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Saturday
Jan062007

Just how much do teachers need to know about technology?

Long weekends like the last two can be a blessing for a writer who always seems to be running very close to deadline. The holidays gave me a chance to work on each of the three columns I write on a regular basis.

  • "Tech Proof" for the website Education World. Aimed at the mainstream classroom teacher, it appears monthly on very general educational technology issues.
  • "Media Matters" for ISTE's Leading and Learning with Technology. The primary audience is tech-savvy library media specialists (but since the organization serves a wide-range of educators, may be read by them as well) and appears in h1_sn.giffour issues of the magazine each year.
  • "Head for the Edge" that appears in Library Media Connection each month. Mainstream library media specialists are the readers. I've written this one since God's dog was still a puppy (or 1995, anyway.)

And even after all this writing, I still am not convinced I really know what I am doing.

Thinking about each column over the past couple weeks gave me a chance to reflect on the audience each venue serves. It's not unusual for me to deal with a single technology or library issue, but in very different ways depending on the group for whom I am writing. How do we connect with others on technology issues in ways that resonate? That create change? That illuminate rather than confuse?

One fear I have about technology writing is with what I call the "Alpha Wolf" syndrome.  I've written about this in regard to instructors in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Technology Trainers:

6. Knowing what is essential and what is only confusing.
A good trainer will have a list of the skills the learners should have mastered by the end of the training. As instruction proceeds, that list will be the basis for frequent checks for understanding. As an often-random thinker, I find such a list keeps me as an instructor on track and provides a class roadmap for the learner. Now here’s the catch with this one: truly great technology teachers  know what things beginning learners really need to know to make them productive and what things might be conveyed that only serve to impress a captive audience with the technologist’s superior intellect. (“The email address is comprised of the username, the domain name, the subdomain name, the computer name, all referenced in a lookup table at the NIC.” Like that.) It’s an alpha wolf thing, especially common with males. Be aware of it, and strive as an instructor to use charm and a caring demeanor with the pack to achieve dominance instead.

This applies to writers as well, knowing what's essential, what's helpful, and what's just showing your vast command of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms).

But now I am thinking that some deep background in how technology works might in the long run be critical to a user's long-term success. What has me wondering is reading Michael Pollan's wonderful new book, The Ominvores's Dillema.

OmnivoresDilemma_med.jpgI am gaining, not just knowledge and facts about the food I eat, but an understanding of food and deeper appreciation of nutrition. Knowing how the Chicken McNugget got to McDonalds and its ingredients are a good deal more meaningful than a simple chart with calories and fat grams listed.

Applied to technology, might this mean that a tech user would be more adept at dealing with spam if s/he understood more about what spam actually is, why it is sent, and the logic behind spam filters rather than the simple "5 Steps You Can Take to Reduce Your Spam" approach. But how do we keep the person who has a healthy perspective on technology (thinks of it as little as possible) awake during the information session on "why filtering alogrithms work and why they don't"?

 I very much appreciated Will Richardson's tribute to writing instructor Donald Murray on Weblogg-ed. I had never heard of the Mr. Murray, but Will's words made me wish I had. One quote from Murray opened a little window into some of my writing questions:

“The good writer is always forcing the reader to contribute to the text. What is published is only half–or less– of the text…”

Don'tcha love it when the view becomes a little clearer? 


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Reader Comments (6)

Doug,
This issue has also been on my mind. I am in a big new school. The staff has a decent level of tech competence. Of course, there is a wide variety of skill levels. I keep asking myself what they need to know, and what I can expect them to accomplish. I've been in tech just long enough that I am losing my perspective on what is obvious and what isn't-- I now need to have someone else try my directions to make sure I'm not assuming too much. This may have been inevitable, but it sure makes it more challenging to design inservices for tired, overworked teachers. I hope to hear more from you on this topic as you continue to explore it.
January 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Sedro
Here are some thoughts that rose to the surface as I read this excellent post.

1st- Educational technology staff development should be about creating better teachers. Whether or not they know the origin of the acronym "URL" is irrelevent. Will the ed tech staff development session offer them ideas that will make them better teachers, with their specific kids, in their specific setting? This should be the ultimate assessment

2nd- Many of the frustrated reactions that teachers share via informal body language, rude comments or (in the worst case scenario) thrown objects are often the result of the disconnect of the "expert" from the classroom teacher. It isn't that they aren't organized, but it is that they really have no idea what great science, language arts, or math teaching looks or feels like...but "boy do they have a technology solution for you!" The reluctant veteran teachers are then labelled recalcitrant luddites. Poor alpha wolf. :-(

3rd- As it relates to the "omnivore's dilemma" and the depth of knowledge necessary, I don't want a great reading teacher worrying about why the ISDN line works or the origin of Spam. I want them to have the tools they need to entrance kids with wonderful lessons that encourage them to be life long learners. This is where their focus should be, not on why the tech around them is not working.

I probably just woke up on the wrong side of the lap top. Let me know what you think.

Jim Forde :-)
January 8, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterjim forde
(1) The issue I come across (with students and teachers alike) is the difference between what I believe they NEED to know and what they WANT to know. Typically I am called to help in an "emergency", and will try to solve the immediate problem...even though I know that five extra minutes would ensure that specific problem doesn't happen again.

(2) I had actually thought about changing my classes - give the students a list of requirements they need to accomplish, and when they are done they get the grade. Currently I have a series of assignments that need to be completed in a specific order...but if the students can prove they have the skills and abilities, maybe it would be easier (better?) to let them show me in their own way?
January 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKenn
The quote: “The good writer is always forcing the reader to contribute to the text. What is published is only half–or less– of the text…” is a home run of a quote. Half of my enjoyment of reading, for example, the New York Times comes from scanning the "Letters" section where readers react. The article becomes only the starting point for discussion and thereby comes the true benefit: learning what others think.

It just struck me that this is very similar to the value derived from reading blog entries and their comments.
January 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Dyer
Rather than trying to guess what tech knowledge teachers need, why not ask them? I work with a committee of faculty and we recently decided to adopt Chickering & Gamson's Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. We surveyed faculty about which of the principles they felt they needed the most help with. The survey results allowed us to prioritize our development activities. Perhaps the greatest thing, though, was that we no longer ask questions like, "Would you like to learn digital video editing?" Now we look at the areas faculty self-identified for need for growth, and we can ask ourselves, "What technologies promote student collaboration? What technologies enable prompt feedback?" You get the idea. In five years in this position, this is the first time I feel that faculty are on board with what we're doing. The technology pieces now fit with teaching, rather than being just an add on. (We do general teaching and learning activities, too, which probably helps.)
January 28, 2007 | Unregistered Commentertodd
Hi Todd,

We survey our faculty on a fairly regular basis, but using the principals you talked about. Is there any way I can see a copy of your survey instrument? Sounds really good.

I tried to get at something like you are suggesting with my Rubrics for Restructuring some time ago:

http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/rubrics2002.html#adv

But I never got very far with them in the district.

If you are willing to share your survey, I'd sure like to see it.

Thanks!

Doug
January 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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