Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Informate, not Automate

By Doug Johnson — October 07, 2004 3 min read
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Is a personal investment in technology and the hours it takes to learn about it worthwhile?

U.S. schools were expected to spend nearly $6 billion on educational technology during the 2003-04 school year, adding to the more than $60 billion spent since 1991. While education budgets shrink, class sizes grow, accountability measures skyrocket, and teacher salaries stagnate, one has to wonder if this huge investment in wires, motherboards, and things that go beep in the night is actually improving schools’ effectiveness.

I don’t know that anyone has the definitive answer. It depends on whom you ask, what is being measured, and how educational “effectiveness” is defined. There’s a good deal of research out there (www.ncrel.org is a good starting point), little of it conclusive and much of it sponsored by those who have a financial interest in its outcome. Critics abound, including The Alliance for Childhood’s 2000 “Fool’s Gold” report (see www.allianceforchildhood.net) and Jane Healy’s 1999 book, Failure To Connect.

What’s a classroom teacher to think? Is a personal investment in technology and the hours it takes to learn about it worthwhile? One may not have a choice. As a former classroom teacher and librarian who now works as a technology director for a Minnesota school district, I am convinced that technology will never replace today’s teachers. But teachers who know how to use technology will.

Consider this: In her book In the Age of the Smart Machine, retired Harvard business professor Shoshana Zuboff describes two distinct ways information technology affects the workplace: automating and “informating.” The first thing businesses do with technology is automate, taking standard operations and making them faster, more accurate, and less labor-intensive. But IT’s real power, Zuboff argues, is when it starts allowing businesses to do things that would not be possible without it.

We’ve already seen automation in education with such tools as electronic grade books, which allow averages to be calculated, class lists imported, and grades exported to the student information system. But when the grade book is accessible to parents on the Web, they can monitor their children’s progress in real time and intervene long before the conference at the end of the first grading period. Our school’s system even e-mails parents when a child receives a failing grade on a test. That’s informating.

Moving worksheets and tutorials onto computer screens automates drill-and-practice teaching, enhancing it with immediate feedback and entertaining sounds and visuals. But when informated, online tutorials will give teachers the knowledge of precisely which skills individual students need to learn (hopefully before the next big state test). Likewise, the stand-and-deliver lectures common in so many classrooms are now often enhanced with lovely multimedia presentations, complete with clarifying photographs, diagrams, and illustrations of key concepts. But when students use the same multimedia production tools to communicate the results of learning activities requiring higher-level thinking skills and original solutions to problems, that’s informating. And while computers in labs, libraries, and classrooms automate writing, computation, and research, smaller devices such as laptops and PDAs wirelessly connected to networks informate the learning environment by allowing students anytime-anyplace access to resources, experts, and each other.

I understand the apprehension about technology felt by many competent, effective, and thoughtful teachers. If you are one, I’d suggest a few things. While you should invest time in learning computing basics (see my Web site, www.doug-johnson.com, for one list), use technologies that personally empower you. If a word processor makes you a better writer, use that technology with your students. Be skeptical, but remain open-minded. Unless a new technology promises increased learning opportunities for your students, don’t jump in. And demand reliable, secure, and adequate resources from your school. You shouldn’t be expected to create two sets of lesson plans, one for when the technology works, and one for when it doesn’t.

This column will be the rantings of neither a technophile nor technophobe but rather a clear-eyed (if opinionated) view of how technology is affecting the classroom teacher. If you have questions about, disagreements with, or praise for anything you read here, please e-mail me at classroomtech@epe.org.

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