Commentary – Heiny: Technology for What? A Preconceptual Sketch

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I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time. It seems implicit in many discussions of educators and in blogs, industrial promotions, and conferences that include educational technologies.

Why do we need state-of-the-art technologies for students in schools? This question, asked in the spirit of comity, leads to a trail of unresolved questions.

No one is wise enough or informed enough to answer such questions with unchallenged authority. Yet these questions seem relevant in a world burgeoning with an unrelenting onslaught of gismos, gadgets, and games purported “to educate” someone.

Why do not simple common sense answers compel prompt action to allow all students access to state-of-the-art technologies? For example, the function of a technology is to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of some activity. Student learning is a measurable activity. Personal computers, such as a Tablet PC, can increase a student’s learning rates. (So can direct instruction without the use of advanced technologies.) Why does this reasoning and fact not persuade school decision makers to arrange for the ubiquitous use of advanced technologies by all students in schools? Where is the will (the action, not rhetoric) to assure each individual student the chance to learn as much as that student can learn?

Such questions exist unresolved in the public domain. Answers such as “not enough money” seem inadequate and incomplete. Probably most responses to such questions will be faulty. Yet, when these questions and responses are written, at least they exist for others to critique. Perhaps these critiques will help move discussion toward simple, prompt ways to increase student learning rates.

Background

In 1938, Robert Lynd asked in a series of four lectures as part of Stafford Little Lectures at Princeton University a similarly then provocative question, Knowledge for What? He addressed the emergence of social science from the natural sciences. Among other things, he described influences this emergence was having on formal education.

Lynd’s question, his argument, and subsequent responses helped shape the development of the social sciences and of schools to the extent that they relied on social sciences. It seems logical to update his discussion. This is not a scholarly arcanum, nor a practical proposal. It does inadvertently highlight by inference how school decision makers give priority to many things ahead of maximizing or even increasing each student’s learning rates by using available technologies.

Rationale for Questions

Today, educators live in an environment increasingly influenced by advanced technologies. As educators, we have by tradition and convenience a wide array of discretionary use of vast tangible and intellectual resources in schools. Our total education budgets as well as our annual expenditures on education in the United States exceed the gross national product and annual revenue of most countries of the world. As a result of this discretion, or perhaps to justify it, we claim proficiency in instruction and learning as well as by inference expertise in their management. In our collective judgment, educators do not deem the use of advanced technologies a high priority in schools.

We rely on these claims to decide in each of our classrooms every day specifically what and how we will instruct students before us. Some of us try to create total quality schools with the assumption that leads to some evidence of student learning increases. Others specialize in working with a particular type of student behavior or intellectual content also intended to increase learning.

We use various personal and professional reasons for these judgments. These reasons range from whether our child has a headache at home to whether we give priority over all else to ways for each individual student to exceed politically approved minimum performance expectations for this year.

A relatively few of us assert individual initiative at our personal expense to bring the newest advanced gadget or discovery to class to accommodate our judgments about schooling, students or learning. Many of us appear to follow the leader who makes our job easier or more comfortable.

The public spotlight now focuses on our judgments. Many people consider our decisions and initiatives inadequate and us unprepared to meet our responsibilities in a rapidly emerging global culture. They accept with skeptical politeness ranging to political rejection our collective and individual judgments about uses of technologies in schooling.

Trail of Questions

As educators, we may still try to respond to these questions rather than wait for others who want to give us their answers.

Who benefits personally from educators’ answers to the question, Technology for what?

Do teachers agree that increasing (or maximizing) student learning rates is our top daily priority?

What compelling ideal or practical purpose do state-of-the-art technologies serve in student learning?

Do some interests merely want the newest gismos in schools whether or not anyone needs them?

Which imperatives relevant to novice and scholarly learning drive technology evangelists to promote the use of new technologies, such as use of digital ink and wireless connections, to increase learning?

What would happen if all new advanced technologies were forbidden in schools? Whatever each school has now is all it will have in the future. What results would occur if some authority issued an edict that forbids any new purchases or gifts of any new learning systems in schools? Would the edict make a difference in student academic and intellectual performance? If not, why not?

At least one school-technology specialist in Southern California confiscates forbidden data processing hardware and software (such as Tablet PCs) from teachers and students. Should other schools implement the same policy? Does such action allow students to increase their learning rates?

How long (days, months, years, decades) do teachers have to accommodate the ongoing releases of advanced technologies for student learning? What consequences exist for each student of a teacher who does not initiate an advanced technology sooner?

And finally, so what? What difference does increasing or maximizing student learning make to anyone? Who cares enough to change that consequence by changing his or her priorities and daily behavior to accommodate more advanced technologies promptly?

