Can I Be Both a Technophile and a Luddite?

Is it possible to be both a technophile and a Luddite?

I taught high school English from 1999-2001. That was during the era when the rallying cry for technology in education was, “A Computer in Every Classroom.”

And my response was, “Why?”

You know, because I’m a Luddite.

I taught in an almost brand new school building, and one of the points of pride for that rural district, which, incidentally, had immense teacher turnover because it couldn’t pay its starting teachers a living wage, was that it had “a computer in every classroom” at the new high school. And yes, there, at the back of my classroom, were two desktop computers. No printer, mind you (and not even access to a network printer). But two computers, ostensibly for student use.

Maybe I could have made better use of them — in fact, looking back, I’m sure I could have, but for the most part, the two student computers were a distraction, a classroom management nightmare. The kids were drawn to them, but not to support the language arts curriculum. Rather, they wanted to check their email, to play games, or to just goof around. Granted, I was brand new at classroom management (looking back, I think I should have just unplugged them unless they were part of a lesson plan), but I didn’t have the self-confidence as a new teacher to do that (and I didn’t want to inadvertently upset an administrator who wanted to see them on).

But what was the point of having two computers in my language arts classroom? I spent a lot of time working with students on developing thesis statements, and on helping them to gather evidence and develop arguments to support their theses. I spent a lot of time doing close textual analysis with my students of the books and poems we read.  I taught some grammar, and worked extensively on vocabulary.  I facilitated class discussions, and encouraged debate.  I designed group projects and activities.  I would have loved to have brought my students to a well-equipped computer lab that would have allowed them to type and edit their essays. But as I recall, we didn’t have a computer lab available for classroom teachers to use on a sign-up basis. We just had two computers. In every classroom. Because that was useful.

The United States and world maps on my bulletin board got a lot of use. I bought those with my own money. The inexpensive paperback dictionaries and thesaurus and rhyming dictionaries got a lot of use. I bought those with my own money, too.  But for me and my style of teaching, the two computers were useless.

I have no doubt that it would have been helpful to have had four or five computers so that I could have designed lessons requiring small groups to rotate through stations, one of which would have included the computers.  But two computers?  Not so helpful.  Frankly, I’d have preferred to have none.

The computers in my classroom had no software (other than MS Word) to support language arts education.

But our politicians were happy. Our school board members were happy. Because we had “a computer in every classroom.”

Are computers (and related technology) the keys to student success?

Will computers and technology, alone, boost student achievement?

Computers and technology might help. I don’t know. I think the jury is still out.

But a rare point of agreement I see on all sides of the current education policy debates is that good teachers boost student achievement. Even if we can’t define what constitutes good teaching, we know that teachers matter. People matter. Human interaction — it matters.

I am all for the use of technology to support and supplement learning.

But inspiration comes from human interaction, not iPads.

That is not to say that I think the iPads are useless for supporting learning. Quite the opposite!

Indeed, as a parent, in the past few years, I’ve found the iPad to be an invaluable tool to support my children’s learning. We have dozens and dozens of education-focused apps on the two iPads our family owns, and we’ve used them for everything from learning foreign languages to inspiring my daughter’s interest in epidemiology (at the moment she’s torn between whether she wants to be an epidemiologist or a math teacher).  My five year old loves to dissect frogs and rats.  She loves to learn about the human body.

For instance, while my oldest learned to read with Bob Books as her primary resource (other than me), my youngest and I sit together and work through the Reading Raven apps. That’s a fundamental change in their reading instruction (there was no iPad when my oldest learned to read), and they’re only four years apart. But in working through the phonics of Reading Raven, I quickly discovered that I need to sit at my daughter’s side and stop her from “gaming” the game by avoiding the hard work of sounding out words and reading them into the app (which kids can definitely do). Reading Raven on the iPad is a valuable tool; however, it is pretty much useless without adult support and interaction. That has been true for many of the education apps I’ve purchased, especially those aimed at young children.  I wonder how many early education teachers have encountered similar issues.  Maybe we should ask them (before buying technology for their classrooms).

The iPad has been invaluable for math as well. For my little one, I am a fan of Native Numbers and the math portions of the Teach Me apps. I could do a whole blog post just about math apps for my oldest, but some of the highlights are the arithmetic drills of Instant Interactive’s Math Drills, the fun of Factor Samurai, the beauty of Algebra Touch, the entertainment of Operation Math, and so on, and so on.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Squeebles apps, which are so popular with my kids that they have their own folder on the iPad, nor the amazing Splash Math apps, each of which covers a whole year’s math curriculum (although my older one groans about firing them up). And then there is Motion Math, and Lobster Diver, and Hungry Fish. I’ve been able to not only assist my eldest to drill and excel on the basics (e.g., math facts), but I’ve gotten help from apps in assisting her to see, intuit, and understand concepts that my explanations alone couldn’t help her to fully grasp (e.g., negative numbers and fractions).

