Sunday, September 21, 2008

Wake Up Mr. Chips its the 20th Century!

Mark Edmundson, English teacher at the University of Virginia, has written an anti-educational technology essay in the New York Times called "Geek Lessons." His major claim against technology is that it is merely an attempt for teachers to become popular: they are just pandering to the students. He has a lot to say about what good teaching is - predictably, it is all about the professor. It is clear from the article that he has no experience with technology in the classroom or what teaching with technology is about. He says that "good teachers perceive the world in alternative terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives." Why can't someone do that using technology?

We use technology not because it is new, cool, or fun (although it can be all three), but because it is an opportunity to teach multi-modally (visual and audio learning), extend the community of the classroom beyond the walls of the brick and mortar classroom, to democratize education by making it available to those in remote areas or who must work and raise families.

One of the reasons why there are so many grants around for technology and fewer to send professors off to Europe for a semester is that technology can, for instance, solve real problems like making education accessible to those with disabilities. Other reasons that administrators may like technology is that the research shows that the higher the interactivity of a class, the higher the retention rates; technology can be a tool for making courses interactive.

I find teachers like Edmundson a bit sad - if their teaching style is such that it would not survive a laptop in their classrooms, what does that say about what is being taught and most importantly, how it is being taught. Edmundson gets that the culture is changing and the students expectations are changing. They are no longer satisfied with the "sage on the stage" style of teaching. They are no longer satisfied having to learn using three hundred year old methodologies. Does Edmundson accept handwritten papers? I doubt it. He does himself, tech-friendly faculty, and his students a great disservice by dismissing these cultural changes as merely selfishness on the part of the students.

I agree with Edmundson when he says that "Good teachers...can induce to struggle to affirm intelligently what you've previously believed in indolent, unconsidered ways." This includes an uncritical relationship to technology. By leveraging new technologies in our teaching, in thoughtful ways, we show the students that technology can be used thoughtfully. Edmundson's essay assumes that technology is a tool of passive consumption. He does not have that thoughtful, critical relationship to technology so he assumes that others don't either.

I hope that the editors of the Times will seek to balance this perspective by talking to other professors out there who have this critical engagement with educational technology like David Silver at the University of San Francisco or George Seimens at the University of Manitoba.


  1. Geoff,
    Most likely there are many teachers out there with the same notions. The lack of exposure, time, and training are what hinder teachers like this from moving on, but I don’t think administrations understand the scope and magnitude of what technology can be, and therefore they ignore tech training needs or hire bogus trainers for the proceedings. In addition, it may be that administrations simply believe because the institution has connected most of their professionals to the internet, instructors, being highly qualified to teach, can figure out the technology possibilities on their own. I, on the other hand, believe that technology training is the most overlooked item on the educational plate and what does get presented to instructors is, unfortunately, short of depth and long on breadth, therefore becoming seemingly exhausting and to this, most traditional F2F instructors sit back and whisper to themselves and those around them, “I don’t get it, so I don’t care”.

  2. Thanks for responding to my blog - it gets lonely out here on the lunatic fringe :) I know that there are teachers out there like this - I just don't get why an editor would ask that teacher to write about educational technology. Administrators are often in the same boat - they can have in incomplete understanding of technology and the changing culture and this can cause bad decisions. Administrators are at least accountable for their performance. "I don't get it, so I don't care" is one of the best arguments against tenure I have heard in a long time :)