Computers in the Classroom: A Mindful Lens on Technology
I was raised back in the day when teachers showed 16mm films in the classroom. It was a special event: the A/V librarian would wheel in an aqua-colored Bell & Howell projector, one of us nerdy types would wind the film through the various rollers, the screen would come down, the lights would go off and the magic would begin. Even the most boring film was still surrounded by this specialness, which set it apart from business-as-usual in the classroom.
Digital technology doesn't enjoy this same elevated, ritualized status in school. If anything, most schools integrate digital technology as transparently as possible, hoping to blend it effortlessly into classroom activity. I think that's a mistake.
This may at first surprise anyone who is familiar with my work. As one of the first media theorists to acknowledge and advocate widespread net accessibility, I have been calling for more -- not less -- computer education. My doctoral dissertation was about the promise of the net to change everything from storytelling to economics, and my current research -- as a code literacy advocate for Codecademy.com -- concerns how best to spread digital fluency. I was the one getting laughed at in the 1980s for telling people they'd one day be using email.
And yes, our kids now live in a highly digital world. They all seem to have iPods and iPads, Facebook accounts and Wikipedia skills. Digital tools are everywhere in the "real" world, so why shouldn't they be everywhere in the classroom?
Context is Critical
First, and probably most important, it's because the classroom is the one place where we are supposed to notice things. When we teach literature, we don't just teach the content on the page -- we teach the historical context of the writer, the choice of medium and ways in which the medium was used. No book is just a story.
Likewise, no program is just a tool, no website is just information and no social platform is a neutral meeting place. To use any of these unconsciously in the real world is bad enough; to use them unconsciously and thus uncritically in the classroom is even worse.
So the first requirement to using any technology in the classroom is for us to be prepared to talk about it, assess its influence over our interactions and evaluate its role in an ongoing way.
Second, it's our role as educators to judge whether a given piece of technology is really going to enhance our ability to educate. Will it help us engage with our students, or help them engage with each other and the subject more meaningfully? I know that sounds like an easy one, until we consider the very real classrooms I’ve visited where the very opposite has been true.
Actual or Virtual Reality?
I once was invited to observe a classroom that had been the location of a college's "Model United Nations" seminar for the past fifteen years -- only this year they were trying something different. Instead of having the students dress up as delegates and conduct debates, the department decided to use technology to simulate the whole thing. So now students walked into the same classroom, logged into individual computers, signed onto Second Life (a virtual world), and conducted their debates through avatars. The school was proud enough of the "hi-tech learning pilot" that they put photos of it on the next course catalogue.
They came up with a great solution for long-distance students, perhaps, but they were applying it to real people in a real room; these were students who were paying to attend a college, live in dorms, and walk into a real classroom. The primary advantage of face-to-face learning and interaction was surrendered to the seemingly pressing need to become more like what these students were experiencing outside of school. Oops.
The choice of whether and how to bring a technology into the classroom needn't be a crapshoot. Instead, I suggest that educators evaluate any technology on several levels -- and if it passes all these tests, to try out that technology on a provisional basis.
Know Your Medium
Can I afford to lose more face-to-face time?
Mediating a technology (and this goes for books as much as tablets) will take kids' eyes off teachers and fellow students, and onto screens. Given that kids already spend ample screen time at home or, nowadays, walking down the street with their noses in their smart phones, the school classroom provides an opportunity to luxuriate in real-time, face-to-face exchanges with other human beings. Given that 94% of human communication occurs non-verbally, and that public speaking and presentation to groups are (along with expository writing) among the proficiencies most lacking in young hires today, it makes sense for the classroom to be a place where young people can develop the "people skills" required to work and live successfully.
Before bringing any additional technology into the classroom, we must evaluate whether the subject we hope to convey through this technology loses anything when it is divorced from human interaction, and whether we will be able to make up for this elsewhere in our curriculum.
On what scale does this technology function?
Back in the early cell phone era, we used to talk about devices in terms of the ideal audience for their size. "Inch" devices, with little screens that fit in your hand, are best for individuals, and favor reading or watching over writing or doing. "Foot" devices, like laptops and computers, are great for production, and are aimed at groups of one to three collaborators. "Yard" devices, such as smart boards and projectors, are great for presenting to larger groups of people, but not particularly interactive for anyone but the presenter.
Understanding these biases helps an educator decide whether to turn students' attention to the front of the room, to computer screens or to the devices in their palms.
How does the medium inform the message?
The technology through which we are teaching is never a neutral player. Just as the American literature teacher who falls back on showing the film Grapes of Wrath always tries to get students to talk about what makes the movie different from the book, teachers who use digital technology have to bring an awareness of the technology itself into the lessons.
If we are going to use a hypertext website to teach Shakespeare, how can we contrast this technology with technology that was available to Shakespeare? How does it compare with the concordances used by scholars over the centuries? How do Shakespeare's plays already reflect a "hypertext sensibility" about the world? Or do they? What is the Elizabethan worldview, and how is it different from the one implied by the television and social media networks of our own time? Which brings us to our final measure:
Will the technology teach us anything about itself?
In the end, I've always felt that computers are best at teaching about computers. I am not particularly a fan of online learning -- except when it's a website that teaches people how to program computers. In other words, the digital environment is the very best place to teach people about the digital environment.
So while using computers to teach computing may be its ideal use in this regard, I would hope that the other ways in which we use computers in the classroom are at least transparent enough for us all to recognize their presence, their impact and their specific role in the design of the lesson.
We must never forget that they are portals to a different realm -- even if we don't have to turn out the lights and listen to the hum of a movie projector.