My primary care doctor is an early adopter of technology. He is a believer that new hand-held computers can replace the stethoscope, record EKGs, and other functions. These are labor-saving devices that make him more efficient, he told me. They give him more time to spend with the patient (although the HMO I belong to mandates 20-minute appointments with longer visits allowed when special requests are made).
One of the few physicians in the HMO who volunteered to use Google Glass when it was being sold, my doctor asked me if it is OK for our conversation to be recorded as we talked. He does not use the video function of Google Glass when meeting with patients. When I asked him why he is using Google Glass, he said that with a scribe located elsewhere in the building taking down what we talk about and producing a transcript later, while I am with him, he does not have to constantly switch back-and-forth looking at the computer screen and then me. We converse about my health, answer questions, and discuss issues bothering me.
These visits with my doctor got me thinking about how teachers and physicians have encountered new technologies as they practice the art and science of teaching and ministering to both the healthy and ill. From what I encountered in schools over the past three decades when computers have been used by teachers for instruction and doctors for diagnosing and treating illnesses, I began to wonder why doctors so easily integrated new devices–either as early adopters or even “laggards”–into their daily encounters with patients while it has been a long slog with getting computers integrated seamlessly into daily lessons.
Why has “technology” in education been considered separate, an add-on, when that has not been the case when technological tools have been applied to business, medicine, architecture, engineering and other professional work. For some reasons in these other workplaces, high-tech tools are part-and-parcel of the daily work that professionals do in getting the job done well and efficiently. As the conversation between my doctor and me over Google Glass illustrated, hand-held devices that do EKGs and monitor heartbeats, machines that do CAT-scans–help physicians figure out what’s wrong with a patient. Not, however, in schools and higher education. There, use of efficiency-driven tools is both the subject and predicate. The instructional problem to be solved is secondary. Why, then, unlike other professional work, has educational technology monopolized discussions about improving schools, changing teaching, and preparing students for the labor market?
There are, of course, some easy answers to my question. Initially, for teachers access to desktop and, later, laptops and now Chromebooks and iPads was an issue. Too few shiny new devices were available. School boards and superintendents had to find scarce dollars to buy hardware and software, establish wireless networks, provide on-site and district assistance, and set aside even more funds to build teachers’ capacities to use new technologies. Limited access helps to explains the slow-motion use of new devices in classrooms. In the past half-decade, however, allowing for some exceptions, access is no longer an issue in the nation’s classrooms. One-to-one laptops and Chromebooks and iPads on classroom carts, BYOD programs, and giving students a device to take home have largely replaced computer labs and media center machines.
The issue now is teacher use or the seamless integration of devices into daily lessons much as doctors have done to varying degrees when they work with patients. Instances of integration, that is, using hardware and software as part-and-parcel of the lesson and not as an add-on tacked onto activities during the school day. Examples of smooth and continuous integration cross grade levels and subjects occur in classrooms, schools, and districts. But as yet such easy use of the new technologies as essential tools like paper and pen are not as widespread as advocates want. Why not?
Any answer to the question has to take into consideration the differences between the practice of teaching and the practice of medicine. Teaching is a group process, one adult working with 15-30 students at a time while the latter is commonly one-to-one. Moreover, the age-graded school gives teachers located in self-contained classrooms a degree of autonomy; yet the structure also isolates them from colleagues. It is hard for teachers to collaborate within the school, much less the district level, and to become part of a culture where constant improvement is the norm, not the exception.
While doctors do practice in organizations driven by efficiency criteria, they retain a great deal of autonomy. After the physician knocks and enters the exam room to see you, it is just you and the doctor. Access to research literature, collegial advice, and direction from the HMO often, but not always, create a culture that embraces change and continuous improvement.
Those differences in organizational structures and culture between medicine and schooling become the initial framework for any in-depth and nuanced answer to question: why have new technologies have been seen as add-ons in schools and classrooms? A second related question comes quickly on the heels of this one: If technology has been an add-on to schooling, how does integration into classrooms, schools, and districts occur at all? That is what I will try to answer in my next project (see here).