Friday, May 4, 2007

Technological Equity

Charlene Croft invited me to look in on a live blog event today on the Equity and Technology Workshop blog, and post a comment, which I just did, and I thought I would include my remarks here as well.

I began by quoting a comment on their blog:

More computers in school classrooms isn’t necessarily the answer – return to this later. Important question…studies finding ICT isn’t necessarily translating into better learning outcomes.
And now here is what I wrote in response:

Rather than return to the question later, maybe this needs to be the starting point. That is, if we begin with the question: how can we get more computers in the classroom, or how can we get students to use computers more frequently and efficiently, then we are bypassing the question of purpose and goals. What are we trying to accomplish as educators? What are our educational objectives? Is mastering the technology an end in itself?

At one communication conference that I went to some years ago, there was a keynote speaker who was a school superintendent from Brooklyn, and he was talking about how they brought computers into the elementary school classroom to teach writing, and how wonderful it was that they could just write on the screen, and rewrite, delete and edit with the computer. My friend and mentor, Neil Postman, was sitting with me and he raises his hand to ask a question: "Why can't you do that with a paper and pencil?" Well, the speaker starts to say something more about word processing, and Neil again says, "But why can't you do that with a paper and pencil?" And the speaker really couldn't answer that question.

Neil had a reputation as a neo-Luddite, and took the extreme position in such arguments in order to make his point about our uncritical attitude towards technology. But the point is that it is important to be able to answer the question, in regard to technology, of "what for?" Why are we using it? What are we trying to achieve? I believe there are legitimate applications (and Neil would not deny that), but we need to be able to articulate them, and stick to them.

So, what I would emphasize is the need to determine appropriate applications of a given technology. If we don't know why we're using it, then we end up being used by it.

This is also true of the various formats being used. For example, years ago a colleague in our department brought in a faculty member from another school, who made a presentation and demonstrated the use of online applications for teaching. One of the things he showed us was how he made his lectures available to download. I asked why he didn't just provide a written transcript instead, and he had no answer. Is recording a lecture, for example, the best way to make information available, or is it more effective to distribute it in written form where it is easer to review and jump from place to place?

To be able to consider appropriate applications, it also helps to foster an analytical and critical attitude towards technology. That goes to the heart of what media ecology is about. And, by the way, you can call that a form of literacy, but personally I think phrases like "media literacy" obscure the fact that reading and writing, literacy in the sense of being "lettered," refer to an entirely different medium than film, or television, or the web.

In thinking about these issues, I also find it useful to make some distinctions. For example, one factor is access to information. Increasing access has a democratizing effect that also undermines authority (not always a good thing), and can lead to information overload--Postman's argument is that we solved the problem of too little access a long time ago, but we keep at it, much like we solved the problem of too little food a long time ago, but our instincts still tell us to eat.

Another factor is the evaluation of information, and its synthesis. This is what is desperately needed now, and in part, it's why blogs are so popular. And note the fact that the United States government agencies had bits and pieces of information about 9/11 before the terrorists struck, but were unable to properly evaluate the threat, put the pieces together, synthesize the information.

A third factor is production--is it better to give than to receive? We know that new technologies have been making production easier and easier, but there still is a gap. Back in the middle ages, the Church sometimes taught people only to read, and not to write. We are not fully empowered unless we can do more than merely access information. And production helps in thinking critically about the information we access, knowing the variable and often arbitrary human factors that go into the creation of media content.

A fourth factor is social interaction. It's not what you know, it's who you know. Information and interaction are quite different, and access to information is not nearly as helpful in many situations as access to social networks (hence the glass ceiling in organizations). Many people who are computer whizzes don't know the first thing about navigating social networks or simply interacting with others in a respectful manner. And that has traditionally been one of the basic lessons of schooling--how to behave.


Martin Friedman said...


You bring out many salient points in your blog discussing the issue of computers in the classroom. The use of computers within an educational environment certainly has it's place, but unfortunately I see an ever increasing use of the technology as a means for simplifying the educators mission.

For example, within the past few years there has been a noticalbe increase in the use of Powerpoint in lieu of lecture/discussion formats. Some instructors and professors simply run through the listing of verbal and pictorial images, often reading verbatim from the pre-prepared lecture.

Certainly there is a time and a place to utilize this technology, but in many instances I find that it interferes with the traditional student-teacher interchange and dialogue. Perhaps this is just an emergent factor from the MTV/VH1 generation where we have become more visual learners than auditory processors who have have begun to lose the skill to be able to listen and to think critically about issues. Additionally and unfortunately, an unintended result of this appears to show in the lack of writing skills that now permeate not only freshman works but also extend to the sophomore years and beyond. And, some dismay resides in some areas where professors/instructors simply read the content of their presentations to the exclusion of more contructive discussion of issues.

This trend has grown in the four years I have been an adjunct at Schenectady County Community College in NY. There is even a question about the instructors use of technology on student course evaluations. While the use of some technological aspects can enhance some presentations, I've seen too much emphasis placed on this mode of teaching to the exclusion and loss of time for more interactive exchanges of ideas within the classroom environment.

Whenever a video, cd rom images, etc. are presented as part of a lecture, it is quite noticeable that students' attention shows a boost compared to lecture and discussion presentations, again most likely stemming from the 10's of thousands of hours that children grow up watching television or being transfixed with their video games and internet fixations.

In retrospect, it appears that those of us that attended school prior to the computer revolution graduated significantly more knowledeable and more prepared for critical thinking and social adeptness than many students demonstrate today.

Of course, I have my thoughts about on-line courses, but that is for discussion at some other time.


Martin Friedman, MS
Schenectady County Community College
Adjunct II

equity and technology said...

Thank you for your comment Lance. It was thoughtful and relevant.
I think that, in general, education systems are struggling with a lot of these questions. I appreciated the Postman anecdote… but you know as well as I do the difference between a pencil and digital text (this is what the Wesch video is all about).

However, there are undefined goals surrounding the application of technology in educational settings, especially at the pre-post-secondary level. Further, the assumptions of access to and reliance on technology in education are dangerous and may do more to create inequity to education.

Considering “appropriate applications” is essential, and is one of the things we discussed later in the day. Particularly for teachers; the issue of “do I have to use a PowerPoint to deliver a lesson that I could just as easily deliver without it?” Or “How can I use this or that software to enhance a learning experience?”

The factors you highlight: access, evaluation, assimilation, production, and interaction are essential when considering this new technology.

One of the things that I noted was that the whole novelty and motivating characteristics of computer technology is its personalized nature… It is very difficult to adapt a personalized technology into a setting that relies so much on standardized learning and educational outcome. One participant mused that the Internet represents chaos… and one of the goals of a traditional classroom is to eliminate chaos, and create a environment of uniformity and order. How do you reconcile these two things?

If you don’t mind I’m going to post your comment as a blog and reply to it as if I’m having a conversation with you…

Thanks again for taking the time and interest.

Lance Strate said...

Thanks for adding these comments to my blog, and of course I don't mind having my comments reposted on the Equity and Technology blog, especially since that's where they started in the first place. Links, along with cut, copy, and paste operations, seem to be at the heart of the digital environment.

I do hear Postman's voice, though, saying "as if I'm having a conversation with you," that's better than calling it a conversation, because that would be what he dubbed "the demeaning of meaning."