Sunday, February 28, 2010

Getting teachers to use more technology

Ask the wrong question, get the wrong answer. That's the first thing I thought of when I read a blog-posting prompt for a class I am taking: "What is the best way to get others at your schools to use more technology in their teaching and the students' learning?"

The main charge for my position at my school, as I understand it, is to coach and assist teachers in integrating technology into their teaching. I don't see my job as getting them to "use more technology." There is a fine distinction there, so let me see if I can make the line clearer.

I have latched on to a couple of guiding principles for my work. The first one is a techno-take on the Hippocratic Oath of "First, Do No Harm". The second one stretches Occam's Razor: All things considered, the simplest solution is the best solution. The second principle relates to the idea of "appropriate technology" and the "Keep It Simple" principle of design. And usually, the simplest solution will be a low-tech solution. Electronic equivalents complicate.

I see my role as helping teachers accomplish their teaching tasks most effectively. In terms of technology, that means identifying the most effective technology to deliver instruction or facilitate learning. (There might be some fine points to make re: teachers teaching vs. students learning, and who is doing what in the process and whether the center of it is closer to the teacher or the student, but let's set those aside for now.)

There will be times when there will be compelling reasons to use new technologies. But always, with any medium or tool, there are trade-offs. Marshall and Eric McLuhan's "Four Laws of Media" captures this idea of something gained, something lost. According to their "four laws", every medium (and they include tools as media) enhances (this is the part we tend to focus on), but it also obsolesces (something is lost or made obsolete), and when taken too far, it reverses, or yields an undesired, or even opposite effect (the classic example is the automobile that results in gridlock). [FYI, the fourth effect is retrieves.] While something is gained, something else is lost. It may not be a zero-sum game, but there are definitely trade-offs.

Case in point: virtual math manipulatives are kinda neat, and offer some useful opportunities for students. But they are also virtual, and the tactile benefits of handwork is lost. Or online collaboration -- the online medium inserts itself into the communication process, and collaboration is altered. While online collaboration creates new possibilities, the benefits of face-to-face communication are lost. If we only interact with online personae and avatars, I fear we will end up somewhere on the autism spectrum, incapable of reading faces anymore.

Anyway, I do not see my role as encouraging the use of more technology, but assisting in the process of making wise choices to help teachers be successful. While I can't say I am doing a particularly good job at this (why is a subject for another post), it means working closely with a teacher, understanding what she is trying to accomplish, and making her aware of her options, including the benefits and drawbacks.

If the concept of classroom technology is relaxed to include traditional tools like chalk and blackboard, and even lecturing, my understanding of what a "lead technology teacher" should be perhaps becomes clearer. I work with teachers (or should anyway) to help them select the most appropriate tool for the job and use it effectively.

If teachers are driving the teaching process (understood in whatever way one wants to conceive of what teachers do), then I do not need to "get them to use more technology". I just need to help them clarify what tools will help them the most (and hopefully do no harm). Given the opportunity, they will use as much technology as they need, and hopefully no more.



Ms. Anti-Bureaucracy said...

Hi Jim,
It was fun to read your post, as usual. I'm curious if you can give an example of when you feel like you did help a teacher make a good choice about when to use a certain form of technology. You bring up a good point that the goal is not to simply get people to use technology more. They just need to use it when it is actually useful.

I've found it silly that I have a Smartboard sitting in my classroom and I barely use it. I just find it so clumsy that it becomes more of a hassle than it is worth. I'm humbled how little I, someone with a fairly decent tech skillset, does not put all the technology that I have at my disposal to use. But, it turns out that most of the stuff cuts into my planning time and it seems like the reason I try to use the Smartboard is because it engages the kids, not necessarily because it helps me teach anything better or more efficiently.

I am hoping, though, that this all changes after the ISAT because I do think that I can put student fascination and addiction to technology to use in learning. I just need enough time to explore all of the technological options and come up with a plan. Something I'm guessing most of your less tech savvy teachers don't want to do.

Does this make any sense? I'm falling alseep as I write this!

Ed Caster said...

Earlier this week I received a post on my Facebook wall from a former student. The quality of the student might be demonstrated by the movie clip she sent to me – a scene from Inherit the Wind, the 1960 movie on the subject of the Scopes monkey trial. In this scene, Spencer Tracy talks about gaining things and the loss this gain causes. One of his speeches to the jury included these comments similar to those of Marshall and McLuhan thoughts about loss and gain: “you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy, madam you may vote, but you lose the right to hide behind the powder puff, you may conquer the air, but the clouds will smell of gasoline. “ Then I was reading blog entries and ran across your entry. The similarity of subject matter between Tracy’s statements and McLuhan’s “four laws” was quite remarkable. The movie made its debut four years before McLuhan’s Understanding Media and two years before McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy. (No, I had not been familiar with McLuhan until I read the blog.)
Progress does cause loss and we often lament that which is gone, but I do not lose sleep over the missing 8 track tape, or the long gone vacuum tubes in a radio or tv. I also do not miss the slide rule or the volumes of outdated encyclopedias that sit on library shelves, now filled with dust. Maybe video conferencing will force us to keep the ability to read faces.

Ms. Anti-Bureaucracy said...

Sorry I called you Jim before!!!