To all the technology skeptics out there – remember the 1990’s?

No, not EMF or Chumbawumba, but do you remember the internet in the ’90’s? Well probably not, since frankly there were very few people aware of the web in the middle of that decade; it simply wasn’t a part of everyday life. Why do I bring that up? Well, as we at Westminster enter a brave new Mac world in 2011 and beyond, I am aware of some skepticism, resistance, nervousness and even fear, as we are bombarded with a seemingly never ending barrage of information and opportunity. It was exactly the same in 1996. As a pretty experienced user of technology in education, and having seen this massive tsunami-like wave hit the shore in the past, I offer my story and these (hopefully comforting) words…….

I have probably been deeply involved in using technology in education as long as almost any teacher at Westminster. I was among that very first wave of teachers embracing the WWW nearly 15 years ago, have had a web site (in one format or another) since 1998, and have had a blog since 2006. What I am trying to say is that “I get technology”, but also have a healthy disrespect for it! Allow me to explain.

Circa 1998 I was teaching at a small tutorial college in London and each day I would travel to work on the magnificent Tube and bus public transport infrastructure of the city. As I traveled each day, especially towards the end of the 1990’s, I began to see advertisements on buses and in the trains which had these strange ‘www.” and “.com” slogans. There were an increasingly large number of them, and nobody that I knew seemed to know what they meant. At first I thought they were examples of those clever bits of cryptic advertising that lure you in via curiosity, but after a pretty short time it was obvious that was not the answer.

At that time I happened to have a colleague who was teaching Psychology in the same institution as me. He was really interested in producing some web pages and essentially introduced me to the internet. I immediately saw it is an exciting possibility, but even at the beginning of the web, it seemed overwhelming to me. I decided that there was only one way to tackle it, and that was to make the web work for ME; I had to define what the internet was going to mean to MY teaching, NOT the other way around. As a result, my embracing of the technology has always been with a view to help drive and re-tool what I already do, and not necessarily radically change my anything about my teaching.

I decided to create a web page for my class, but not for the reasons that were commonly being given at the time. I recall that in classrooms around the country, people were repeatedly saying, “You must have a web page, you must have a web page”. When these folk were asked the simplest of questions, i.e., ‘why?’, all they could come up with was, “well, it’s the future, isn’t it?”. That never seemed like a good enough reason to me, and even 15 years later I still feel the same way. I needed (and still need) a reason to implement change; back in 1998 I found one, but like you dear skeptic, I’m going to have to be convinced all over again and I think that’s the best way forward.

In ’98 (amongst other things) I was spending innumerable hours standing in front of the copier, re-producing pages and pages of worksheets & notes in a seemingly never-ending paper avalanche. The motivation for me teaching myself HTML (at the time there were really not too many programs around like Dreamweaver so the code needed to be hand-written) was to simply give the kids access to materials online, and to take the burden of copying off me – it really was THAT simple, with no ‘grand pedagogy’, ‘edubabble’ or research leading the way, just a pragmatic reason to implement a helpful tool. I was doing it as much for ME as I was for the kids, but good things happened for them as a result of my selfishness.

Now of course, my web pages have evolved to be something infinitely different than they once were back in 1998, but all of the changes and additions has been driven by specific, practical goals which were addressed as and when they came up, and was not part of some grand technological or educational plan. Cliched perhaps, but I cannot think of a better example of an ‘evolution rather than a revolution’. Things that have not needed to change on the web site since 1998 (because they were working then and still do now), have not. Some may scoff at the fact my web site is still rooted in the 90’s (well, at least 40% in the ’90’s) with laughably ancient coding under the hood, but I say, ‘don’t fix what ain’t broke’ – I think that’s a great philosophy when dealing with technology in your classroom.

