Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Technology, or ELSE!

I was present at a lecture given by Dr. Wilson Gum this week. Dr. Gum has worked as an industrial chemist for over forty years, including acting as R&D director for Dow Chemicals polyurethane division. At one point, Dr. Gum was sent to evaluate a recently acquired factory in the, then, recently independent country of Estonia. While touring the plant, which manufactured benzoic acid, he discovered that every piece of equipment was duplicated. The entire factory was like Noah’s Ark: two of everything. He asked why so much inefficiency was tolerated. The plant’s engineers told him that under communism efficiency for profit’s sake was never much of a motivator, but that engineers were regularly executed or sent to Siberian gulags when their processes failed, or when production broke down. A fear of technological failure, and its consequences, shaped the manner in which technology was both designed and employed in that environment.

Throughout this semester, I have wrestled with the dichotomy between theoretical assertions, backed with data, and educational practices. I have taken the time to ask my colleagues about educational technology, and to listen carefully when conversation drifted to that topic on its own. Teachers, it seems, are inherently pessimistic about technology; new technologies often have bugs, networks crash, the copier jams. In the end, most teachers view technology as magical or adversarial, or a combination of the two. The few teachers that possess any comfort or facility with technology are seen as exceptional by their peers.

Technology will fail. Teachers must strive to become experts in the technologies that are incorporated into their pedagogies, as they are to become expert in their content (Bransford, Brown, Cocking, 1999). Teachers are able to adapt to new students and new learning situations, but are often incapable of transferring their own skills both to and between technologies. Too often, technology is employed as a patina on top of more traditional pedagogical methods. Web quests are used for enrichment. Publishing programs are used as an alternative to nearly identical paper and pencil tasks. Teachers are rarely able to be flexible with technology, because their knowledge is that of a novice.

Teachers don’t have to worry about banishment if their technological attempts fail, but there are considerable pressures bearing on classroom decisions. Primarily among these pressures is that of time. If technology breaks down, or if a project is ineffective- time has been lost. Time is in short supply as teachers attempt to meet increasing standards of accountability and to cover prescribed content. Consequently, teachers will play it safe. They will use technology they can count on. They will design projects which can be easily converted into a less technology-reliant version. In short, teachers will design around education as long as it remains a mode of thinking in which they are not fluent. Teachers must become expert in the theory and use of technology in order to effectively bring research findings into the classroom.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

1 comment:

  1. Rob-

    Throughout the semester I've appreciated how your input has been slightly askew from the expected poses and regurgitations of information.

    Thanks for challenging my brain. See you next month.