cyberspace school

November 26th, 2011

Here’s an election day treat from the NZ Herald: an interesting article on the use of technology in education, a review of ideas from Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Forum. And I like that the article has both a disclaimer:

Chris Barton travelled to the Partners in Learning Forum in Washington as a guest of Microsoft.

And a few wee jabs at Microsoft (although nothing untoward):

Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Forums, with their focus on teachers and teaching rather than technology, are very much a soft sell of Microsoft products. But, as a New York Times article this month pointed out, “the courtship of public school officials entrusted with tax dollars is a sensitive matter”.

I wish more NZ journalists would learn to take a few more nibbles at the hands that feed them…

It gives many interesting examples of how technology could be changing education, such as:

Often the learning is informal. Richardson’s children wanted to learn Scratch, an educational programming language developed at the MIT’s Media Lab. They were taught the basics by a 10-year-old expert in Perth, Scotland via a Skype video call.

Seventeen-year-old Mark Klassen is a self-taught cinematographer who freely shares all his work online. As Richardson points out, Klassen learned his craft, including using professional editing software Final Cut, spending “not one minute in a classroom”.

And that’s cool. But it also reminds me of Australia’s experience using technology to educate children in remote communities. And besides, aren’t we all already familiar with how the internet opens us up to a world of information with (ideally…) no geographical limits? Is this really news?

But there are a few things in here that bug me, for example:

Richardson asks why we’re asking kids to memorise facts that, in all likelihood, they will have forgotten in a year’s time. Or, if we are asking them to do this, why we don’t let them go online from their smartphone and use Google to instantly find the answer.

We’re asking them to learn facts because education is not just about teaching kids skills they can apply in the workforce, but about improving kids’ knowledge and understanding of the world around them. And really, what use is somebody who can’t answer a question without Google? Now, I have nothing against search engines. They’re great tools, and I do encourage my students to use them in the classroom. But if they learn nothing from the search – i.e. if when they leave the classroom they have gained no knowledge – then what’s the point?

Or to put it another way: One day last summer on the way back from Yanqing my wife’s cousin wanted a ride to Tiantongyuan where he works. Fair enough, it’s on the way. So I checked the map and off we drove. Somewhere on the roads of Changping District about halfway between the G6 and the road that runs past the Tiantongyuan subway stations he asked me, “Doesn’t this car have GPS?” What an absurd question! Why would I need GPS? Isn’t the ability to navigate a core driving skill? And even with GPS, you still need to be able to read a map and navigate – how many times have you read of people telling their GPS “I’m here and I want to go there” only to find themselves on some dirt track through a forest up a mountainside surrounded by lions and tigers and bears?

And what happens when the GPS breaks? What happens when the power goes out? These things happen, and if you rely on your technology to do stuff for you you suddenly find yourself useless – stuck up a mountain with no idea how to get back to civilisation, or sitting there looking dumb when your teacher – or worse, your boss – asks you a question because you never bothered to actually learn anything beyond how to do a Google search. We expect kids to learn facts because knowledge – the actual possession of information in your own meatspace, flesh and blood brain is just as necessary an element of survival as skills.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs also recounts Jobs telling US President Barack Obama that education was hopelessly antiquated and crippled by union work rules. “It was absurd,” he added, “that American classrooms were still based on teachers standing at a board and using textbooks. All books, learning materials, and assessments should be digital and interactive, tailored to each student and providing feedback in real time.”

And you know what? Steve Jobs was wrong. Blackboards and chalk, textbooks, computers and all that fancy new digital stuff… These are just tools. And each tool has its advantages and disadvantages. Blackboard and chalk gives me much more flexibility to alter a lesson as I’m going and to incorporate student input in written or drawn form than Powerpoint. Powerpoint makes it easier and much less fiddly to incorporate images and video and audio. The internet opens up a world of information, and I certainly do encourage the students to use it in the classroom. The internet and cellphones also open up a world of distraction. And blackboards and chalk may disappear and textbooks may go fully digital, but so what? Quality of education actually has nothing to do with the tools used.

… many see technology’s march on the classroom ushering in a fundamental change in the teacher’s role. That teachers need to transition from being “a sage on the stage to a guide on the side”.

And once again, technology is utterly irrelevant here. “Sages on stages” have never been good teachers. Good teachers have always been “guides on the side”. This was true with the technology available when I was at school, it was true with the technology available when my father was at school, it was true with the technology available when Confucius was at school.

And you know what? The key to educational success is not the tools. Nor is it the teacher or the parents. The key to educational success is the student. Not even the best teacher with the best tools will ever be able to reach a lazy, unmotivated student. This is not to deny the role that teachers, parents or tools play in education – Parents instill values, and therefore do about half the job of motivating the student (nature does the other half – try to get me interested in a maths class or teach me to play piano as well as my sister. In the first case, I have no interest, and that’s a question of personality, in the second I have no aptitude). Teachers give the students opportunities to learn and (the good ones, at least) do their best to inspire the students’ interest and guide them through the learning process – but here the students will decide for themselves whether they will join in or not. No good teacher will ever give up on any student, but no sane teacher expects to pull a Dead Poets Society. Real life ain’t scripted in Hollywood. And besides, remember how that film ends before wishing you were Mr Keating.