ADCP '90's

ADCP '90's

My point is this – use technology in really small, practical ways that help YOU, and what will probably occur is a natural evolution. There is no need for  you to become as immersed as I (or others) may be, overnight, but a gradual and gentle effort is likely to be rewarded with small victories along the way. If it doesn’t work, throw it out. Take my upcoming Twitter experiment for example. If it doesn’t do it for me then I will readily (and quickly) abandon it.

Similarly (and this is important), it’s also possible to integrate technology and still remain rooted in what is an essentially, ‘traditional’ model of teaching which yields great results, where technology supplements one’s ‘normal’ activities. Radical, up-rooting of traditional values is not necessarily required, but an open mind and a willingness to be reflective probably are.


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12 Responses to To all the technology skeptics out there – remember the 1990’s?

  1. Bo Adams says:

    In a Web 1.0 world, I would agree. In a Web 2.0 world, verging on Web 3.0, it needs to be more about the learners and learning.

  2. OK, so what does that *practically* mean for me in my day to day teaching of college prep, high school chemistry in 2011-12 and beyond? That using a bunch of (relatively sophisticated) Web 2.0 tools as a supplement to my traditional model is going to be insufficient/unacceptable?

    Also, I don’t really understand the phrase, ‘it needs to be more about the learners and learning’. I am pretty much 100% sure that you DON’T mean that up to this point kids have not been learning, but at the same time I don’t really know what the phrase DOES mean. I think that teaching with any tools (including chalk and slate) can be ‘about the learners and learning’!

  3. Lasley Gober says:

    Great narrative of your evolving e-self! I aggressively second your points about not letting electronics drive our teaching but rather become yet another tool, purposefully used (and summarily dumped, if not effective). Admittedly, measuring effect is fraught with problems we must acknowledge and deal with (when numerous sophomores respond to a survey that my wiki page has not been helpful, I would have to ask more questions about how they actually use what my wiki offers them, which is mostly an organizing tool for assignments, journal entry prompts, essential questions, supplementary poetry/essays/art/articles/maps…in other words, an electronically accessible assignment book and “journal” of our movement through the year’s material). I also hope we will be very self-aware about WHY we embrace certain technology, as well as HOW to make best use of various “innovations” in learning (which necessitates some analysis of time input/efficiency ratio, for one thing…as well as significant reflection on teaching methods that have proved useful over long periods of practice). I embrace thoughtful and collaborative skepticism as well as enthusiastic and collaborative exploration. We can take a good bite out of the Apple (and all its accessories) without succumbing to the bad witch’s poison (technology for technology’s sake). Live and learn! A fun read this summer that concludes with a bit of cautionary tale: A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan, ultimately reducing good and time-proven storytelling and mastery of the language (see 400th birthday of the King James bible) to e-text, superficial tweets (though not all tweets are bad), electronic “friends,” and a screen that’s still flat…well. If the culture is moving behind a screen, it may just be our duty to counter extremes that just might silence the music of human beings coming in direct contact with one another and the wonder and mysteries of our natural world.

  4. First of all, I really enjoyed the graphic embedded in Adrian’s posting. Surely you should have autoplay music on your site, Mr Dingle? The tune would be “She Blinded Me With Science” by Thomas Dolby — the Lounge Version.

    More seriously, I agree with Adrian’s point, which I think is echoed, sort of, not really sure, by Lasley in her post, which is that it is our duty as thinking individuals to be skeptical about the Latest Greatest Thing. I absolutely agree that technology — which might be a blackboard, or a book, or a pen, as well as an ipad — should be thought about seriously, and adopted or discarded depending on whether it helps or hinders teaching.

    Bo’s point about learning — I don’t really get it. When has teaching not been about learning? In my previous sentence I said “helps or hinders teaching,” and I wonder whether Bo would criticize this for not being focused on learning. Let me say this clearly: When I say “teaching,” it goes without saying that I mean learning, too. As far as I am concerned, you’re not a good teacher if your primary mission is not to cultivate learning in your classroom. I thought that was a given, but perhaps not.

