Computers, Pedagogy, and Priorities

Laptops are useless, technology is the devil, and computers make our students stupid.

Or at least that’s what the New York Times would have you think.

Alex Reid, Jenny Edbauer, and Will Richardson have all commented on the NYT’s recent piece of slack-jawed mouth-breathing idiocy, non sequiturs, and logical fallacies concerning technology in the classroom. They were rather more charitable than I’m inclined to be.

To be fair, reporter Winnie Hu makes slight attempts to offer balance and critical insight, observing the problems with “how technology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums” — but the piece, overall, is a hatchet job; a slimy luddite screed that blames technology for the ways in which it’s used and inadvertently highlights just how stupid and reactionary teachers and administrators can be when it comes to computers. In her observation, Hu is quite right: schools throw money at technology, imagining it as a quick fix, without a thought to how it might be used. Unfortunately, the rest of her article completely buys into precisely that mode of thinking, lamenting the vast sums of money expended and the apparent negligible results. In a lame and myopic attempt to indict what she sees as the problems with teaching with laptops, she describes how “Northfield Mount Hermon School, a private boarding school in western Massachusetts, eliminated its five-year-old laptop program in 2002 after it found that more effort was being expended on repairing the laptops than on training teachers to teach with them.” Where, one might ask, does the problem with priorities lie?

One wishes Hu might have read Patricia Fitzsimmons-Hunter and Charles Moran’s article, “Writing Teachers, Schools, Access, and Change,” in Literacy Theory in the Age of the Internet (Todd Taylor and Irene Ward, eds.: Columbia, 1998), wherein Fitzsimmons-Hunter and Moran detail the problems with such technological determinism, and make a strong case for equal investment in technology and teacher training for the pedagogy associated with it. Unfortunately, again and again, Hu figures laptops as both the threat of unmanaged student misbehavior and the possibility of vocational student success, in all cases ascribing economic cost to their use, but never acknowledging or imagining the ways in which teachers might adapt the material, social, and pedagogical conduct of instruction to actually engage these tools. No, it’s pretty much business as usual in the approach to education: we don’t want to think about it. We’ll just throw money at it.

Hu suggests, for example, that “it is less clear whether one-to-one computing has improved academic performance — as measured through standardized test scores and grades — because the programs are still new, and most schools have lacked the money and resources to evaluate them rigorously.” Well, yes, and the first part of that appositive is both essential and unexamined, because there is no relationship whatsoever drawn between computing and test scores. Hu might as well make an argument for eliminating skim milk from school cafeterias, suggesting that “it is less clear whether skim milk has improved academic performance — as measured through standardized test scores and grades — because the programs are still new, and most schools have lacked the money and resources to evaluate them rigorously.” Hu’s piece asks the wrong questions, asks the wrong people, and draws foolish conclusions: attempting to strike a doom-and-gloom note, she points out how “laptops had been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans, and showed little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time of increased pressure to meet state standards.” Clearly, we must blame the computers, because the problem couldn’t possibly be with the lesson plans of inflexible teachers, or the short-sightedness of federally-imposed standards that construct all educational value in terms of outcomes and high-stakes testing. Never mind that No Child Left Behind constructs its approved outcomes and pedagogies entirely in terms of large-scale quantitative studies, completely ignoring qualitative research: if you focus on test scores, test scores are all you will see, and you’ll ignore the day-to-day classroom pedagogy that might help you bring them up, however bankrupt, myopic, and impoverished your perspective might be.

As an example, consider Hu’s description of how “Matoaca High School just outside Richmond, Va., began eliminating its five-year-old laptop program last fall after concluding that students had failed to show any academic gains compared with those in schools without laptops. Continuing the program would have cost an additional $1.5 million for the first year alone, and a survey of district teachers and parents found that one-fifth of Matoaca students rarely or never used their laptops for learning.”

OMG! You mean 80% of students are using technology for learning? Get rid of it!

Hu’s piece does something familiar to all of us who work with technology and teaching: it blames the technology, because the technology’s the thing most visible; the thing most different. I could try to be subtle here and invoke the Phaedrus, but even that would likely be rather too highbrow.

Here, then, is a rather less subtle attempt to summarize the attitudes expressed in the NYT piece.

Homer says stupid computer!

Computers, Pedagogy, and Priorities

4 thoughts on “Computers, Pedagogy, and Priorities

  • May 7, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    C’mon Mike. Be more charitable. I’ll bet you were smashing bananas on your keyboard while you were reading the NYTimes online. After all, these business-centric critics of classroom practice don’t personally subscribe to the necessity of computers in the workplace. I mean, they are perfectly consistent about measuring the necessity of office technology through benchmarks and standardized tests BEFORE they buy Dells for their office.

  • May 8, 2007 at 12:04 am

    I wish I could design a graphic that shows how much I loved your rebuttal to the article.

    I found the article lacking on so many levels that I have not fully been able to articulate it. And unfortunately this article will be reprinted in papers across the country. Too bad our rebuttals won’t.

  • May 8, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    Actually, Andrew, I think the above screed qualifies as flinging poo at the article, so yeah, I probably should be more charitable :-). Certainly, I shouldn’t confuse Hu’s perspective with those she reports on, but still, she fails in fundamental ways to interrogate the perspectives and sources on which she reports, as Jenny’s response points out particularly well.

    I found the implied classism troubling, as well: apparently, computers are certainly good for rich kids to use “to create the George Lucas and Steve Jobs of the future,” but perhaps not so much for those less privileged.

  • May 8, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    No, you are perfectly justified flinging poo. Of course, that would meaning flinging Hu’s poorly-thought-out article at itself. I imagine that, at least for a brief moment, the time-space continuum would resembleda mobius strip if you do that.

    I’m constantly amazed when news writers treat teachers as experts in education. Hint: it never seems to be when asking about how we should evaluate student progress. Reporters only actually “report” teacher opinion as fact when dealing with ancellary things like how brand-new and under-theorized and implemented projects like laptop iniatives are going.

    At least they could have the decency to ask about how the new coffee pot in the teacher’s lounge is affecting test scores. Maybe they could speculate on the new automatic flagpole and its effect on NCLB.

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