Monday, November 19, 2007

The Technology of Failure and Success

In a recent Doonesbury cartoon strip, Garry Trudeau made his statement about technology in education. Two characters are in a college classroom. The professor is conducting class. One of the students is typing furiously on his laptop when the other instant messages him that the professor has asked him a question. “About what?” he asks, without breaking off his typing. The other student has no idea, having only heard the laptop student’s name called. He decides to ignore the professor and pretend he did not hear her.

“She just asked you again, man,” his buddy messages back. “Four major greenhouse gases.”

“Stall her while I Google it,” laptop replies.

In a few seconds, the computer brings up the answer and the tension passes.

“If this keeps up, I’ll never get through my email,” laptop thinks.

In the last few weeks, I have seen the best and worst of technology in the classroom. My seniors have started to lose focus. They are finishing applications and admissions materials, including their student essays. Fatigue has set in, and with the holidays approaching, many of them are not thinking of school. We have also had some high profile events in the last week that have further distracted them. So I am desperately trying to keep them on point as we make our way through Dante’s Inferno.

Many of my students, this year, use laptop or notebook computers during class to, allegedly, take notes. Most of them do take notes, or at least appear to be taking notes. When I am talking, or writing something on the board, they are typing on the computer. When I pause for questions or clarifications, they pause and stare at me expectantly. Occasionally, one of these students might quickly look something up on the Internet. There is a wireless connection they tap into in the neighborhood. Often, they will offer the information to the class, or read it to me to clarify a date or point in the discussion. I appreciate this because it is what the technology is made for: to put information at our fingertips.

There are two students in my senior class who I am sure are deep into cyberspace every day during my class. If I ask them to read a passage, they will do so, and then return to wherever they were on the computer. I have noticed that their grades have dipped slightly this year. But here is the deal: one of the students was a class disruptor last year; now, he is less trouble. I actually prefer that he lose himself in cyberspace and allow me to teach without inhibitions. Last year, he taped me with his cell phone and posted the footage on youtube; this year, he is no longer interested in what I have to say. Better for me.

In this case, the use of technology in my classroom has failed, but he is keeping himself amused and off my radar. Several teachers have brought this up at meetings—evidently, he does the same thing in their classes as well. The faculty has asked for new rules to cover this distraction. I did not say anything to support this, as I feel that students benefit from using technology in the classroom, and in the two cases where they are using the computer as a distraction, I am pleased not to have to deal with them.

In addition to this situation, I have witnessed something else happen in the last few weeks that I find encouraging. My tenth and eleventh grade students have been assigned class presentations on different magazines. They must read several issues of the publication, prepare a ten minute report detailing the history, current masthead, kinds of articles with an in-depth analysis of one or two pieces, submission policy, and possible importance to American culture of the selected magazine. Then, on a scheduled day, they literally teach the class.

The reports have been a tremendous success. Students get to know magazines and journals. They receive a crash course in journalism and American culture. At the end, many of them decided to subscribe or at least buy the magazine again to further their reading.

The real success of these reports, however, is that the students use Microsoft Power Point and other technology to teach the class. They have made good use of my new computer projection equipment, and the presentations zip along with interesting graphics and visual displays. I find students who are not terribly organized writers becoming very organized in their visual presentations. I think it has something to do with the individual screens and pages for each step of the presentation. It forces an organizational structure on them. In any case, I am so proud of them. They are demonstrating what I think is a prevailing job skill for this century: the ability to find, categorize, organize and present information.

In an article in The New York Times entitled “New Class(room) War: Teacher vs. Technology” (November 7, 2007), writer Samuel G. Freedman discusses this issue of students using or abusing technology in the classroom setting. Cell phones and laptops are now part of the classroom mix in every college, and some high schools and middle schools across the country. Yet many teachers have a problem with situations like the one in my senior class.

He cites the example of Professor Ali Nazemi of Roanoke College, who staged an elaborate subterfuge in his classroom recently when he pretended to confiscate a cell phone from a student and smash it with a hammer. The other students were mortified. “There are certain lines you shouldn’t cross,” the professor said. “If you start tolerating this stuff, it becomes the norm. The more you give, the more they take. These devices become an indisposable sort of thing for the students. And nothing should be indisposable. Multitasking is good, but I want them to do more tasking in my class.”

The article takes a decidedly negative view of technology in the classroom, dividing students who use computers and cell phones into two groups—“those who want to use technology to grow smarter” and “those who want to use it to get dumber.”

“All the advances schools and colleges have made to supposedly enhance learning,” Freedman writes, “supplying students with laptops, equipping computer labs, creating wireless networks—have instead enabled distraction. Perhaps attendance records should include a new category: present but otherwise engaged.”

The student defense against these charges is also clear. Teachers who lecture are boring; there is no interaction; students can just read the book and get the same material, or go online to get background and other notes. The classroom should be a place where students are engaged and active, even, some kids say, entertained.

“One of the great condemnations in education jargon these days, after all, is the ‘teacher-centered lesson,’” Freedman responds. He quotes Professor Michael Bugeja, director of the journalism school at Iowa State University. “The fact is, we’re not here to entertain,” says Bugeja. “We’re here to stimulate the life of the mind…Education requires contemplation…It requires critical thinking. What we may be doing now is training a generation of air-traffic controllers rather than scholars. And I do know I’m going to lose.”

Freedman closes his article with the question most of my colleagues asked at the recent faculty meeting: “What teacher or professor can possibly police a room full of determined goof-offs while also delivering an engaging lesson?”

Technology will not go away. We are being shortsighted if we think we can legislate it out of our classrooms, or control its use. Computers, cell phones, PDA devices, projectors, DVD players, have all changed education, and the way teachers conduct classes. It is better to embrace the change than fight against it. Most of our students have grown up with this technology. It is second, or even first nature to them. The use of technology in the classroom offers far more opportunities than problems. I have always noticed students who have “checked out” of my lesson; they are drawing in their notebooks or staring off into space. I move down the aisle and gently urge them back on task. If it keeps up, I call them in to discuss the situation one-on-one. The next step is to involve the parents. I cannot stop it. I can only encourage the student to remain focused, and present opportunities where a student is graded on how closely he has paid attention to class.

And for that one student in my senior class, his lack of attention will be his loss. He has demonstrated a lack of maturity in several areas over the years, and I have strongly urged him many times to grow up and embrace his responsibilities. Maybe that is a lesson he will not learn until college. For now, it is to the benefit of my other students that he is lost in cyberspace. Far be it for me to call him back, once again, to reality.


  1. I wonder if that sudent (I wonder who?) read this...

  2. Yea i think i have a pretty good guess of who this is about but my mouth shall remain shut. It's actually a really funny coincidence that today i went to and one of the headlines was "Boot Camp Treats Internet Addicts." Apparently, in Korea they're having these teenage boys go to boot camp to get military training and counseling by psychologist to rid of their "cyberspace addictions." I found it hilarious. Anyways Happy Thanksgiving! Tata


  3. Probably not good to speculate. Actually, a study was released this week that says people are not reading books anymore. For teenagers, it is affecting their SAT scores. Too many video games and not enough reading. Of course, I will have more to say about this later. Happy Thanksgiving right back at you.

  4. A Vision of Students Today


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