Technology is Not A Magic Bullet

I’m sold on technology in the classroom.  I really am.  I mean, books, paper and pens are a form of technology–they’re just a comparatively inert and messy form.  I’m not sentimental about physical books.  I’m sure when they came around, some poor slob was sitting in a corner crying because reading would never be the same without handwritten scrolls, and a few centuries before that, when the scrolls came around, some sad schmuck was tearing his hair out and wailing that you’d have to pry his stone tablets out of his cold, dead hands.

But.  I’m not ready to hand the keys over to Apple and Pearson yet.  The fact that new technology is available does not mean we know how to use it.  The really cool thing about most of these netbooks, laptops, tablets and i-readers is that they are adaptive to your needs, and if the software is smart, it’s adaptive, too.

Technology is not static.  High-tech tools are not shovels; they aren’t created for a single purpose and used that way forever.   In fact, it’s my impression that iPads were created because they were cool and Apple figured, correctly, that users would figure out what they were good for through trial and error.  Google is now doing the same with Google Glass, God help us all.

But currently we are not talking about technology in schools this way.  What I see instead is an approach to technology as a solid, unchanging, one-size-fits-all answer.  In my opinion, this way of thinking is a mistake–a very, very expensive mistake.  This mistake has two aspects:

1.    Top-down large-scale prepackaged “solutions.”  Right now, my sense is that superintendents and schools, terrified of seeming out of date, are investing enormous amounts of money in top-down, schoolwide prepackaged gadgets and software without regard to their usefulness in the context of the very different classrooms in which they will be used.  As the super-brilliant tech whiz teens at UrbanTxt pointed out, technology needs to answer a question, and every classroom asks a different question.  I’m trying not to harp on the LAUSD’s iPad debacle, but let me just say that I have yet to meet a high school teacher who thinks tablets are useful in upper grades because they’re so small and have only crappy, detachable, tiny keyboards.

2.    The delusion that technology and “blended learning” are going to allow us to cut back on teachers, saving us money. This is a delusion I hear promoted by many blended learning advocates whose dream, at least as I heard it at a presentation two years ago, was that in the future classrooms would have 60 or more kids.  Here’s how the original dream went:

a.     each class has a “master teacher” in charge of 60 kids per class period.

b.     the class is divided into three sections.  One group of 20 is led by the teacher and is discussion or direct instruction.  Another group of 20 is divided into small groups who work together on a project.  A third group of 20 is working independently on computers to do individualized lessons guided by software to meet their needs, also known as “adaptive.”

c.      A third of the way through the class, everyone rotates to a new station.

d.     By the end of the class, everyone will have been in a class discussion, participated in a group and done individualized lesson.

e.     We save a ton of money

f.      The teacher is carried away on a stretcher.

Actually, that last part is purely hypothetical. It’s also the only part I actually believe.  Seriously, can you imagine actually doing this?  I mean, for more than an hour?  Without being on a Xanax drip?

60 students? For real?  60 teenagers?

Have you ever smelled a room that has recently contained 60 teenagers? These are some very sweaty individuals, and that’s before they start putting gum under the desks and spilling their vitamin water, and also, odds are, before two of them have started crying because their respective heartthrobs just dumped them.

Let’s get real.  Blended learning is a cool idea, but it is not going to allow us to fire half the work force as if on an assembly line when you upgrade your machinery.

So what can blended learning do?  I have now seen blended learning in action at a few sites and I’m here to tell you that done thoughtfully, in a small class, in an organic way that proceeds from a teacher’s needs, it looks promising.  I’ll tell you more about my visit to a school in a later post, but the short form is that this school is testing out programs classroom by classroom, getting teacher feedback, scaling them out slowlyIt is also keeping class size small, under 25.

But when class sizes balloon over 30, things get much, much dicier.  I recently witnessed a really excellent teacher leading a blended learning English class with 37 students.  This particular school was experimenting with technology and did not impose it on teachers, but with funding cuts, their classes were large.  What they were finding was that the small group work aspect was not possible because kids just wouldn’t focus without a teacher’s supervision.  In fact, I have not yet visited a school that does the “small group” third of the ideal rotation.  Some kids are ready for unsupervised group work; many aren’t, especially when the teacher busy leading a class discussion on the other side of the room.

But the biggest issue is sustainability. The teacher I observed was essentially teaching two simultaneous classes; she had to plan the discussion and personally design work for the students doing the individualized lessons, since as far as I know there is no really good software for 11th grade English–how could there be once you got past basic grammar and vocabulary?

Every second, you are multitasking, with an eye on the individual workers as you lead the other half of the class. This teacher told me she does three hours of planning every night and has no time to grade papers.  Perhaps not coincidentally, only about half of the students had turned in a recent essay assignment.

I sat in the back and had two thoughts:

1.    this teacher is amazing

2.     there is no way in hell I could ever do this. 

Teach two simultaneous classes, all day, every day?  With this many kids in the room, many of them coming in way below grade level?  Like so many educational innovations I read about, this might work in a class of high-functioning, confident students, but in an underserved community where you have a lot of kids coming in far below grade level, with low confidence and a history of negative experiences with school, many students need more individual attention than this.

Technology is a great tool. We are going to be able to do a lot of cool stuff we’ve never dreamed of.  Wherever I teach next year, I can’t wait to get my students shooting and cutting movies.  But as a society, let’s let go of the delusion that technology is going to replace teachers or allow enormous class sizes.

It’s going to take time.  And patience.  And that most outrageous of luxuries, human conversation.  I know, I know, we can’t afford it.  We need to spend a billion dollars to gear up for the billion dollars worth of standardized testing coming at us.

That, we can afford.  How else will we be sure that our children are learning?

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