12 Winters Blog

Notes from the Illinois Education and Technology Conference 2012

Posted in December 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on December 2, 2012

(It’s been several months since my last post.  I’ve been writing a monograph on the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, and it’s soaked up a lot of my time and writing energy.  In particular, Sunday mornings have been my preferred blogging time, but that has also been the best hours to work on my Beowulf project, which is now far enough along that I can start to devote some thinking-writing time to other pursuits, like this blog.  I know:  Hooray!)

I’ve deliberately restricted the subject matter of this blog to my reading and writing life, which means I’ve deliberately avoided writing about other things that are important to me, like education.  But I’ve been a public schoolteacher for 29 years, plus I’ve also been an adjunct instructor at two universities, one public, one Catholic, for 15 years — so I have a lot of opinions about education (informed opinions, I like to believe).  I’ve avoided blogging about education-related issues for a couple of reasons, most likely.  One, so much of my life and my being are devoted to teaching, it’s a pleasant break to blog about other pats of my life that are important to me.  Two — and no. 2 is the more practical matter — to write about education is to, inevitably, critique education, and since my experiences are limited to specific faculties and specific superiors, that means I must at times critique my colleagues, my administrators, and my school board members.

I believe no. 2 is the reason that one hears so little (i.e., reads or sees via interviews, etc.) from actual practicing teachers:  all the power and authority flow in one direction, from the top down.  Quite frankly, a school board or an administration that decides it wants to make a teacher’s life miserable can quite easily do so.  I know that the media makes it sound like “teacher unions” are these all-powerful entities, but the truth is there’s very little associations can do to shield teachers from their superiors’ day-to-day ire.  New tenure/seniority and evaluation laws in Illinois make it fairly easy for administrations to circumvent tenure protection — but even before such laws were adopted, administrations could always rely on the oldest trick in the book:  perhaps they couldn’t very easily out and out fire a teacher they didn’t like, but there was nothing preventing them from making his life so miserable that he opted to resign or retire ahead of schedule.

Consequently, the ones who know education best — the classroom teachers who are in the trenches day in and day out — are left standing silently on the sidelines of debates, allowing their associations to speak for them en masse (associations, a.k.a, unions that have been demonized in the media as all that is wrong with education in the United States).

In my long layoff from blogging, while the presidential campaigns burned with rhetorical fury, often misrepresenting teachers and their collective mission, I decided to lift my own ban on writing about education … and I’ll begin by writing  about the 19th annual Illinois Education & Technology Conference that I attended in Springfield November 29 and 30.  To set the stage, I have been a long-time critic of technology’s powerful role in education.  I’m not a Luddite, not by any means.  I love technology.  I maintain multiple websites, I write two different blogs, I’m on Facebook (too much), I began tweeting before 90% of the world had heard of Twitter, I Skype, I have a smart phone, a netbook, a school-purchased iPad, and this desktop on which I’m writing this post; I love Netflix and Hulu, I have a YouTube channel, I’m on Vimeo, I’ve been into desktop publishing since the mid 80s. . . .

But at the same time, I believe our society and our schools have gone overboard with their worshiping of technology and their advocacy of its use in all circumstances.  Quite simply, when it comes to developing the mind via reading, writing and thinking skills, ancient, time-tested (non-computer-technological) ways are still the best — by far.  (Now that I’ve lifted my moratorium on discussing education-related issues I’m sure I’ll post more on these specific issues in the coming months.)

So I went to the conference as a devout skeptic, but I was truly hoping to find some reason for hope:  some concrete method for employing technology with my students that seemed to be beneficial, or at least some sense that technology would one day be viewed as a tool to be used when circumstances warranted, and not an idol who required daily pacification.

In a word, after two full days of conferencing, I was disappointed.

First of all, there were very few sessions that even pretended to offer practical advice on classroom pedagogy.  Many, if not most, of the sessions were conducted by school IT people, the people who bring technology into their districts then keep it running (and expanding). It’s not universal of course, but many IT people seem to view teachers as impediments to their getting the coolest technology into the hands of students.  One presenter (who I’m sure is a nice guy in the regular part of his life) even complained about teachers who have the audacity to ask “Why?” — that is, teachers who aren’t willing to embrace every piece of hardware and software that appears at their classroom door, but, rather, they respond critically (as in critically thinking) by asking what the potential benefits and drawbacks are.  (One notable exception was Jon Orech, of Downers Grove South High School, who said that asking why is, in fact, the most vital question when it comes to new technology, not what and how as so many seem to think.)

Another IT-person presenter referred to some teachers in his district as being “rock stars,” that is, teachers who use a lot of technology with their students — which of course suggests that more circumspect and more traditional teachers are, sadly, what, Fred Rogers-like? This presenter’s co-presenter expressed what also seems to be a common theme among the pro-tech folks:  That if all teachers would simply embrace all that the newest technologies have to offer, then students could finally reach their full potential.  Sounds great, except I don’t know what it means, in a practical sense, to embrace the newest technologies.  What would that look like in the classroom on a daily basis?  How would teachers have to change their approaches to unleash this revolution?  No one can seem to say.  For that matter, what sorts of potentials in students are we talking about?  It seems to have something to do with making them more creative.  Achievement is a popular concept; students using technology will achieve more or higher … or something.

