Again, Tech is Not the Problem

A college professor writing in the New Yorker makes the case for banning laptops in the classroom.

Or at least he tries – and largely fails.

…the temptation for distraction was high. I know that I have a hard time staying on task when the option to check out at any momentary lull is available; I assumed that this must be true for my students, as well.

I wonder if he asked his students about the situation in addition to assuming their experience was just like his. And why is their temptation for distraction so high?

He goes on to cite a study which concluded that “disconnected students performed better on a post-lecture quiz”, and in the next paragraph acknowledges that the assessment method used by the researchers, a pop quiz, “are not the best measure of learning, which is an iterative and reflective process.”

Then, after discussing research that tried to incorporate more precision in to the investigative process, he at least approaches a part of the problem that does not assign sole blame to the technology.

These examples can be seen as the progeny of an ill-conceived union of twenty-first-century tools (computers, tablets, smartphones) with nineteenth-century modalities (lectures).

But that recognition doesn’t last long.

Common to all of these contexts is the human-machine interaction. Our “digital assistants” are platforms for play and socializing; it makes sense, then, that we would approach those devices as game and chat machines, rather than as learning portals.

It really doesn’t make sense. You’re the teacher. If you want your students to approach their devices as learning portals, then structure your instructional practice to fit that idea. Don’t assume they graduated high school with that understanding.

Anyway, he ends the piece with this grudging conclusion.

We’re not all that far along in understanding how learning, teaching, and technology interact in the classroom. Institutions should certainly enable faculty to experiment with new technology, but should also approach all potential classroom intruders with a healthy dose of skepticism, and resist the impulse to always implement the new, trendy thing out of our fear of being left behind.

In other words, we need more research about how we can keep our “nineteenth-century modality” for delivering information to students, followed closely by our time-honored assessment system of course, and “resist the impulse” to allow “new, trendy” things like laptops and wifi to be used.

Again, did any of these professors bother to talk to their students about how they learn best? Did any of them consider that maybe their approach to teaching was the part of the problem that needed fixing?

This essay reflects the university-level experience through the lens of a small group of professors. However, we have many K12 teachers who express similar feelings (and fears) about “twenty-first century tools” intruding on their traditional instructional methods.

Blame The Technology, As Always

Speaking of doing things the way we always have,1report from a teachers union in Northern Ireland calls for “urgent action over the impact of modern technology on children’s ability to learn at school”.

Nothing new here. You’ve probably read many stories like this, ones where educators, parents, politicians, and others express concerns over changes they see in kids, brought about by (more blamed on) technology. They’ve been told for years/decades/centuries.

And this from an elementary teacher quoted in this BBC story strikes me as the fundamental error in that call for “urgent action”.

There’s a complete lack of motivation among many of my pupils – these gadgets are really destroying their ability to learn.

So, the technology is at fault.

Ok, I have to ask: is it possible the lack of motivation in your students has less to do with the “gadgets” and more about what and how you’re teaching? Could it be you’re blaming the technology when you should be considering other factors?

It’s not just in the UK. Many education “experts” here in the US also assume that the rest of the world can fundamentally shift around us, with kids having access to powerful communication tools and networks (and, yes, complex games), but the curriculum and instructional practice of school can stay exactly the same.


  1. A possibly tenuous connection to the previous rant.

Technology and the Law

You really don’t need watch carefully to recognize that technology is advancing at a rate that is far outpacing the ability of governments and the legal system to keep up.

However, while a few stories of Congress critters struggling to cope with social media and judges being stumped by digital recording systems might be funny in the moment, the legal stagnation when it comes to rapid digital changes has serious implications for the future of American society.

As The Guardian, the UK news organization that first published Edward Snowden’s revelations of how the NSA is monitoring everyone’s communications, accurately notes, “Technology law will soon be reshaped by people who don’t use email”.

There’s been much discussion – and derision – of the US supreme court’s recent forays into cellphones and the internet, but as more and more of these cases bubble up to the high chamber, including surveillance reform, we won’t be laughing for long: the future of technology and privacy law will undoubtedly be written over the next few years by nine individuals who haven’t “really ‘gotten to’ email” and find Facebook and Twitter “a challenge”.

And we certainly can’t count on Congress to address the issues.

This lack of basic understanding is alarming, because the supreme court is really the only branch of power poised to confront one of the great challenges of our time: catching up our laws to the pace of innovation, defending our privacy against the sprint of surveillance. The NSA is “training more cyberwarriors” as fast as it can, but our elected representatives move at a snail’s pace when it comes to the internet. The US Congress has proven itself unable to pass even the most uncontroversial proposals, let alone comprehensive NSA reforms: the legislative branch can’t even get its act together long enough to pass an update our primary email privacy law, which was written in 1986 – before the World Wide Web had been invented.

