Monday, January 24, 2011

Technology or Communication?

For as long as I can remember, while education trends have come and gone, one issue seems to have remained nearly constant.  Outcomes-based, mastery learning, Coalition of Essential Schools and A Nation at Risk have all been at the fore.  Now we have accountability, standardization and No Child Left Behind.  These issues and others have come and gone, have been incorporated into what teachers do or will go away – eventually.  But concerns about technology have never gone away.  To me it appears to be a fascination with the myriad abilities of the computer that fuels dialogue.  But I suppose when the VCR, TV, electricity, printing press and paper were all invented educators recognized each technology’s ability to transform teaching and learning.  Computers have certainly revolutionized the way we all live, and they have and will continue to have an impact on education.  Recent discussion about technological applications have pointed towards the possibilities of distance learning - on-line instruction and teleconferencing.

I understand the allure of these ideas.  In the long run each of these technologies is far less expensive than hiring teachers to fill classrooms across the country.  It is unrealistic to insist that small, rural school districts hire teachers to teach dozens of Advanced Placement courses, multiple foreign languages, and a wide spectrum of vocational and arts programs.  It is simply prohibitively expensive.  Small districts just don’t have access to the pools of money or talent that the likes of your average metro-area, suburban school system may have.  But I am not convinced that on-line courses or teleconferencing can or will revolutionize anything beyond technology corporations’ bottom lines.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love having web access right on my desk.  When students ask questions to which I don’t have answers we can go online and learn together.  Having programs like PowerPoint and projectors allow me to illustrate concepts well beyond what was possible with a chalk board.  Email has made communicating with parents far easier.  Even school grading and attendance programs have allowed me to analyze my students’ performance in ways almost impossible a few years ago.  But there are limits to what technology can do. 

I went into education because I was in love with the romantic idea of Socrates questioning his students and the public in the marketplace.  I’ve often said that if the school could get me a large oak tree and good weather I could teach just as effectively beneath that tree as in my room with all its technology.  At its core education has changed little in the 2500 years since Socrates.  Some like to point this out as evidence of the ineffectiveness of public education.  But education is little changed over the millennia, not because of teachers’ resistance to change, but because what is fundamental to teaching and learning does not change – ever.  Teaching and learning are at their very core human endeavors.  It is a matter of relationships and effective and affective communication between people.

Consider your own experience at school.  What teachers do you remember?  What did you learn from them and why?  Most likely, you and a great teacher formed a relationship in which you learned far more than just academic content.  How might that have been different if that teacher were on a video monitor?  How might your communication with that teacher been altered if your only communication was via email?

Consider the over-romanticized but inspirational stories of teaching in popular culture – Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Blackboard Jungle, Dead Poets’ Society, Stand and Deliver, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Coach Carter.  When will we have a great movie about the passionate, dedicated and selfless educator who motivated students via a telescreen or a blog?  Can you imagine the teacher in any of these films getting students excited with a PowerPoint presentation or an online chat?           

Good teaching and learning is about the relationship formed between teacher and student.  It involves verbal and written communication, body language, physical presence, trust and respect, questioning and challenging, dialogue and discussion, conflict and resolution – real meeting of the minds.  Distance learning may be economically efficient and quite practical.  But we will need to work to preserve what is the beauty of the teaching and learning process – the human relationship.  


Teacher Andre Netto said...

I couldn't agree more! Although we have endless resources with computers and the Internet, and that really spices up the classes, what it really comes down to is how the teacher can relate to the students. Online learning can make students feel a little isolated. Nothing beats the warmth of a classroom and eye contact!

Ana Albi said...

Wow! What a great reflection! I'm an EFL teacher and all we talk about nowadays is online teaching. I've had some experience with it, but,like André Netto said, "nothing beats the warmth of (...) eye contact. I've actually created a few online courses, but they are meant to be used as a complement to f2f classroom interactions, mostly self-study.