Online and Teacherless Aren’t Synonymous

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

Three items in recent ed tech news caught my eye this morning, more for their implications than their news value.

The first is Sharon Roznik’s “Your Schools: No More Pencils, No More Books?” (The [Fond du Lac] Reporter, 9.15.11). In Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, schools are increasingly opening their doors to allow students to bring the latest personal communication devices such as “laptops, iPads and iPods” into classrooms. One of the school districts, New Holstein, is developing a BYOD or Bring Your Own Device program.

Roznik quotes Carmen Klassy, the Oakfield School District’s director of 21st century learning, who lists reasons for the changes:

  • to introduce a mode of learning that “is relevant to [students’] everyday lives”
  • to keep “up with today’s technology”
  • “to bring the world into the classroom”
  • to interact “with business professionals and people from all different cultures”
  • to provide teachers with “a whole new toolbox for” instruction

“The possibilities,” says Klassy, “are endless.”

Noteworthy for me is that the article does not mention improved test scores as a motivation. The technology, alone, and the fact that it is already an essential part of most students’ lives and its presence will only increase exponentially, in time measured by months rather than years, is reason enough. In other words, students are already immersed in a sea of technology and trying to maintain a relatively dry school environment is not only futile but, ultimately, unwise.

Klassy does report that the move “increased motivation in the students,” and this may be the strongest argument for the changes in Fond du Lac.

Julie Wootton, in “Teachers Already Toe Waters of Tech Changes” (Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho, 9.18.11), quotes Twin Falls High sophomore Mariah McMurtry, who “took a lifetime fitness class over the summer through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy to earn elective credit.” The student “‘didn’t like it at all.'”

According to Wootton, the student’s complaint was that “the computer can only explain concepts one way … but a teacher can provide multiple examples in person.”

Wootton mentions Matt Harr, who has taught biology, anatomy and physiology at Twin Falls High for about 20 years. He uses “his nights and weekends to develop and teach online classes through IDLA.” He “thinks it’s a good idea to require students to take online classes, but ‘it’s a bad idea to replace teachers with online classes.'”

In my opinion, both the student, McMurtry, and the teacher, Harr, are under-informed.

The student assumes that the computer and the online teacher are one and the same. In the worst case scenario, this may be true, but best practice clearly distinguishes between tool and medium, on the one hand, and teacher, on the other. An online teacher, like her face-to-face (F2F) counterpart, “can provide multiple examples.” However, the instruction is virtual and usually asynchronous rather than F2F and real-time. Thus, the fact that an instructor is online doesn’t necessarily mean that she isn’t responsive to individual student learning needs. The effective online and F2F instructor will be aware of obstacles to learning and will respond.

The teacher, Harr, also assumes that switching to online classes means that human beings will be replaced by machines. Again, best practice for online classes doesn’t advocate the removal of teachers. Instead, it calls for a re-evaluation of the teacher’s role. It must change to accommodate the new tools in her pedagogical repertoire.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to change is misconceptions about what that change entails. Unfortunately, many are not fully informed and base their objections, criticisms, and hesitancy on issues that are either irrelevant or nonexistent. Ironically, even those who are caught up in and leading the change process often don’t see the big picture. They assume that “local” problems are global and forget that the problem may be a function of their specific implementation of the change.

Raymond Rose, in “What Should All Teachers Know About Instructional Technology?” (e-Learning Evangelist, 9.13.11), asks readers to share their “thoughts about both content and approach for preparing pre-service K-12 teachers to be effective advocates and users of instructional technology now and in the future.” Rose gets to the heart of the problem that both McMurtry and Harr represent. The future of education is not in the technology alone, but in the educators who will use it to enhance learning. And Rose invites us to join in a discussion to impact our future teachers.

7 Responses

  1. Great title! Almost says it all. Like Jim, I’m bothered by this totally inaccurate assumption. Just consider what happened to education when the printing press allowed the creation of textbooks. Teachers did not vanish. Ditto for blackboards in classrooms.