As the most recent edition of the Decode DC podcast illustrates, our legislators can’t even manage the flood of email and other messages they receive.

But while our “leaders” are bogged down with re-fighting political battles of the past, legislatures in other countries are looking forward.

By contrast, consider Finland. There, lawmakers are experimenting with a bold new way of reforming a law: crowdsourcing — meaning turning the legislative process over to the people.

Or consider Brazil, where there is now an experimental computer lab smack in the middle of the Parliament’s committee rooms. There, official staff hackers throw together apps and games and data visualizations to help Brazilians — and the members of Parliament — understand the legislative process.

So, any hope our politicians can get their act together and bring our laws into the 21st century? Probably not, especially when a third of their adult constituents (and too many of them) don’t even accept basic scientific concepts and believe in ghosts, UFOs and astrology.

Formatting Your Digital Legacy

From the BBC:

A dozen previously unknown works created by Andy Warhol have been recovered from 30-year-old Amiga disks.1

I find this story interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, that Warhol, one of the most iconic and controversial artists of my early years of media awareness, would experiment with the then new process of computer art. I know he was probably paid a boatload of money to help promote Commodore’s new machine and already had the kind of personality open to this kind of new, but still it’s fun to consider an acclaimed cultural figure working in 32-bit color.

However, beyond the artistic aspect of the discovery is this: “A painstaking three-year project was required to recover the images which were saved in an obscure data format.” [emphasis mine]

Many of us consider work in digital form to be more durable than that stored on old fashioned, very fragile paper. Able to be infinitely duplicated so that copies will remain somewhere for centuries. Out there, in that cloud thing. Or the Google.

But what happens when the first drafts of the ground-breaking, historically significant, Pulitzer-prize winning novel written by one of our students is stored in a format no longer supported? Scholars are still finding the early paper-based revisions by important writers of several hundred years ago, in a language not very different from that used today. Warhol’s Amiga-based masterpieces were made less than 30 years ago in a now obscure format.

Not too long ago someone brought me a 3-1/2” floppy disk2 with some far less significant but personally important files written in ClarisWorks asking if I could open them. Given enough time, far less than three years, and a compelling need, I could probably make it happen, but that’s just one of many examples of once-popular file formats, now abandoned in the relatively short timeline of digital media.

Anyway, something to consider when you and your students decide where and how to store the important work you’re doing, the stuff that will be unearthed by archaeologists in the future and used to write the history of the early 21st century.

Now, I need to start looking for a way to preserve all of these crappy, but culturally significant, rants for posterity.


  1. For those too young to remember the Amiga, it was considered cutting edge personal computing in the ’80s

  2. Look it up, kiddies!

Is The Next Big Thing Already in Your Classroom?

I recently attended a presentation by a teacher who explained how she is using Google Glass in her classroom, and one or her ideas was to let a student wear the device as a way of getting a better idea of their perspective of her.

It’s a great concept but I wondered if we really need a $1500 device to do that. Most teachers already have the tools necessary to get a class-eye view of their work sitting in the pockets and backpacks of their kids. But there’s a larger question that needs to be addressed when discussing Glass being the next big thing in education.

Do we really need to look for the next big thing?

Instead, shouldn’t we try to make better use of the last big thing we bought, made a big deal of for a while, and then put in the closet when the next big thing was announced?

Think back a couple of years when interactive whiteboards (IWB) were all the educational rage. Our schools couldn’t install them fast enough. Classes were taught on how to make great use of them, educational theorists were convinced they would revolutionize instruction, and researchers produced conclusive data on just how motivational/engaging/effective they were.

Now, when I visit schools, I make a point to gather a little data of my own on how those IWBs function in classrooms. Many, if not most, are used as little more than projection surfaces. The software, which supposed to enhance the interactivity of the boards, is used as a slightly fancier version of the standard slide show software that was all the rage back in it’s day. Very few kids use them in any way.

In the meantime, we have lots of portable computers that are put into fixed labs and spend a frightening amount of time as a replacement for paper/pencil multiple choice tests.

There are stacks of clicker systems mostly in closets except when pulled out to use for a few minutes as a “fun” way to practice for standardized tests.

Along side them in the storage room you’ll often find a bunch of wireless slates, which were supposed to add more interactivity to classrooms.

Every one of our classrooms has high speed access to the world wide web. A resource with nearly unlimited potential to connect our students to each other and to the world, enabling them to publish work and ideas to a much wider audience. In most, of course, the web is little more than a digital encyclopedia, the direct replacement for Word/Excel/PowerPoint (new tool, same assignments), and, of course, one more vehicle for delivering tests.

I suppose it’s possible that Google Glass is the next big thing for education. But while we’re waiting to determine that, not to mention waiting for the next, next big thing, we need to make better use of the previous editions of the next big thing we already have.