In addition, broader technology offerings have helped my oldest to solve problems and learn skills. For instance, when she struggled with the question of why 0/3 is 0, but 3/0 is “undefined,” a frantic plea to my Facebook friends was answered by, among others, a college friend who is an astrophysicist, and a former math teacher colleague (he now teaches physics). Those two generated an explanation I could relay to her that relied on only 3rd grade level math, but nonetheless made sense to her. We’ve also used Khan Academy for area and perimeter, and countless websites for various research projects (although I’ve had to do a lot of supplementing the school curriculum on the issue of how we determine which websites are reliable sources of information).

We have dozens of apps that teach various science and social studies topics, that let my kids browse works of art, tune their musical instruments, and practice their Spanish and Hebrew. I grew up with an Apple II+ computer in my house starting in 3rd or 4th grade, and although I am far from a techie, I can’t imagine not having technology play a significant role in my kids’ lives, including — perhaps especially — their educations.

So yes, I’m a technophile. I think there is amazing educational technology out there. We should make technology resources available to all teachers and students to support classroom learning. In fact, I think there are some things that technology does better than traditional paper and pencil can.

But just like the answer isn’t always “a computer in every classroom,” I think we need to be thoughtful about the technology we bring into classrooms.

We need to not only say, “Wow!” to new technology, but we need to always be asking, “Why?”

Most critically, we need to remember that technology can’t replace the human interaction between teachers and students.

For instance, rather than slogans like “a computer in every classroom,” it makes much more sense to me to have sufficient computer labs and iPad carts to make the technology available to whole classes at the same time. A teacher who is doing a technology-based lesson should be able to sign up for an iPad cart or a tech lab. But a teacher who is not doing a technology-based lesson should have the option — without getting labeled a Luddite — to teach in a traditional classroom free of high-tech distractions. Our kids need both.

As parents, as community members, and as taxpayers, we need to support our teachers, including supporting our teachers’ use of technology as one tool — among many — in their toolkits. But it is a waste for everyone involved when a district makes technology purchasing decisions that aren’t teacher driven. Our teachers know what will work for them and their students in their classrooms.  That’s why I support teacher-requested projects through (although it would be even better if our teachers had the budgets to pay for those projects without donor help).  

As a parent, it seems to me that too often these days, we treat our teachers as technology’s tools, rather than the other way around. We need to trust our teachers’ professional judgment, and not impose technology on them for the sake of technology. We need to make sure that our teachers’ focus is on the quality of our children’s skills, and not on the gee-whiz value of the embedded gifs in their PowerPoint projects. I’d rather see a thoughtful and well-reasoned handwritten essay free of grammar and spelling mistakes than a fancy PowerPoint riddled with careless errors and so focused on mastering the technology that it fails to display careful thought or reasoned argument.

I’d rather our teachers tell us what they need for their classrooms.

What really worries me is looking at our local school budget and seeing that we are downsizing the staffing line items (e.g., for instructional aides) while we increase the technology line items. At my last local board meeting, I heard a group of our elementary school teachers ask the Board for many things, but instructional aides and reading support people were much higher on their list than new technology (although to be fair, they certainly said that the antiquated technology at their “Science & Technology Magnet” was a problem).

I am all for technology in schools, and I think that positing staff vs. technology is a false choice. We can staff our schools appropriately, and we can fund appropriate technology if we get away from catchy slogans like “a Smart Board in every classroom” or “an iPad for every student.” Choices about classroom technology should be driven by teachers’ requests and instructional needs — which may vary substantially from teacher to teacher, and not by computer-based standardized testing concerns. Yet, here, at least, it seems to be quite the opposite, as our district’s business manager is quoted as saying that the district has a sense of urgency because the state-mandated PARCC assessments will require students to take the tests online.

As parents and as taxpayers, upcoming standardized tests aren’t acceptable reasons for choosing technology over teachers.

If we have to make a choice, the choice is simple: pick people over technology. There’s really no contest.

And before we go buying technology for the sake of technology, we taxpayers need to stop saying “Wow!” and start asking “Why?”

Maybe we’ll like the answers, but we won’t know until we start asking the questions.

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