    Klassy’s list of reasons bothers me even more.

    * to introduce a mode of learning that “is relevant to [students’] everyday lives”
    * to keep “up with today’s technology”
    * “to bring the world into the classroom”
    * to interact “with business professionals and people from all different cultures”
    * to provide teachers with “a whole new toolbox for” instruction

    • Why must a “mode of learning” be relevant? Is it not more important for the material being learned to be placed in the context of everyday lives, and even that is not critical to learning.

    • Is it really necessary to keep up with technology to learn algebra or grammar? In fact, hasn’t the new technology all but destroyed grammar and reduced numeracy?

    • We have many ways to “bring the world into the classroom” and have been doing so for a very long time. Initially, it was stories written by talented authors. Next, we had vivid photographs accompanied by a narrative. Then, along came various forms of movies (videos). Stories can still bring the world into the classroom, even a world that no longer exists.

    • Technology is not required to interact with those people and may even make it more difficult. Locally, we have career days at schools where people in business visit a school and share their career experiences with the students. It’s been very effective and well received, and It’s very low-tech.

    * On the last point, I have to say, “Give me a break!” How many teachers are seeking a “whole new toolbox?” That’s an outrageous excuse for pushing technology onto teachers. Besides, what defines “technology?” A microwave oven certainly is technology, but do we insist that teachers use it? No.

    I continue to insist that, with a few exceptions, the technology to be used in education should be designed for that use. You could try to strap wings on a car to create an airplane, but cars aren’t designed for flying. Furthermore, I believe that the promise of technology in any endeavor should adhere to NASA’s motto of “better, faster, cheaper.” It’s not “shinier, more fun, more expensive.”

    Carmen Klassy has latched onto exactly the wrong reasons for putting technology in classrooms.

  2. Harry, thanks for these thoughtful comments. I’ve responded to each below.

    Harry: Why must a “mode of learning” be relevant? Is it not more important for the material being learned to be placed in the context of everyday lives, and even that is not critical to learning.

    There’s no disagreement here. You and Klassy are using the same definition for “relevant.”

    Harry: Is it really necessary to keep up with technology to learn algebra or grammar? In fact, hasn’t the new technology all but destroyed grammar and reduced numeracy?

    Yes, since technology changes the environment for learning. Being out of sync with the technological environment would be the equivalent of being illiterate in a book-centered classroom.

    Harry: We have many ways to “bring the world into the classroom” and have been doing so for a very long time. Initially, it was stories written by talented authors. Next, we had vivid photographs accompanied by a narrative. Then, along came various forms of movies (videos). Stories can still bring the world into the classroom, even a world that no longer exists.

    C’mon. You have to admit that personal digital communication devices bring the world to us in ways that traditional classrooms couldn’t dream of.

    Harry: Technology is not required to interact with those people and may even make it more difficult. Locally, we have career days at schools where people in business visit a school and share their career experiences with the students. It’s been very effective and well received, and It’s very low-tech.

    See my response above.

    Harry: On the last point, I have to say, “Give me a break!” How many teachers are seeking a “whole new toolbox?” That’s an outrageous excuse for pushing technology onto teachers. Besides, what defines “technology?” A microwave oven certainly is technology, but do we insist that teachers use it? No.

    Sure. Can you imagine a modern cooking lab without a microwave oven? Also, whether they’re seeking it or not, teachers will need a “whole new toolbox.” It comes with living in the 21st century.

    Harry: I continue to insist that, with a few exceptions, the technology to be used in education should be designed for that use. You could try to strap wings on a car to create an airplane, but cars aren’t designed for flying. Furthermore, I believe that the promise of technology in any endeavor should adhere to NASA’s motto of “better, faster, cheaper.” It’s not “shinier, more fun, more expensive.”

    No disagreement here.

    Harry: Carmen Klassy has latched onto exactly the wrong reasons for putting technology in classrooms.

    I disagree. I think she’s captured the key reasons in a nutshell.

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