Utopians and Skeptics on Classroom Technologies: Where are you on the Continuum?

I have been reading Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America (2009) by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson. Like many other writers, I am thinking of Andrew Zucker’s Transforming Schools with Technology (2008), Collins and Halverson create a continuum of advocates and critics of technology in schools. At one end of their continuum are the “Technology Enthusiasts” or, in Zucker’s phrase, “Technology Utopians”; at the other end are the “Technology Skeptics (Zucker uses same phrase).

Collins and Halverson do not bash folks at either end of the continuum although they do embrace ultimately the “Enthusiasts” arguments. They present points for each side but clearly believe that the world has become digital and schools as they are currently operated will be overwhelmed by home schooling, cyberschools, charters, private learning centers, workplace learning, and distance education. “These new alternatives,” they say, “will make us rethink the the dominant role of K-12 public schools in education as children and adults spend more time learning in new venues” (p.4). Thus, the “digital revolution” will alter the nature of schooling completely by making learning life-long and, in their words, mere “schooling” will finally become “educational.”

The problem I have with such scenarios—and, God knows, there have been such claims for decades from Nicholas Negroponte, Seymour Papert and many others—is that these scenarios of Utopians carry the assumption of inevitability—it’s gonna happen and no one can stop it—and no middle ground for folks who may say: “wait a minute, let’s look at this again.”

Seldom do these futurists acknowledge in their rosy predictions that while many parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers inhabit either the Utopian or Skeptic poles, many others cluster in the middle of the continuum. Many of those who hug the middle know that present and past school uses of technologies show great promise for student learning but contain serious flaws; sometimes they even wince at especially foolish claims Utopians make. Overall, however, most believe technologies in or out of school will ultimately benefit students and teachers.

These middle-of-the-roaders also see merit in arguments and evidence laid out by the Skeptics. They see the institutional limits of schooling, the varied purposes that schools serve in a democratic society, and the downsides of technology. If push comes to shove, those in the middle would tilt toward the Utopian side but would not pooh-pooh Skeptics or call them names.

These middle-roaders are neither unvarnished fans of the newest software application—like those who have yet to meet an application they didn’t like–nor doom-sayers about high-tech dumbing down the art and science of teaching, isolating individuals from one another and confusing students by equating information with knowledge. Many middle-roaders are like Bill Ferriter.

I have never met Ferriter. I know him through his blog (“The Tempered Radical”) and I must say I am impressed with him. He teaches 6th grade language arts and social studies at Salem Middle School in Wake County (NC). A veteran of 14 years in the classroom, Ferriter was named teacher of the year for Wake County in 2005-2006. He writes often about technology and knows classroom software and hardware like the back of his hand. He also has questioned the worth of the Interactive Whiteboard in Teacher Magazine.

Specifically, Ferriter said:
“They [Whiteboards] do little more than reinforce a teacher-centric model of learning. Heck, even whiteboard companies market them as a bridging technology, designed to replicate traditional instructional practices (make presentations, give notes, deliver lectures) in an attempt to move digital teacher-dinosaurs into the light. I ask you: Do we really want to spend thousands of dollars on a tool that makes stand-and-deliver instruction easier?”

For that heresy, Ferriter received hate mail and was roundly condemned. In his response, he stoutly defended his credentials as a technology enthusiast with his ample writings on high-tech use and classroom work. (Based on his blog posts, I would place him as a middle-roader on the continuum who tilts clearly toward “technology enthusiasts” side).

And he did a marvelous post in responding to the criticism by listing all the applications and hardware he could buy with the $5-6 grand he would have spent on an Interactive Whiteboard. I hail Mr. Ferriter for his tech savvy and courage to defend his skepticism of the hullabaloo that has surrounded these Whiteboards.

Just as important to me, however, is to hear from those among the skeptics who see few virtues, and many vices, in using high-tech in classrooms. The next post will come from guest blogger Jerry Brodkey, a veteran high school math teacher, who is skilled in his personal use of computers but questions their use in classrooms on other grounds that need to have a hearing as surely as Bill Ferriter’s skepticism about Interactive Whiteboards.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Utopians and Skeptics on Classroom Technologies: Where are you on the Continuum?

  1. Computers are things, not places. There are two places in the post that assume computers create space or place. I don’t understand how a computer replaces or moves a space that is useful for a reason that has nothing to do with what it does.

    Ferriter is perfectly correct. Interactive whiteboards are nothing more than tablets. It points up my criticism that people who criticize appropriate technology confuse location in strange ways. One of my students made ours into an interactive dart board using PowerPoint. That in my mind was the most creative thing ever done with EITHER of the two.

    I don’t find Negroponte to be overly enthusiastic. He knows what can be done and has run projects that demonstrate his claims.

    Entrenched interests prevent innovation. That’s the only important thing I can say at this point other than understanding how technology affects our lives is not intuitive. You *can* say for certain that http makes a computer on the Internet the most powerful publication medium in the Universe. You can also say that when you view or listen to something on a computer, you have copied it and can keep it if you wish to.

    Consider what I have just said and then sit back and look at how much attention and money has been devoted to preventing it. However, the worst entrenched special interests are the friendly ones.

