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Computer Learning: The Debate Goes On

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Technology in the classroom has been a “hot topic” in education for as long as I can remember. Even when I was in high school – and that was a very long time ago – teachers were outraged because people were suggesting that in the not-too-distant-future they would be replaced by robots and/or computers. We seem to think technology will solve all the problems educators face – large classes, huge range of knowledge and ability, dysfunctional families, poverty, changing rules, changing curricula. To me there is a flaw in the thinking. Sure – taking attendance while I’m away from my desk, showing things from the internet while I’m walking around the room, finding proven lesson plans that some other English teacher was kind enough to share – those are all benefits to me. I love being able to instantly “fill holes” when a student hasn’t seen the Grand Canyon or doesn’t know about the Suez Canal or isn’t familiar with Georgia O’Keeffe’s clouds. But kids use computers for other reasons. I used to have parents beg me to help them find online education programs because their students “loved being on the computer.” I gave them some names and a whole lot of cautions, and always reminded them that their students didn’t love the computer; they loved some of what was on the computer: games, social networks, Youtube, and their email and chat room capability. They weren’t learning geometry or reading Huckleberry Finn (although they might be reading the Sparknotes). They were learning who broke up with whom and what Sammy got for Christmas and who is currently the classmate they choose to tease or ostracize or bully. Most of our students have smart phones and know every bell and whistle that accompany them. They generally can’t have them out of their hands much less out of their field of vision. They make fun of me because I don’t text and I don’t let them use the dictionary on their phone to look up definitions. They think it’s because I’m old, but it’s not. It’s because high stakes tests such as the High School Proficiency Exam and the SAT don’t allow electronic dictionaries. But they do allow paperbacks, so I want my kids to be able to use that tool efficiently. And the adults aren’t much better when it comes to dependency and, I believe, a type of rudeness. I’ve already written about having to listen to people’s personal phone calls while I’m on the treadmill or waiting in line somewhere. Recently, I was at a workshop with a whole lot of educators from all over the region. Most of them had I-pads. When the presenter mentioned a website or an ap that would have some benefit to us, 90% of those teachers typed it in on the spot to “check it out.” 1/3 of them discussed it with their neighbor. That meant, of course, that they weren’t listening to the presenter. Stories emerge daily about grants providing computers to every student in schools all over the country. Within minutes, most of the students have figured out overrides for whatever restrictions were put on the computer. Within days, half the computers didn’t come back to school. I like technology as well as anyone. I was the first in my school to get an electric typewriter. I was the first in my neighborhood to get a personal computer and, later, a home printer. One of my colleagues, Chris, said that if technology were educational, we’d have the smartest kids in the world. But we don’t. I’m not even persuaded that kids love technology. They are simply using the tools they are given……..just as we used our adding machines and portable phones and electric typewriters. But I didn’t learn anything from them. That’s the big task – how do we use technology and our students’ dependence on it to teach them to learn, to synthesize, to analyze, to think?