COVID-19 came back after Christmas, stalking schools with renewed vigor, and administrators are again resorting to remote learning and expanding the role of education technology. My dictionary defines technology as “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.” For many teachers, students and parents, however, plugging the pandemic breach with silicon devices has only further confirmed education technology’s impracticalities and shortcomings.
Don’t misunderstand. I was voluntarily logging my students’ grades on a Microsoft spreadsheet before it was common practice. In addition, I consistently check my email more often than I need to, I google beyond the point of tedium, and I spend a fair amount of time every day tapping out words on these electronic keys.
Through the years, though, my own classroom teacher response to most education technology has been, “No, thank you.” Techies insinuate that everybody who doesn’t gush over the latest gizmo is “technophobic,” but I’m no more afraid of iPhones than someone who dislikes asparagus is fearful of green, stalky vegetables. Even diners who like asparagus and accept it in their diets can feel they’re being forced to eat too much of it.
I haven’t met many people so important that they needed to remain in constant contact with everyone and everything on the planet. I think the monthly debuting of updated iThings makes General Motors’s 1950s annual tailfin innovations seem necessary and altruistically motivated. Call me crazy, but I also believe the best teaching tool in my classroom is me. At least, it ought to be.
I realize there are teachers, education experts, politicians, administrators and technology salesmen who disagree.
Technology’s value is tied to its purpose. When we consider fission or cloning, we should ask ourselves, “Is this something we want to do with science?” Similarly, when we talk about education technology, especially in a normal classroom setting, we should ask, “Is this something we want to do to students?”
According to proponents, technology can turn failing schools and students into successes. Boosters claim “mobile learning” and social media uniquely “enable” and “engage” students by “transforming” education from something that “takes place in bulk form” at school to “an individual and year-round activity.”
In boosters’ online visions, students “regularly provide feedback on each other’s work,” and teachers share “with the world” everything from lesson plans to “desk arrangements and even back-to-school outfits.” Promoters foresee teachers “posting” video lessons while students go online to blog, “take quizzes,” and vote “whether they want cupcakes or cookies at the next class party.”
Games are purportedly “rewriting centuries-old rules of learning, motivation and success.” In our “limited” world where “your teacher may be overwhelmed, your friends wish you’d finish your homework, and your mom just wants to go to bed,” a “well-designed” game “believes in you.”
Inundated teachers and sleepy mothers aside, these impatient friends are presumably the same scholars who can’t wait to “provide feedback on each other’s work.”
Games allegedly “know you, or at least your abilities, better than anyone.” Games can teach via “scripted” characters who “talk to the kids.” Games can uniquely teach students to “write about their learning.” Gaming classrooms would “thrum” with the “sounds of deep immersion” as every child worked “as hard as he or she could.” Students would be “so engaged” that at 3 p.m., they’d “wonder where the day had gone.”
It may look like a “21st-century, flashy, high-tech way to keep kids entertained,” but it’s actually “an ancient way” to “understand the world.” Your children may appear to be staring zombie-like at video screens, but it’s really “deep concentration.” They may seem out of touch in a silicon world, but they’re actually gaining “autonomy and agency” by engaging in the game without adult interference.
According to advocates, more “play” will somehow make our schools “more serious, productive places.” More interfacing with video machines will somehow “bring learning alive.”
Let’s clarify something that should be obvious. I’m alive. My students are alive. What happens between us is alive.
Videogames are not alive. They’re a formulaic, limited sequence of if-then propositions. They have no unique ability to teach writing or anything else. They have demonstrated, however, a striking capacity to turn children into video-gawking, self-absorbed automatons who can’t get up off the couch or relate to other humans.
Do we really want to encourage children to go online to choose cupcakes instead of teaching them how to talk face to face? Does anyone really believe a videogame can teach writing better than a teacher, or more directly respond to a student about that student’s writing? How do such preposterous notions receive serious consideration?
Not surprisingly, corporate technology interests, great and small, are eager to increase their share of public schools’ substantial budgets. Add the pro-technology “research” findings gathered by the education foundations those corporations endow, along with the education profession’s reluctance to appear out of step with technology trends, and it’s easy to see why most of what the public hears supports an expanded role for technology in classrooms.
Never mind the numerous studies that document a causal physiological relationship between sleep disorders and time spent in front of video screens. Never mind the obesity plaguing sedentary American children, or their growing inability to engage in ordinary social relationships.
By all means, let’s turn school into an arcade. Let’s plant the nation’s children for even more daily hours in front of computer monitors. Let’s engross them in “collaborating” with “scripted” people, and then let’s wonder why they can’t get along with real people.
I try to make my classes pleasant, but I don’t want my students to think learning is always enjoyable because it isn’t. If they come to expect that it is, they’ll stop doing it as soon as it stops being fun.
Learning is rewarding, but it’s often difficult, tedious and exhausting.
Acquiring knowledge, gaining wisdom and developing character require more than an appetite for amusement.
There’s no value in glib promises.
And no salvation in a machine, even one that pretends to talk to you.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.