Although, the gentleman who made the “rock star” comment also stressed to his fellow IT-ers in the audience, do not — repeat, do not — tell your administration that students will do better on achievement tests, because they probably won’t and then what do you do?  He was specifically referring to the concept of one-to-one computing, a trend in education that features giving each student a device of some sort (usually a laptop or a tablet, especially these days an iPad) and having them do just about everything via the device, avoiding traditional textbooks, and paper-based exams and projects, etc.  “Rock-star” man also advised his fellows not to count on saving some money in the budget by reducing the amount of paper being used, because this, in essence, “paperless” approach seems to use just as much paper as always.

One-to-one computing, or at least the idea of it, is big right now, especially in the Chicago suburbs it would seem.  Schools on the east coast started the trend several years ago, and most have already abandoned it — which isn’t stopping us Midwesterners from giving it a spin around the dancefloor.  “Rock star” guy’s co-presenter — both of whom, by the way, seem like very decent and funny human beings — said that their administrator wanted to go to one-to-one because neighboring superintendents were doing it, and he didn’t want to seem out of step.  This is another problem in education:  many school boards and administrators make decisions out of, basically, peer pressure, and not because of solid research results that support the approach, whichever one we’re talking about.

My final observation:  The iPad is extraordinarily popular right now in education — in spite of the fact no one seems to know how to use it in a classroom setting very effectively.  It doesn’t easily integrate with existing equipment, like other non-Mac computers, projectors and printers; plus its on-screen keyboard is awkward to use.  Teachers really, really like it, but they appreciate what it does for their professional and private lives, not for what it can do in the classroom, which doesn’t seem to be much.  I count myself among them.  I like my school-purchased iPad a lot and use it every day … at home.  I’ve found almost nothing that I can do with it in the classroom, in spite of wanting to find useful applications, which was one of the reasons I attended the conference.

Don’t get me wrong:  There were several sessions focused on using the iPad in the classroom, and I of course couldn’t attend all of them — so maybe I just missed the best of the best (my life can be like that) — but based on their descriptions and the sessions I did attend, the suggestions are pretty elementary, and consist of using the iPad in lieu of something else that’s more traditional and more common.  For example, use the iPad to make pictures, well, cave children made pictures on their school-cave walls; or use the iPad to make music, well, … you get it.  In other words, it seems like a lot of the pedagogical suggestions for the iPad are about playing.  And playing, I agree, can be very beneficial and even very educational, but since when did every kid need an iPad to play?

Let me just end by saying that I know tech people are good people, and teachers and administrators who fervently promote technology are good people — it’s just that too many people in education in general are working under the assumption that society has sold them:  that technology is inherently positive, and the more schools use it, the better those schools will be at teaching students.  We used to think smoking was healthy, too, and that asbestos was a wonderful, life-saving product.  Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we’re wrong; and we have to acknowledge it, and re-think and re-shape what we’re doing.  I’d like to believe that time is coming soon in education, but I suspect we’ll be lounging in our asbestos-tiled rooms  taking drags on our unfiltered Camels for decades to come.

tedmorrissey.com

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2 Responses

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  1. Christine Padberg said, on December 5, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the conference and your perspective on ed tech trends. Does sound disappointing. Underfunded community colleges like mine and many others do not have to have to worry about an imminent push from IT to get iPads (or any other tech equipment) into the hands of our students. My biggest ed tech concern is how we support students in their reading and annotating when their instructors adopt e-texts and assign articles online? We also struggle with the digital divide. If we should happen to find an innovative or promising online program, want to require extensive online research, or have students try some one-to-one or Web. 2.0 computing, how do we avoid disenfranchising students without reliable access to computers? And then there’s the control issue. It’s reasonable to restrict the use of cell phones in the classroom, but how long can we prohibit the use of tablets and/or laptops if a student claims she wants to use her device to take notes and swears she will not spend the whole class period on Facebook—even though we suspect that is precisely what she will do?

  2. Ted Morrissey said, on December 17, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Sorry for the delayed response, Christine. You raise great points. I’ve come to believe that what improves students’ reading, writing, and thinking skills are reading, writing, and thinking — and anything that’s a distraction to those processes is, well, a distraction. Generally speaking, computer technology is a distraction. No one wants to hear that, especially the tech industry and the educators who’ve built their careers on using technology (and there are a lot of them), but if we can become atheists in the Worship House of Technology, we see it quite plainly. You mention the digital divide: Years ago I read a cognitive psychologist who speculated that the technology have-nots in our society would be the big winners in terms of intellectual development in the end. More and more I believe she’s right.


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