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Robert Heiny
Robert W. Heiny, Ph.D. is a retired professor, social scientist, and business partner with previous academic appointments as a public school classroom teacher, senior faculty, or senior research member, and administrator. Appointments included at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Peabody College and the Kennedy Center now of Vanderbilt University; and Brandeis University. Dr. Heiny also served as Director of the Montana Center on Disabilities. His peer reviewed contributions to education include publication in [I]The Encyclopedia of Education [/I](1971), and in professional journals and conferences. He served s an expert reviewer of proposals to USOE, and on a team that wrote plans for 12 state-wide and multistate special education and preschools programs. He currently writes user guides for educators and learners as well as columns for [I]TuxReports[/I].com.
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Judith
16 years ago

Thanks for the commentary, which I have to say spurred commentary on my own blog in response:State of the Art vs. State of the Use (http://wccniuesl.blogspot.com.Your questions made me think. and after 14 years as a school board member, helped me put things into perspective. We spend a lot of money on technology, and relatively little on technology design and development. Most schools are strapped financially, and more and more funding is tied to accountability. I think we need to re-prioritize our tech budgets to make sure that whatever we decide to spend those funds on is used effectively and increases student performance levels. We also have to make sure that teachers know what to do with the technology we purchase.

The Tablet PC In Education Blog
16 years ago

Thanks for your insightful comments. I appreciate meeting Tracy’s mom! Great work, Mom. You should be pleased having such a fine mind in your family. And Judith, I added more of your comments in a separate post about State-of-the-Use of technologies in schools. You offer a reasonable practical approach for school decision makers to consider. I hope they do consider your points.

Judith
16 years ago

I absolutely agree with Alice regarding teachers not knowing how to use equipment, but it goes even deeper when teachers, and often administrators, don’t even know what technologies exist within their own buildings.As a consultant on lab design, I often went to school districts to guide them with budgets and material selections. One of the most memorable was a school district with the typical very tight technology budget. Somehow they managed to get one brand new computer with Internet hook-up into each classroom. They were considering a second computer in each classroom for the upcoming budget. After seeing how the computers were being used, I suggested that a better use for the money would be projectors so that the entire class could access information together rather than in several small groups. This would add instructional time, since much was lost by having to repeat the process 5 times for every project.However, something bothered me, and as we were finishing the tour, I asked what was in the boxes that were in the corner of each classroom. The principal didn’t know, the district IT person didn’t know and the teachers didn’t know. I said we needed to know. Inside EACH classroom was an older version of a computer projector, the kind that fit on top of an overhead projector. I asked how long those boxes were there. The teachers said they had been there for several years. Apparently a former principal purchased those for the school with money from fundraisers, but left before they were delivered. Custodians dutifully placed one in each classroom, but no one knew what they were and why they were there. And worse, the projectors were no longer compatible with the new computers, so they could never be used at the school. An absolute and total waste of thousands of sorely needed dollars, with no value whatsoever for the students. Stories like this are repeated in school districts across the country. Technology has been in schools for over 25 years, yet we still consider it an ‘add-on’ to curriculum development. It’s time to stop worrying about where we will get money to increase tech budgets, and decide how to make the technology we have more effective as a teaching tool.

Rob
16 years ago

Deb Shinder’s WXPnews recently featured an editorial that centered around a short essay entitled “Handwriting on The Wall for Cursive” by Jodi Upton. It seems that the growing trend is for elementary schools to stop teaching cursive writing as a mandatory part of the curriculum. Like Deb, I was both surprised and saddened to learn of this.I definitely think that children should be taught handwriting but the underlying issue here is even bigger than that. The ever-increasing emphasis on making computer-use skills a priority at such an early age is what truly disturbs me. That kids now start using computers in kindergarten is a bit stunning. Seems to me that kids need time to just be kids. They need to learn how to interact with the world around them and develop social skills. I’m not yet a parent so maybe I lack a bit of perspective here, but I think kids need to learn to draw or play ball before they learn video games and instant messaging.Don’t get me wrong, I don’t deny that I’m a techno-junkie and I love my PCs, MP3s, TiVo, and other electronic goodies. And I’m all in favor of teaching typing in school – every day I see firsthand how poor keyboarding skills hinders people in the workplace. But I’m tentative about introducing computers into kids’ lives at too early an age. The next generation will be enslaved by technology to a degree that we may not even be able to fully forsee. Computers will undoubtedly dominate nearly every facet of their lives. So, maybe we need to make sure kids have opportunities to learn how to exist in the real world before thrusting them headlong into the inescapable cyber-world.