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The EdTech gamble

[via Clancy] New Kid on the Hallway has a dead-on critique of Patrick Allitt's literally "old school" rant about educational technology, and it's both thorough and wicked enough that I have little to add.

Except to note something that's occurred to me no less than three times over the past day or so. Partly it's what I was thinking about the LA Times, but it's popped up in a few other contexts as well. It's unbelievably presumptuous of me to name it after myself, especially since I'm sure that there are plenty of smarter people out there who have thought and said it before me, but oh well:

Collin's Wager: Technology is golden only insofar as you're willing to risk it being garbage.

In terms of Allitt's description,

Throughout the class the students took notes on the computers, creating a ceaseless keyboard clatter and making it difficult for anyone to hear the teacher's voice. Worse, as they faced their screens they looked away from the professor and away from one another.

First of all, it's remarkably short-sighted to stock a computer classroom with loud keyboards, but oh well. More importantly, it's easy for me to imagine some of those students really benefitting from having the computers handy. Imagine being able to take notes with concept map software, being able to dump links and/or graphics into the map, etc.

But the rewards of those possibilities are bought with the risk that those same students will IM, check their emails, surf for fun, etc. That's the gamble you take. And it's almost beyond belief to me that someone who's the "director of the Center for Teaching and Curriculum" would argue that, rather than making the teachers there aware of this gamble, we should just dump the technology. His little fantasy (complete with Mark Trail exclamation point!)--

How much better the class would have been with no more than a blackboard and a few sheets of paper! Note taking would have been silent; students would have talked to the teacher and each other, would have concentrated on the substance rather than the technology, and would have had more time -- not less -- to devote to their work. Best of all, a warm atmosphere of collective endeavor would have displaced the anonymity and chill that the machines created.

--is an expression of his desire for the illusion of control that such a classroom entails. As though students don't doodle, zone out, pass notes, gaze longingly out the window, etc. But in the old school classroom, teachers don't have to compete with these activities because they don't have to acknowledge that they're going on. After all, no endless keyboard clatter! No burnt out bulbs on the projector or flaky remote controls! IM only happens In the Margins of student notes! And so on!

I don't know. Maybe I'm just tired of people who seem to think that it's possible to wait out the problems, who think that if something doesn't work perfectly, it doesn't work period. I know that there are good reasons for feeling that way (the tyranny of bubble sheet evals, anyone?), and I know that there are plenty of people who can't afford to lose the wager, but Allitt and others like him need to understand that "the most important issues in education have not [indeed] changed." Reading and writing well are still important, granted, but they're important in different ways, different media, and different milieu than they were even ten years ago, and all the wishing in the world won't make it otherwise.

Did I say "little to add"? That is all.


Greetings from the road in Colorado, where I am at a hotel in the middle of nowhere with wireless internet access. Go figure.

Anyway, I haven't had a chance to read either this CHE piece or the blog posts that you mention, but I thought I'd say two things real quick:

* I think you are completely right about the illusions of control issue. The paper and chalkboard classroom has PLENTY of "underground" discussions and distractions, too; and

* I think the whole "keyboards in the classroom" thing is interesting. I was talking with a colleague here at EMU who teaches in the College of Technology (of all things!) who asked me (he thought rhetorically) "who would want students to be typing away at their laptops during class?" I enthusiastically said "I would," and he looked at me as if I were insane. Pretty funny.

I find that I can have more control of the distracting behavior in the lab than in a traditional classroom. I often stand in the back of the classroom, facing the overhead screen and able to see what's going on on all of the students' screens.
It did take me awhile to get used to keyboard noise, and there were some lighthearted moments when I'd growl"who's typing?" and the "guilty" party would inevitably be someone who was taking notes on the computer. More and more of my students are taking notes online, so I've become used to the noise and only growl when I hear clicking at a time when I've asked for their full attention.
The control issue, it seems, masks the larger issues of feeling overwhelmed with technology and uncomfotable with a student-centerd class in which the instructor spends time away from lecturing from the front of the room.

I've been involved in teaching writing for the past twenty years, and my observations are based on my experiences at different schools. I've just gotten my issue of CCCC journal and will read the article presently.

And the Chron article as well--I'm conflating posts in my response.