Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Turning on the Lights

Last Friday, I went to a workshop on technology at Montclair State University called "Turning on the Lights." As the title would imply, the workshop was all about using technology to invigorate students and the learning process, while simultaneously creating responsible and knowledgeable citizens of the digital age. I have a story to tell. I fear it may be convoluted. Please bear with me.

When I began working, just out of college, I took a job fixing Macintosh computers at a local high school. I actually never really enjoyed the tedious, repetitive aspects of the job (like fixing the computers), but I became fascinated with problem solving and using technology in the classroom. That fascination, and the education environment in general, helped push me to pursue my Master's Degree and begin a career as an English teacher. Ever since then, I have been fascinated with using technology in the classroom and in the learning process. Therefore, this conference was certainly something that interested me.

Dumont High School (where I'm currently teaching) is not the most progressive technology oriented school district in the world. Many web sites that other school districts use on a regular basis (YouTube, various Wiki sites, flickr, blogspot, etc.) are blocked by our internet filter for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, my colleagues and I become frustrated because we cannot even access many of the technological tools that we would like to use. Granted, there are still many that we can use (or we can get clever in what we implement and how), but there is a general feeling limited by many of our non-options.

In this case, however, I'd like to focus on YouTube in particular. My previous post features a great YouTube video from a Kansas State University Anthropology class. The presenter also showed this video at the Turning on the Lights conference. It would make for an amazing discussion piece with students of all ages. What does it mean to be a student? What are we as a school doing right? Doing wrong? Currently, we cannot use the video in Dumont, although many of us might want to present either this one or another in class. If given the opportunity, I think that we would be euphoric beyond all rationale.

The point of this post is not to attack the Dumont School District. Rather, it is to explore both sides of this complicated issue (Am I a bad writer because I just had to spell out the thesis statement?). Having worked in educational technology, I do have some (albeit dated) understanding of what it means to try to suppport an network designed for school use. This point was further refined at the end of Friday's conference. As I was leaving the center, I ran into one of my old bosses. He works in a very affluent school district that could basically afford any piece of technology that it wanted. I told him that he must feel very privileged. While we wait for a crumb (either in equipment or the disappearance of the internet stop sign), teachers who work with him must be like kids in a candy store, I reasoned. He told me that was absolutely not the case.

He said that, in affluent districts, teachers become very accustomed to just being able to get whatever technology they need for class. If they want to show a YouTube video, they do. If they want to project something at a moment's notice, they do. If they want to film a lesson, sign a form, no problem. The issue, as he told me, is created when something breaks or does not work correctly. Sadly, the culture is such that everyone just begins to expect that everything will work, all of the time. My former boss explained to me that he had to block YouTube for three days earlier this school year, because the network needed maintenance and could not support the traffic. He said that teachers nearly crucified him. How could they teacher their classes without it?

This certainly highlights a digital divide. It also demonstrates poor prioritizing. Technology becomes the gimmick, THE way to teach. If one can't have it, then what good is teaching. Balance must exist somewhere. Some schools (Dumont) currently have very little available technology. Others have a ton. Yet everyone complains. Too much, too little, why is it broken, why can't we use it, etc., etc., etc. I needed to write this post to remind myself that technology is not the most important thing. Learning is. As long as someone learns something, the day has not been wasted, no matter how great that "other" lesson might have been. If I ever get access to the YouTube videos I want to show in class and the one laptop per child, I do not want to carry on and moan like a spoiled baby if something stops working. I need to always remember this exchange and what it was like to teach (I hope effectively) without having that same amount of access.

If that isn't the most Dickensian of blog posts, I'm sure nothing is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I certainly agree with your remarks about there needing to be a balance between using technology in the classroom and relying on more traditional methods. I think it's also important that teachers be wary of what we might call 'edutainment'--where teachers become consumed by the idea that they have to do everything possible to make their units accessible to their students on the students' level. By this, I mean having twenty Simpsons clips lined up for every lesson, a movie with every novel, a game for every activity. It's important, of course, to reach out to students and attempt to appeal to their interests, but it's also important that students understand that learning is not always easy, not always instantly accessible, and not always fun. Sometimes, it's just work, and that has to be okay. As the classroom transforms into the multimedia center, I think the expectation of instant gratification that is concurrent with new media begins to take root, and this is a dangerous event. It would be best, in my opinion, if technology in the classroom was used not to simplify or excite the discussion, but to deepen and expand it