But this:

On the plus side, the report highlights how innovative teaching practices may flourish – when a school culture offers “a common vision of innovation and consistent encouragement for new types of teaching”.

And this is the key. Nothing is ever perfect and everything can always be improved, so we should not be blethering on about how technology is changing education anymore than we should be putting carts in front of horses. Because technology is not changing the nature of education. I get lazy and disinterested students reading dead tree books and magazines, and other lazy and disinterested students using their cellphones to chat on QQ or play games. I get motivated students using dead tree dictionaries and other motivated students using online dictionaries (This one, for reasons I don’t know, is hugely popular among my students). And no matter whether the tools they use are low-tech or high-tech, the motivated students succeed, and the lazy and disinterested students do not. The job that keeps me in residence permits and paychecks has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with messing with minds:

  • help students learn knowledge (English grammar and vocabulary) and skills (putting that grammar and vocabulary into coherent sentences, coherent sentences into coherent paragraphs, and coherent paragraphs into coherent academic essays).
  • build confidence in their ability to express themselves in English.
  • with a bit of luck, inspire a love of language and languages in those that way inclined.

No, the question is: How do we use technology, both old and new, to improve how education happens? And that is a collossal question to which I really don’t have any answers, though I am looking.

As I said already, I do encourage the students to use the internet in the classroom to find information – although it’s always a battle keeping them away from the distractions (but the only thing new there is in the sheer volume of the distractions available – I was just as good at flipping through to the more interesting sections of the chemistry textbook as my students are at chatting on QQ). And I share with them websites and techniques I find useful.

Now, I like the sound of the Big History Project:

The approach looks at the past from the big bang to modernity, weaving evidence and insights from many scientific and historical disciplines “into a single, accessible origin story”.

And that brings to mind how Te Papa uses technology to bring science to life. But my problem is that rather than showing the students how a gazillion threads weave together to form a tapestry, I’m teaching them to weave the tapestry.

An obvious application of the internet to writing class is blogging. But I’ve tried this before and, as predicted, ran up against the confidence problem. One problem with the internet is the sheer number of arseholes out there who use the internet’s anonymity and the distance between actions and consequences to tear others down, and of course my students are well aware of this. And there is a huge difference between handing a teacher an essay and putting that essay out there for anyone and everyone to see. Fair enough. So I had the student who built the blog (why do it myself when my students are information technology majors and I had a student so oozing with IT talent he was already working for Microsoft?!) set up a front page that ensured all student essays on the blog could only be seen by myself and the students of the four classes I taught writing that semester. Even so, the difference between giving me an essay and putting it up for any and all of their classmates to see was too much for almost all of them.

And I do wonder what role modelling plays in learning, and how I could use technology to model language learning. Why? Because every one of my own language teachers was at least bilingual. For example, my high school German teacher also taught Latin and spoke French, Italian and Arabic. My high school French teacher also taught Japanese and spoke German. My French teacher would walk into my German class for some work-related reason or another and conduct her business in German, and my German teacher would walk into French class for some other work-related reason and conduct her business in French. I don’t know what affect, if any, this had on my successful learning of German and French, but I think it’s fair to say that seeing polyglots being polyglots in an otherwise rigidly monolingual society was a positive inspiration. And so I wonder if those few now former students who found me on Kaixin001 and Weibo have benefited in their English study from seeing me make a fool of myself in Chinese? Considering how rarely I heard many of them speak English even in spoken English classes, I’m really not sure. And even without the technology, I do get far too many students simply deciding to speak to me only in Chinese. Well, they are IT majors, not English majors, but their degree is from an Australian university, so English is supposed to be an important part of their studies. And, of course, I would have to be much more active to be of any use as a model… My Kaixin001 account resembles Mt Ruapehu – just barely active enough to occasionally remind the few people paying attention I’m still alive – and I’m very much a Weibo wallflower, reading far more than I write.

And of course I have emailed extra material to class monitors for distribution among the students, but the only difference between that and photocopying handouts for distribution in class is the comparative lack of litter on the classroom floor at the end of the lesson – the lazy students don’t bother reading the handout, let alone printing it to bring to class.

And the fact remains that whether the students are putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard my job is teaching people to write proper academic essays, and that is a mental task. Technology could, perhaps, provide me with new and perhaps even better methods of achieving that task, but it will never change the nature of that task.

And I really hope Steve Jobs’ vision of an all-digital classroom never comes to pass. Why? Quite simply, some of us learn better the old fashioned way. For example, I am convinced I am much more likely to learn a new character by looking it up in a dead tree radical index than copying it into a smartphone. Why? The dead tree approach requires me to analyse the character’s structure and break it down into its constituent parts, and surely the extra mental effort is naturally going to create a stronger memory?

So yes, let’s apply technology to improving education where it can – the prime example of that being Australia’s School of the Air enabling students in remote settlements to access education. And let’s remember that just as modern does not mean good (air pollution is modern), low-tech and old-tech are not necessarily the same as bad-tech. And please let’s keep our heads and remember that although technology is changing the way we do things, it certainly is not changing the nature of human existence.