Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Bit Personal...

This post was originally written shortly after Vermont Academy began a significant downsizing process, and the IT department was heavily hit in the first round, including the elimination of the IT Director position altogether...

As I have begun exploring what the job market holds, one of the things I needed to do was to write a personal statement that expressed my philosophy of the relationship between technology and education. I am posting it here:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,…”

These lines from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities aptly describe the extreme perceptions of the role that technology plays in education. To some it is a silver bullet that will kill drudgery in the classroom, a panacea for lack of engagement that is able to reach even the most distracted and apathetic student! To others it is a scourge, bringing nothing of value and grossly adding to the swarm of distractions already buzzing around our students, keeping them from even pretending to do productive work! I doubt that there is an educator around who hasn’t toyed with one of these opinions, if not with both.

Certainly we’ve all heard them expressed in many different ways. Advocates of the latest techno-gimmick for education often spout what sounds like late-night infomercial shtick: “Just buy X and never worry about Y again! Act now and we’ll throw in the Ginzu knives for FREE!” “Virtual worlds, simulations (read: games), interactive educational software, online courses, Web 2.0, etc. will revolutionize education! This is the way this generation learns!”

Yet the media are full of stories of college professors who ban computers and cell phones from their classes because students are shopping, IMing, watching stock portfolios, and gaming rather than attending to the lesson at hand. Some colleges struggle with low attendance since many students would prefer to listen to the podcast of the lecture or discussion at a later point than engage in the classroom. Some high schools have dropped their one-to-one computer initiatives altogether because they saw no benefits, only costs.

So what is technology’s role in the classroom? Boon or bane? White knight or Mongol invader? Savior or demon?

The answer, I believe, is “none of the above.”

Education is not about technology. It never was and it certainly hasn’t become so since the advent of the personal computer. Education is about people in relationship. Teachers and students. Mentors and disciples. Co-explorers of new ideas. It is about people bridging gaps. Gaps in communication. Gaps in interest and involvement. Gaps in knowledge. Great teachers can teach well even without a whiteboard or a number two pencil or a computer or the Internet.

So why have technology in the classroom at all? Well, why do we have whiteboards? Why do we have videos? Why do we have libraries? We have them because, properly used, they are tools that can help any teacher teach better and any student learn better. But each of these things also can be used to other ends than education: entertainment, busy work, gossiping with friends. As with these other things, so with technology. The tool can be used for good or ill. The challenge is in defining and enacting “proper use.”

There is no one size fits all answer to this challenge. Just as every educator is different, and every student is different, the role of technology in helping them to build relationship and bridge gaps will be different. I believe that the role of the technologist is to help each educator and each school find the right roles for technology for them, for their styles of teaching, and for their particular school culture.

Good academic technologists must know the full breadth of possibilities that technology brings to the classroom. They must understand the educators with whom they are working and the culture of their school. Likewise, they must grasp the culture of the students who attend their school, and the needs of the parents of those students. They also must recognize the risks and shortcomings of technology, especially in the hands of students, and develop ways to deal well with these. And they themselves must be able to teach in a way that is encouraging and enlightening rather than demeaning or intimidating.

Only when he or she does these things can the academic technologist properly work with a teacher to find the appropriate roles (if any!) for technology in his or her classroom, and with all of the various other constituent groups to determine and implement the technologies that are appropriate for the entire school community.

My goal as a technologist in education is to implement this philosophy fully. While I am an enthusiastic proponent of advanced technology, especially Tablet PCs, I recognize that a particular type of technology is not always the one right or best solution—or even a proper solution at all. Both on the academic and administrative sides of education, I try to work with the team to examine each opportunity or need individually and explore the whole continuum of possible solutions so that the most appropriate decision regarding technology can be made by all those concerned.

Only when we are successful in this work together can we realize the true potential benefits of technology while keeping at bay the potential costs. This is how I try to make it “the best of times” when it comes to technology in education.

Friday, February 8, 2008

There are two upcoming Tablet PC-in-education workshops that I know have had significant impacts on educators who have attended in past years. I believe that both do good work furthering the reach of Tablet PCs in education with sensible realism, not with the breathless hyperbole (from both directions!) that so often accompanies discussions of technology in education.

The first is the third annual Workshop on the Impact of Pen-based Technology on Education (WIPTE), a two day conference held at Purdue University. The conference brings together in one place research papers, posters and, new this year, video presentations of real-world examples of Tablet PCs and other pen-based technology tools in use in the classroom. Study environments cover the gamut from Pre-K, through K-12 and higher education. The conference dates this year are October 15 and 16. Schools or individuals that might be interested in submitting a paper, poster or video are encouraged to get the appropriate calls now, as the submission process will open shortly and must be completed by June 16. More details, including the calls for papers, posters and videos, can be obtained at

The second event is Hunterdon Central's Tablet PC Academy, hosted by the Hunterdon Central School District in New Jersey. Hunterdon has 250 teachers using Tablet PCs and the supporting technology on a daily basis and has seen significant results from their program. To quote Rob Mancabelli, Director of IS for the disctrict, "The academy tries to capture best practices for teachers who want to use tablets in instruction or technology personnel/administrators who want to know how to build and support a program." The Academy will be held twice, on July 15-17 and again on July 22-24. More details are available at

By means of full disclosure, I am a member of the organizing committee for WIPTE. I have no relationship with Hunterdon's Tablet PC Academy other than being a long time admirer of the work that Rob and his folks have done. Please feel free to contact me if I can provide you with any further information. You can post a comment here or send to my email address, which can be found on the WIPTE web site.