Technology Enthusiasts, Pragmatists, and Skeptics among Practitioners and Policymakers: Where Are You?

I wrote this post five years ago this month. In it, I mentioned two recently published books that divided advocates of and opponents to technologies in schools into two camps: enthusiasts and skeptics. For the past few months I have been thinking anew about those policymakers, pundits, and practitioners (including blogging students and parents) who write about technology. I want to broaden the familiar continuum of positions on technology in schools beyond those at either pole. I want to include a rich array of those who inhabit the middle. So here is a revised and expanded post.

In reading Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America (2009) by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, they, like many other writers on technology, create a continuum of advocates and critics of technology in schools. At one end of their continuum are the “Technology Enthusiasts” and at the other end are the “Technology Skeptics.

Collins and Halverson do not bash either the cheerleaders or doubters at either end of the continuum although many of those gleeful about school technologies do dump on those who express doubt with the position they take. The authors cite points for each side but clearly believe that the world has become digital and schools as they are currently operated will be undercut and overwhelmed by home schooling, cyberschools, charters, private learning centers, workplace learning, and distance education. “These new alternatives,” they say, “will make us rethink 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.” Maybe.

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 (see here and here)—is that these peeks into the future 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 either their celebratory or dismal predictions that while many parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers inhabit either the Enthusiast or Skeptic pole, many others cluster in the middle of the continuum. Many of those–more often than not, teachers and principals rather than policymakers–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 made by one or the other side. Overall, however, most writers and actual players in the school technology game, especially policymakers, believe technologies in or out of school will ultimately benefit students and teachers.

Those middle-of-the-roaders, however—let’s call them Pragmatists— may tilt toward the Enthusiasts in their heart-of-hearts, but in practice, shy away from the unrealistically rosy future digital millennials imagine. Pragmatists see merit in the arguments and evidence laid out by the Skeptics and have doubts about the too bright and too dark futures that advocates at both end of this continuum forecast. These Pragmatists see the institutional limits of schooling, the varied purposes that schools serve in a democratic society, and the inevitable glitches that arise. They do not worship at the shrine of technology.  If push comes to shove, those in the middle might tilt toward the Enthusiasts’ side but would not pooh-pooh Skeptics or call them names.

These Pragmatists are neither unvarnished fans of the newest software application—some Enthusiasts have yet to meet one they didn’t like–nor doom-saying Skeptics who claim that any new device shoves teachers further down that road of dumbing down the art and science of teaching, isolating individuals from one another and confusing students by equating information with knowledge.

I believe that most teachers are Pragmatists and most policymakers are Enthusiasts. As schools have been the pushed into  trying out the most recent technological innovations, teachers have learned over time that some devices and software can be very helpful in reaching their objectives and some applications cannot (or will not) be helpful. More and more teachers have incorporated new technologies into their daily lessons  since the early 1980s. Using mixes of traditional teaching with new technologies (e.g., smart boards, tablets, laptops) have led to increasing instances of “blended learning.” Such teachers using mixes of old and new classroom approaches illustrate Pragmatists in action.

Where do you fit on the continuum?

17 Comments

Filed under school reform policies, technology use

17 responses to “Technology Enthusiasts, Pragmatists, and Skeptics among Practitioners and Policymakers: Where Are You?

  1. David Callaghan

    Hi Larry

    Pragmatist – in the middle. I’ve got some posts from 2010 too that I find are still relevant / engaging, such as this one, perhaps informed by your ‘Oversold and Underused’ book:

    What evidence is there suggesting ICT improves student performance?

    However, I am heartened that this post of mine, lamenting the demise of ‘computer science’ has been overtaken by events:

    ICT in Education – from cutting edge to impoverishment

    … as ICT has itself been deprecated from the UK school curriculum in favour of a more systems focus – see what Michael Gove said about “Disapplying the Programme of Study”. So, exciting times for computer teachers in the UK!

    Kindest regards to all, David

  2. As with most things, I find myself moving within range of the pragmatic. I work in online education and yet see technology not as an answer, but as another tool to use.

    Really education is most benefited by pedagogical practices. Technology is another tool in the teaching arsenal. Every new tool offers a new way to learn, but is of no value without teachers, professors, instructors, utilizing sound educational strategies to fit the goals at hand.

    Technology provides opportunities to extend the classroom with the capability of inverted classrooms or online supportive material (to allow students of different learning levels succeed). It allows new creative projects to be inserted into the learning experience. For instance, create collaborative projects like recording an informative rap video as a Math or Social Studies assignment. However, if technology is introduced with no structure, no set objective, then it becomes has the potential distraction–the teacher (K-12 particularly) needs to guide the students in order to not only impart knowledge, but to show students how to learn–or better yet how to love learning–and that is done with whatever tools are at hand being used in the best possible way for that particular cohort of students.

  3. cstutts2

    Thank you for this. As a high school Social Studies teacher who exists at the leading edge of technology use in my school environment, I feel that I am often asked to be a cheerleader for tools and methods I can’t reasonably endorse.

  4. chrismwparsons

    Definitely a pragmatist. Formerly an enthusiast!

  5. MG

    Great post. Pragmatist. I started a small charter in 2000.
    It had a media-and-technology theme. I was influenced even when I wrote my charter (1997) by your writings, Professor Cuban. I figured “others educators have struggled with tech; so our team will be appropriately skeptical, and that will help us succeed.”)

    But the media-and-tech vision really struggled (at least in our particular effort).

    Ended up by 2004 pivoting to more old-fashioned focus — school culture and generating student effort; tougher courses; high-dosage tutoring. That really paid off for kids, haven’t looked back.

    Then again in 2012, got my courage up, and got a $450k grant from Gates to create a new blended learning charter. But again, with a transparent “tech skeptic” lens over top of “tech embrace.” This time, our team developed tech skeptic systems that were better – much better “fail fast” testing before deploying; more protected time for a staff member to try things out with kids. It’s going better. Still finding far fewer “useful” ed tech products to deploy than one might guess, though.

    Love your blog, your scholarship. Cheers.

  6. Reblogged this on Thinking about learning… and commented:
    I love that this update broadens the continuum of positions – I am one who is somewhere in the middle. My position on the spectrum is constantly changing as I learn more about supporting the diverse needs of teachers and learners.

  7. Pingback: #Reblog: Technology Enthusiasts, Pragmatists, and Skeptics among Practitioners and Policymakers: Where Are You?

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