Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tech Doesn’t Make Us Illiterate. Not Embedding it Into Instruction Does.

Like most innovative educators I always have folks who get excited when they see articles stating that technology just don’t work and we should just stick with the tried and true readi, ritin, rithmetic. When I managed the professional development for our 1:1 laptop program in a couple dozen schools, there were no shortage of colleagues eager to share this article Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops - New York Times. “See,” they’d say, “Tech isn’t the magic bullet you say it is. This school is ditching their laptops.” It reminds me of a story I heard about a Governor who discovered that houses with books had higher literacy levels so he allocated part of his budget to ship books to low income families. He was surprised a couple years later that it had no impact. The school and the Governor made the same mistake. You can’t just dump a tool in a house or school and expect progress.

The reason literacy levels are higher in houses that purchased books is because this was a culture that was valued in the home and the adults in the home took responsibility for supporting their children in using the books. Similarly, when we dump laptops in a school the laptops aren’t going to result in progress. We need educators who are tech literate to embed the use of these tools into instruction in meaningful ways. The 1:1 laptop program I supported had a strong foundation with professional development for every subject that was offered on site, during the week, on weekends, over holidays, and in the summer. The teachers could study ways to embed these tools into instruction and knew how and why this increased student achievement and engagement. Still, if it wasn't a part of the school culture, and more specifically something the school leader lived and breathed, even the combination of professional development and technology did not lead to success.

Most recently the article Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction - NYTimes.com has been shared with me by many. “See” they say! “Look at this article. This tech ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.” We can’t listen to you and, “throw out traditional methods of education!” “If we continue to push technology at the expense of the tried and true traditional, we're going to end up with a generation of illiterates. Right now, I see how my students can barely write, read painfully slowly, and have hardly any general knowledge. Their lives revolve around celebrities, Facebook, and games.”

Below is my response to that. Knowing that there are others who come up against this sort of thinking. I thought it would be helpful to share. I invite other innovative educators to take pieces or all of it as necessary when you need to respond to this sort of thinking.

Dear [recipient],

Thank you for the outreach. I know the article you attached and shared my reactions to what I perceived as its faulty conclusions at The Kids Are All Right where you can read my response as well as a dozen or so comments.

I don't believe the correlation between your student's poor reading and writing skills is because of tech nor do I believe in pushing tech at the expense of the tried and true. The two are not mutually exclusive. Everyone knows that schools need an update. Harnessing the power of the tools students own and love will not result in a deterioration of the literacy levels. In fact, it is because few teach into helping students realize the power of these tools that some of the issues you mention exist. What would happen if rather than lament what our kids loved to do, we re-envisioned school. They love games. What if we stopped fighting it and the adults changed and started looking at School as Video Game?

When it comes to digital reading, the reason I ditched the paper many years ago is because I don't enjoy single-purpose technology that is designed simply for consumption. Furthermore, when it comes to books...only the few have a voice. The democratization that digital reading and writing provides opens up windows and doors to our students and we must take the opportunity to help students look out those windows and walk through those doors. I write about this often in posts like 12 Reasons to Ditch the Pen - Why it's no longer mightiest against the sword. I ditch the paper because I enjoy reading and Writing for Live Audiences rather than the traditional didactic paradigm imposed by traditional books. There are others who like myself have seen The End of Books? (For Me, At Least?) because embracing tech in the 21st century enables us to connect and learn and build independent personal learning networks as never before.

I find many educators hide behind tradition, or the, "it worked for me" attitude. The reality is that in my parent's generation there were also many people who were illiterate. This is most closely correlated with SES not use of tech.

It is not until we embrace tools like cell phones and Facebook (check out my new posts The Complete Guide to Facebook For Educators! and A Parent's Guide to Facebook) as resources for learning rather than evil distractions, that educators will see a shift.

As always, appreciate the chance to dialogue and push thinking...mine and yours.


  1. Hi Lisa - you are absolutely right, you can't just dump a tool in a house or school and expect progress. The culture of the house or school needs to change to accept and adapt the tool. The staff needs to accept and embrace the potential of... the tool. It is an incremental process; I referenced this process in my cartoon "Luddites / Visionaries in Ed Tech" (http://branzburg.blogspot.com/2010/04/luddites-visionaries-in-ed-tech.html). Even the most "technologically-hesitant" 10 or 15 years ago have now adopted and accepted a certain level of technology (but of course still remain behind the visionaries). I think the same is true of books. The adoption of ereaders and ebooks is growing rapidly, and will coexist with print books for many years to come. More and more these technologies will be infused into society and then into schools (as we know, schools always seem to be on the tail end of the curve when it comes to adopting innovative technologies).

  2. There are three critical elements to making computers (and anything else for that matter) work in educational setting, and these are:
    1. Leadership
    2. Leadership
    3. Leadership
    If you buy every student in your school a laptop but you don't have ...a clear VISION of what you want the LEARNING to look like as a result of it, you might as well save a ton of money and buy paper and pencils instead. If the adults in schools don't know how to: 1. Process large amounts of information (research, ad your 2 cents and move on) 2. Collaborate globally and 3. Be self-directed, how could in a million years, their students learn how to do it? Nothing will change until the adults who work with our kids take a long look in the mirror and start reading books. Ignorance is a bliss but among educators it is a crime! (I think I just invented my new favorite quote:)

  3. Today I was with the AP of a very large Brooklyn high school. The woman doesn't know how to use email, I kid you not. Yet she is a key decision maker in deciding whether to buy Smart or Promethean boards for the school. What sort of technology leadership can those teachers expect?

  4. Embedded tech used too early in science classes does, indeed, promote illiteracy, if literacy in science matters.

    I'm not anti-digitech. I went out of my way to get 1:1 netbooks in class via grants. I taught a computer elective back in the early 90's.


  5. @Doyle, first, purchasing tech doesn't make one an expert...using it effectively gets closer. Second, blanket statements are dangerous. Tech is just a tool that can be embedded well or poorly at any stage.

  6. Dear The Innovative Educator,

    I agree--purchasing tech doesn't make one an expert. Taking the time to secure the grants and set up a 1:1 classroom, though, should suggest that I'm not one of the reactionary "they" you counter in your post.

    Blanket statements are indeed dangerous. You said that not embedding tech into instruction makes us illiterate. That's what prompted me to reply.

  7. My calculus teacher told us that he learned how to do logarithms the old fashioned way, without a calculator. That didn't mean to him that he felt that he needed to teach us that way. Why not use the technology that is here and ready for us to use? I feel that some educators that feel loyal to the "tried and true" educational methods are almost being spiteful in a way. They don't want to teach it the new and technology filled way because they didn't get to learn it this way. If they are going to teach it, then they will have to learn it themselves. Why learn something new when I can just use what I've been using and that seems to be working. Well, why not I ask?! Why not try to make learning more enjoyable for your students? They have so many distractions that have to do with technology, we almost need to update our teaching in order to even be able to compete with Facebook, the Internet, and video games. We can teach them about the tools that they will be able to use when they leave our hands and go into the workforce. It's effcient and effective. And while budgeting can make it more complicated, there are ways around that. If you never ask, then you'll never know.