screen..."56"...Wow! Could anything greater EVER be invented?

Oh, but we educators fought that battle didn’t we? Math groups were divided over this issue (pun intended). Great scholarly debates were held. Many argued that calculators were clearly a form of technology that had no place in the classroom.

We all know how that argument has been resolved.

At a recent district staff meeting, an assistant principal spoke to this issue. He started off with a large PowerPoint screen shot of an empty hallway on his campus. He told us it was not really just a hallway, but actually a Time Warp. After some laughter from the audience, he explained that just before they entered the hallway, his students lived in a world full of the latest cutting edge technologies and applications. From iPhones, iPods, and PDAs, to cellphones and laptops...From avatars in Second Life, to real friends in MySpace and Facebook...Before entering the hall, students were socially networking around the world, conducting immediate personal research on issues they were curious about (googling anything from movie times to how to load a new graphic card on their motherboard).

This astute assistant principal went on to point out a very odd thing happened as students entered and made their way to the classrooms at the end of the hall. A transformation took place and when the students emerged on the opposite end of the hall, all their technology had been turned off, pocketed, zippered, hidden, discounted, or flat-out become prohibited. Education had time-warped back to circa 1950’s-1960’s-1970’s formats of standup, teacher-led lectures, accompanied by worksheets and textbooks.

Again: We cannot allow education in general or ourselves in particular to become antiquated. What does it tell us when kids cannot wait to leave school in order re-turn-on, re-boot, and once again engage in meaningful (to them) real-world learning.

Recently our District Instructional Technologists conducted a series of “Imagineering Sessions” in which they sat down and talked with students about perceptions of technology and where our district could/should go with it. As part of each session the students were given video cameras and asked to walk around and tape mini-interviews. The result is a six minute video which you might find interesting. It’s found on YouTube at BISD What If...

Really, my argument isn’t whether we should allow access or not. Our students already have access. Whether at home, a friend’s house, the public library, Kinkos, or an internet cafe, don’t think for a minute that we are controlling what students have access to. Students are already ahead of us on most technology. No, my true argument is this: to continue to fight against students having access is pointless. Realistically our alternative should be to teach responsible, safe use of the technologies and their applications as they apply to gaining new knowledge, exploring new ideas, playing with concepts, and building the future.

Students are allowed to have cell phones on my campus. A few weeks ago I came across a website that allows phones to be used to collect answers to polls, surveys, quizzes, etc. It struck me as a great tool for teachers to use in the classroom. I informally polled my staff on the issue of allowing cell phones to actually be used in class for something of this nature. They were mixed in their responses. I focused on those not in favor of the idea. As I asked them for more input, I heard three basic types of responses: 1) They were afraid of losing control (if we let them use the phones for this, how will we keep control over texting or personal calls?); 2) some were concerned that not all students have equal access; and 3) some staff are unfamiliar with the technology and therefore uncomfortable with students using it (yes, there are teachers who don’t know how to use text messaging).

Allow me to address these responses in the reverse order of the actual numbers of staff expressing them:

3) Regarding the staff’s familiarity with technology: It is part of our district’s culture that a minimal level of technological competency is a standard expectaton. Our superintendent had the district adopt a requirement that all staff must demostrate competencies in eight areas of computer/technology use. Based on a requirement of SBEC for all beginning teachers, our district requires ALL staff members to either pass a competency test or take a three hour course in eight designated competencies. With that said, we must acknowledge that we cannot become familiar - or comfortable - using all the technologies that are available simply because there aren’t enough hours in the day. I certainly would never expect a staff to be competent with every application available. Nor should they be afraid of it. However, they should be competent enough with current technology to be able to evaluate new programs and determine if they appear to be “safe” or not. The minimum expectation for any staff member should be for them to at least know how to refer a new application or website to a higher authority for further evaluation before allowing students to use/access it.

2) Regarding equal access: I have been taking student surveys on Survey Monkey for a long time. I am now planning to set up future surveys to include a choice of students responding either on-line or through a text message format. They may not have equal access to a private cell phone or laptop, but with wifi, one COW, three labs, and computers in every classroom, I can assure them equal access. I believe all schools should make equal access a priority.

And finally,

1) Loss of control in the classroom: Ah! Here’s the real issue I think.

For some educators their real underlying bias against allowing access is a loss of control. Visions of students ignoring lessons while text messaging, meeting on MySpace instead of conducting the assigned research in the library, or heading straight to banned websites at every opportunity are greatly distorted misconceptions rather than demonstrated truths.

Obviously, texting friends and making/receiving personal calls during class time cannot be allowed. But why shouldn’t the phone be allowed for legitimate educational use? I watched an excellent lesson in an Algebra 2 class in which the teacher had students use the keypads on their cell phones to figure out relationships between the numbers and letters. I can think of a multitude of lessons in which a cell phone would be used as an instructional tool. How about excellent real-time research that could be conducted by allowing students to call and talk to different entities to gather information. Do you think a 7th grade class could plan and implement a field trip all on their own using the internet and their cellphones to make all the arrangements? Not only do I believe it, I believe it could be done at much lower grade levels as well.

Allowing access to all the technologies does not mean totally unrestricted access. As much as I wish it did, my ticket to see my favorite artist in concert only allows me access to the floor and my seat. It’s not a back stage pass that allows me to mingle with the artists. There is still a tremendous amount of control a school can exercise over access and use without causing a “chill effect” or diminishing the effectiveness of the technology and the applications themselves.

I make my argument in favor of access in this article. I don’t have room left to discuss the next step: actual implementation. But rest assured that I acknowledge the need for everything from filters, differentiated levels of software/site admission, the physical layout of computer labs, strong parental involvement, and appropriate safeguards in place to protect all students.

Boil it down and my entire argument for giving students access to all technologies is based on three beliefs:

1) Knowing that students have access - and it is not going away, we should make that access work for everyone’s benefit. We must allow access to technologies and their applications at school. Whether at school or elsewhere, students will find access to current technologies and play / experiment / innovate with the full range of applications . We will never prevent students from using current technologies in ways that they find emotionally, socially, or yes, even educationally beneficial;

2) Knowing the benefits, we should do all we can to promote our student’s abilities to use the exisiting (and future) technologies and applications to help reach their fullest potentials; and

3) Knowing the dangers, we should be teaching safe protocols and net etiquette to our students so they don’t inadvertently make the errors that place them at jeopardy socially, financially, emotionally, and even physically.

Technology is here to stay. And guess what? There’s only going to be more and more of it coming faster and faster. Historically, we know we will eventually lose any battle against its full acceptance and incorporation into our classrooms, so why not get on board now and become a facilitator rather than an opponent?

Greg Farr

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk 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.