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A conference on the West coast, I'm here on the East coast...and happy to be here!

This week there is a large conference, called ISTE, going on in California, the topic of which is education and technology. Someone I know is there (he teaches at a popular school in LA which shall remain nameless), and has been blogging about his experience at the conference. I have been asking myself; shouldn’t I be there? My first thought was, of course I should! Education and technology are my specialty and my passion! How could I miss this? I kicked myself a few times for good measure. 

I watched one session from the conference live on the web, and began to reconsider. I am involved, I thought to myself, for better or worse, in the world of home education. Jewish, to boot. No matter how much technology I make use of, I still remain way “outside the box,” in more than one way. What I do (homeschool) is frowned upon by many of my colleagues, and others. (Although I do think the tide is changing.) I wrote about how last summer, while attending another conference, I had to defend myself quite a bit, both for homeschooling and for distance learning. 

The session I watched was about the use of technology in the classroom. At the end, thankfully, most of the participants seemed to agree that the technology is not the main thing, but just a medium to enable good instruction, and a tool to help deliver knowledge. That was a relief to hear, as up to that point, the focus was really on the technology itself. Here are some points that were made:

  • Apps in the classroom - one student participant said (whined?) “the teachers need to be able to tell us which apps to use!”
  • Another stated definitively that students know more than their teachers about technology. 
  • Smartboards - are they good or bad? One participant said “tell me what you can do on a Smartboard, and I’ll tell you how you can do it better without one!” They were then described in quite negative terms.
  • iPads - one fellow pointed out that at $700 a pop, many schools cannot afford them for every student.
  • One participant said she allows her students to bring their own “devices.” BYOD is term you will hearing a lot of, I suspect. 

After a while, it began to sound redundant and silly. I feel that technology often seems to be a smokescreen for what is really important. No matter how much talk of technology there seems to be, it usually seems to me to be a distraction from the truly important issues in schools that need to be addressed, and reformed; homework, standardized testing, grading, and more. 

For example, there is much talk these days of “flipping the classroom.” This is a hip and cutting-edge term for when students listen at home to their teachers deliver their lectures, via video, internet, etc. When the kids come to school, instead of hearing a lecture in class, they spend class-time doing what used to be called “homework,” in the classroom, with the teacher there available to help. Sounds great, right? How progressive, yes? 

But consider this; it may be an improvement, but the kids are still spending an hour (or more, or less) at home...listening to a lecture! In other words, 8 hours a day at school, and then home to listen to perhaps several hours (if several of their teachers have “flipped their classrooms”) of lectures. Is it really an improvement for the students to be sitting at home and listening to pre-recorded lectures, on top of being in school all day?

Here’s a novel idea; how about splitting up the classroom time, and spend half on “teaching” and half on practical work/labs? They can call it "splitting the classroom," if they need a new, hip term. The question still remains: why should kids spend their family and home time doing more school work? It’s the same old problem, with a new coat of paint. Alfie Kohn has shown clearly, based on much solid research, that homework is basically a waste of time. Stop sending work home.

I will be the first to agree that, yes, there are some very promising uses for technology. Some are already being used: inter-connectivity between teachers around the world, for example. And the use of iPads and other devices in education do have a lot of promise. But the technology needs to support the content. And not determine it.

So, in reflecting, yes, I admit that I am heavily (and happily) involved in teaching using technology. But I am not trying to “incorporate it” (called “Blended Learning,” another hip term). The virtual classroom just happens to be where we learn together at Room613. And it happens to be a really fantastic venue for learning! But the main thing, from my perspective, is still good old “discussion-based constructivist learning,” in a warm and supportive environment. And technology can never supplant that. 

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