    On a different topic, I would be interested to know what prompted Adrian’s piece. It can’t simply be changing from PC to Apple platform, can it? Is it the idea of laptops in classrooms? Could you give us some background on your remark?

  5. dobbsep says:

    Adrian, Congratulations on your book “How to Make A Universe with 92 Ingredients” being given the 2011 Information Book Award. That’s very exciting!

  6. By the way — some of the points A. brings up in this posting were involved in the session I led at the recent in-service day. By no means am I espousing a luddite point of view — I am deeply interested in digital technology, and anyone who knows me can tell you how much I enjoy mucking around on the computer / iPhone / any other gadget to hand. My main concern with recent developments in technology (and this includes Web 2.0) are at least twofold:

    1. While digital culture has immense collaborative implications, it has also created many more opportunities for narcissism and social loneliness than when I was growing up. I also worry that our students are finding it harder to focus deeply on ideas.

    2. I think this is related to (1): I am concerned about a dumbing down of the curriculum.

    Both of these may be better addressed in another posting, but I thought I’d just mention this here.

    • John Burk says:

      I wish I could have made it to your session back in April, I’m sure it was a fascinating conversation. I think about the issues you raise all the time, and I’ld like to share my perspective below.

      Starting with the dumbing down of the curriculum, in my physics classes, my students now have access to a tool that allows them to construct computational models the physical phenomena we study. No longer are they limited to doing simple non-physical problems that neglect air resistance, they can actually use the computer to add in the effects of drag to the motion of a projectile. I think this represents a significant increase the “rigor” of my class, as students are now learning the fundamentals of computational thinking, to say nothing of the value of bringing real-world problems into play. For one lab, we were able to go out to the baseball field and build a model to predict where baseballs launched by the pitching machine would land (including drag) and then compare those results to reality, and discuss things we might have missed in our model (like spin). This is far beyond anything I ever did as a high school student in physics. I’ve written a ton more about this on my blog, if you are interested.

      Regarding focus—I do see that students (and myself) are occasionally less focused that maybe we were in the past. But I also see that students crave instruction on how to focus, and manage in this digital world. So many of them resort to very basic and crude controls like having their parents change their Facebook password during exams, rather than developing the discipline to manage facebook and all the other distractions begging for their attention. A couple of times last year, Anna Moore came to my class to lead a short 20 minute meditation session with my 9th graders, and they LOVED it. I think it would be very worthwhile for us to devise strategies and even a curriculum for helping students to learn to focus, build mental discipline and learn to navigate the digital world as thoughtful learners. My students also craved any practical advice I could provide on how to better focus while working on homework or studying.

      Regarding narcissism and social isolation, I see this as an opportunity for parents and teachers to help students escape these pitfallls. I also think the benefits of social media far outweigh the possible problems. As just one example, imagine how tremendously the lives of LGBT youth subject to bullying, wondering if they’re the only gay person in their school/town/city, has been positively impacted by the It Gets Better Project.

      • John – it’s impossible to argue with you over the deeper understanding/treatment that comes with these enhanced tools, so I won’t, indeed any educator that did would be foolish, HOWEVER I will say this about the subject I know so well.

        In chemistry we have seen how deeper inquiry into some areas has led to a contraction of the curriculum in others, meaning that kids are leaving high school courses WITHOUT certain, fundamental knowledge. There seems to be an in-step, somewhat ardent position taken by many, that ‘deeper understanding’ is better than ‘wider understanding’ ALWAYS, when in reality I think it is open to much more analysis. We could be simply swapping one set of problems (lack of deep understanding) for another (lack of fundamental knowledge). In short there is a balance to be struck, and the panacea-like way some of this stuff is presented is troublesome to me.

        I sometimes hear the argument that ‘other topic areas can be picked up later’, which IS true, but it is also almost universally true that ‘deeper understanding’ can be picked up later, too, and indeed in many cases it might be more appropriate for the deeper understanding to come later anyway. There’s a balance that is required here that mixes the best of the old with the best of the new.