  2. I like your summary of the issues and the spectrum, Larry. I’m also a friend of Bill’s, so guess I’m inclined to like your take on this situation. Without getting too caught up in the particulars of Bill’s column and the responses, I think Tom Welch said something useful when I heard him speak at the NBPTS Conference last summer. He said that if he were observing a class with an interactive white board, he would expect to see students using it more than half the time. I’ve tried to keep that in mind with the technology I use with students. I have a long way to go, but I’m trying to show them how to use it for their own purposes and in their own ways, not just receive information from me electronically.

  3. I’ve just been required to read a great deal of the international research on the impact (or not) of technology on educational outcomes.

    One of the research papers I had to wade through was a study by the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies, “Drivers and Barriers to Educational Success. Evidence from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England,” April 2009. On its own website publicising its £270m Computers for Pupils programme providing computers for school children at home, the UK government cites this research as evidence and states: “Research shows pupils could improve by two grades at GCSE with a computer at home.”

    Far from showing this, the research actually decided there were five main routes through which family background might influence educational enagement and attainment …other than genetics. One of the five was “Material Resources” and by their own definition that consisted entirely of, “private tuition plus home computer and internet access.”

    I was a tad bemused at a research paper on educational advantage, that regarded computer and internet access as a better measure of educational advantage, than numbers of books in the household.

    The UK government is currently spending £1,675 on ICT for every secondary school child under its £42billion Building Schools for the Future programme, so I asked myself the question, “I wonder how many books that would buy?” And set about selecting books from Amazon for a 17 year old studying English Literature (my own subject.) Some days later I reached the answer, it’s…299, and you can see every one of them on my own blog.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Joe,

      Thanks for your comment. I will check out the report you noted on “Drivers and Barriers to Educational Success. Evidence from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England.” I appreciate your noting the report.

  4. Hi Larry

    We tried really hard to be neither enthusiasts nor skeptics in our book. In some reviews we have been accused of being skeptics and in some like yours we are accused of being enthusiasts. We do admit to our past as enthusiasts, but our goal as stated in the preface was to try to describe what is happening.

    I personally really like your books and agree with most of your arguments. I assign 3 of your pieces in my graduate course. I tried to convey your ideas as best I could in the book, and my agreement with you.

    By emphasizing the losses we see as well as the gains we see from technology, we tried to be as even handed as possible. I would not argue that schools should embrace technology wholeheartedly. I actually think that teachers should do what they do best, with or without technology.

    But I do think our society needs to face up to the fact that elites are buying themselves all sorts of educational advantages, and that we need to address the problems of equity that technology exacerbates.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Allan, for the clarification about where you and your co-author would place yourselves on that continuum of “enthusiast” to “skeptic.” The concerns for equity that you expressed in the book is one that few “enthusiasts” who tout “disruptive” innovations seldom mention.

  5. Laura

    I will look for those books. As far as education for my kids I am a technology skeptic. My 6th grader is at a private school that is embracing more technology use than I am comfortable with. I am seeking to start a discussion group there so we can explore and express concerns about jumping in the bandwagon of linking kids w screen use when the jury is not in on the many effects this may have on their health and learning. How does one approach the school to ask them to temper their ‘progress’? How does one not put ones kid in the middle of this but minimize at least optional tech use? Thanks laura

    • larrycuban

      Have those in charge of the school explained to parents why the school is spending funds to enlarge technological use? If the answer is yes, then following up with school administrators from a few parents like yourself would begin the discussion you are seeking. If the answer is no, then it seems to me, Laura, that having coffee with those in the school who are behind the expansion of technology in the school and simply asking for the rationale and the data supporting such an initiative would be the first step.

    • Bob Calder

      It is likely there are virtually no schools that have policy statements on how this should be done that are NOT peppered with baseless paranoia. Don’t let people tell you the research “isn’t in” – it’s like Romney saying that there’s no consensus on global warming. Reading:
      danah boyd (anything), Howard Rheingold’s _Net Smart_, Henry Jenkins, Cass Sunstein, Cathy Davidson’s book on Attention, Larry Lessig’s Code 2.0, Manuel Castells, Coleman and Shirky, Rebecca MacKinnon, Steven Shaviro, and many more have done work that is not based on anecdote and not based on “common sense”. Defcon had a children’s session this year featuring lock picking and password hacking for elementary and high school aged children. This is good because it teaches children that security is partly a set of social conventions that are supported by symbolic artifacts. Do you know a child that is likely to answer that when asked why we have a lock on the front door?

      Larry’s blog is about using technology to teach, its historic successes and failures. As such, it is a mirror of social upheaval and the profound discomfort of a people struggling to find themselves in a culture that becomes more fluid minute by minute as a result of global forces impelled by ubiquitous technologies. I don’t believe it serves as a guide to help you teach you own children about their place in today’s social fabric.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Bob, for the follow-up to Laura’s comment.

      • freelyn

        By the way, there is no consensus on man made global warming and in fact the hard date indicates that global temperatures have risen much less than reported in the studies of those who adhere to the church of science for politics. In fact there was a lot of data manipulation to attempt to use global warming as a political issue and the cries of consensus were to shut up any scientist that disagreed. Including the ones who have been pointing out that this warming trend appears to be a normal raise in temperatures as we continue to leave the ice age.

        So anyway,I think it’s scary that it seems that political leaning also seems to be a component in where you fall on the Utopians and Skeptics technology Continuum.

      • Bob Calder

        Simply amazing that you know that 97% of climatologists are wrong freelyn. Move the conversation over to G+ and prepare for battle kiddo. It’s where the scientists hang out. You will meet some real ones.

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