Just before the start of school, on the beautiful campus of an independent school on the East Coast, I was the keynote speaker at a school-wide, K-12 technology professional development day. This school has a long tradition of academic excellence, of providing quality instruction in a beautiful setting to students, many of whom come from homes of great opportunity and high achievement.
Following the introductions I began my talk by asking them a question: "I was just wondering," I began. "Is this a vocational school?" From my perspective at the front of the room I watched some interesting responses to this simple query. Some looked sideways at colleagues and smirked, some faces looked confused, and some even appeared a tad put out. I clearly had their attention.
I could feel that there was a sense on the part of some that my question was disrespectful of their justifiably proud traditions of academic and social success. But far from that, in supporting the use of digital technology to support learning, I think it is critical that a school accepts that they are, to some degree of specificity, a vocational school. I just wanted to see if they agreed that part of their charge was to prepare their students for active participation in a world of work, be it manufacturing, lawyering, surveying, or doctoring. Given some agreement on that, my next step was to demonstrate that any such preparation requires facility with current technology.
World language teachers, especially at the high school level, are always an interesting group to test my theory on. I ask how they feel about online translation services, such as AltaVista's Babelfish and routinely I am told that they discourage or even forbid using it, and that they can tell when the kids have used it. In short, the common wisdom in practically every school I visit is that the use of mechanical translation is cheating.
But in response to this, I ask folks to think about what their students will do for work, what they will do with their love of languages, should they decide it is going to be their life. In some way or another, they will be in the translation business. And in 2006, those who translate for a living more often than not begin by running the text through a mechanical translator before applying their skill to make that translation "right."
So shouldn't a high school world language assignment in 2006 read something like this, "Please take Robert Frost's poem 'Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,' and put it through two mechanical translators. Then choose one of the results and clean it up -- make it poetry. Finally, write a piece that explains why you chose the mechanical translation you did -- what were the differences between the two? And I want all the pieces passed in -- original, mechanical translations, your cleaned-up piece, and your explanation of the differences in translations."
In Brunswick, Maine, there are networked computers in the examination rooms of the group medical practice I visit. Not only are my complete records instantly available to my doctors and nurses, they also have current information about medications and the computers are used every time I am there. So not only do I expect my healthcare providers to be personable, compassionate, insightful, and capable, I also expect them to be able to use the digital tools that can benefit me.
Far from the august campus I spoke of at the beginning of this piece, I spent a day last week at a Technical Center in Maine, a vocational school that draws high school students to its classes from a large number of local high schools. I engaged the staff in a conversation around the role digital technology plays in the fields they are preparing their students to participate in as professionals. From culinary arts through healthcare and auto mechanics, the answer was the same â?" these teachers all so clearly understood that to be a professional in 2006, technology has to be in one's "toolbox." From lasers on the job site to cameras and complex communications in the patrol car, technology is everywhere, and you better be adept at using it effectively.
The folks at the Technical Center clearly understand the role digital technology plays in the here and now â?" does the staff at your school? Maybe it is time to invite some lawyers, doctors, mechanics, carpenters, architects, and others into your school to help the entire school community understand how important experience in the effective use of digital technology is in preparing our children to be our leaders.
For in the end, aren't we all involved in vocational education? Let me know what you think.