        As for meditation in the classroom……well, you’ve lost me there!

      • John Burk says:

        I guess my point is, I’m not sure I would call covering less topics in the favor of greater depth “dumbing down” of the curriculum, at least in physics. My feeling is that technology has made more complex and advanced ideas accessible in lower level classes, things I would have never considered teaching before. Others may have have different feelings regarding their specific curriculum. And of course, it brings back a lot of age old debates—if the calculator can solve the quadratic automatically for you, and this lets you focus on how the quadratic model applies to physical situations, but this comes at the cost of some level of facileness with memorizing the quadratic formula and churning through the procedure to find the solution, have you “dumbed down” the curriculum? Personally, I don’t think so, but others may disagree.

  7. @John —
    1. I think what you’re doing with your physics students sounds fantastic, although I can’t judge its curricular efficacy/appropriateness because I am not a Science Chair or a Physics teacher (in other words, would another Physics teacher look at what you are doing and worry that your students were not getting certain fundamental concepts that are appropriate for their grade level?).
    1a. I see what you mean about the calculus/calculator problem, although: What happens if your calculator breaks? If you can’t just hit button to solve, would you know how to solve it yourself? Doesn’t that matter?
    2. I don’t at all see my students craving advice on how to focus. They’re unfocused, and the more we load them with more opportunities to be distracted, the more we are encouraging them to be unfocused. I too have tried meditative techniques in my own class. Students liked them, but I think more because they represented “easy” time in class. They also enjoyed a break from the norm.
    2a. I do however like what you’re saying about figuring out how to teach focus and avoid distraction.
    3. “It Gets Better” is a great project (notice that I did say in my original post that social media has “immense collaborative implications”), but I think it is better that we talk openly about the prejudice that drives people to create such a project. For example, it’s cool for us to sit here on this Westminster blog and talk about how great “It Gets Better Is,” but is homosexuality really accepted institutionally at Westminster? And is homophobia solved by “It Gets Better,” or does it just create a marginal place for LGBT people to express themselves? One step at a time, I suppose. No, I was also thinking more of the way that social media encourages most people, queer or straight, to _talk about themselves_ constantly, and I’m not sure that’s so healthy.

    • John Burk says:

      Regarding your point about the calculator, I hear you, I’m not arguing for the complete abandonment these basic skills, but rather a shift in emphasis. Speaking of math curriculua in general, and not here at Westminster or any other particular school, I know it’s easy to get totally involved in teaching computation, because it’s much more straightforward to teach and test. But the real point of math’s usefulness is can you find problems to apply the math computational skills you have? Can you translate this problem into a form where you can compute it? And then finally, can you analyze the quality of your solution? Conrad Wolfram gave a good TED talk that makes these points well. I also think this critique can apply to physics teaching in general, and I’d imagine there are topics in other disciplines where it could apply as well—for instance, what % of the English curriculum should be devoted to spelling, now that spell check is ubiquitous?

      I’m totally with you regarding “It Gets Better” and creating a safer climate for LGBT faculty, students and staff at Westminster and beyond—I would jump at the chance to move in this direction.

      Regarding your thoughts about talking about themselves, I think that’s the teenage experience in a nutshell, and I know this is a frequent critique of the facebook/blogging world, but since I’ve really embraced blogging in the past year (and spent quite a bit of time talking about myself), I would say that one of the greatest benefits I’ve drawn is the dialogue it’s started with many people who have helped to shape and challenge my thinking (both here at Westminster, and across the globe). Here again, there might be an opportunity for us to use this as an opportunity to engage our students? Could we move them beyond the simple, shallow self-blather and toward deeper reflection and engagement online?

      I’ve read some great blog posts about the question of whether or not to interact/friend students on facebook and other social media, and while I’m still undecided, I think there’s a compelling case to be made. Here are three posts worth reading:

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