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Thursday
Aug022012

Larry Cuban and teachers making tech choices

The Paradox of Teachers and Technology in the U.S., Larry Cuban's July 30th blog post has been haunting me for the past couple days. (Read it all.) In it he observes:

Teachers–most of whom already use an array of electronic devices at home–are expected to use new technologies in classroom lessons but have little to no say in determining which devices and software they will use and under what conditions. That is the paradox that champions of technology–including philanthropists, software engineers, programmers, and CEOs–fail to understand or if they do understand choose to ignore.

As a result:

1. Such policy and administrative decisions ignoring teachers’ ideas, concerns, and issues of implementations send the message that those who teach are mere technicians who hammer the nail and turn the screw. They are not professionals capable of making judgments about what and how to teach.

2. Without serious teacher involvement in decisions to purchase and use new technologies, avoidable, even foolish, glitches occur time and again in putting the new technologies into practice. Anyone who has been in schools when new technologies were rolled out at the beginning of a school year knows all the “Oops,” “Sorry about that,” and “we had not considered that possibility” that get said in subsequent months. Much, but not all, of that could have avoided had teachers participated fully in trials of the new devices and discussions prior to implementation.

Larry asks:

Treating teachers as undeserving to be at the table when decisions are made about the buying and deploying of hardware and software reflects the low esteem that policymakers have for teachers. Would decisions on access and use to high-tech devices in classrooms be better-informed? You bet. Would teachers use the software differently. Perhaps. It would be worth finding out.

I will admit that I have a hard time not being defensive in responding to this post. While we have a district technology advisory committee and building tech committees with teacher representatives and our technology leadership team is comprised of many former classroom teachers, major technology planning and decision-making is not a democratic process in our district. 

Let me get some of these defensive responses out of the way...

  • As a I responded on the blog, "I hate to sound cynical here, Larry, but in just what areas of education DO classroom teachers have a major decision-making role?"* The deprofessionalizing of the classroom teacher extends to curriculum, assessment, textbook selection, and even classroom management. Why should technology be singled out for top-down implementation?
  • Larry suggests that other professions have more say in their technology use. Really? Bankers get to choose their banking systems and how they are used? Doctors get to choose whether to use the MRI? I'll be lawyers aren't given any leeway in whether to use their firm's management software - and I bet they don't give a damn about their network architecture so long as it works. I believe I could make the argument that teachers have more choice in technology use than nearly any other profession (sadly because there is little established best practice research and everyone seems to be experimenting).
  • Technology implementation needs expertise that goes outside traditional educational expertise. Complex systems need to carefully chosen to be reliable, adequate, and secure. New resources need to play nicely with legacy systems. What works for individuals at home on personal computers, may not scale or work at all on school systems. I am not sure the "wisdom of the masses" works when selecting Ethernet switches or a new e-mail system. When Larry writes that teachers are not viewed as "professionals capable of making judgments about what and how to teach," the complex nature of technology use just might justify this. Do we want teachers to spend time being technology experts or teaching experts?
  • My experience is that the average classroom teacher is not by nature an innovator. Yes, there are thousands of exceptions to this generalization, but I see very little change originating at the classroom level. Maybe after years of repression and narrow definitions of teaching "success," teachers are too tired and fearful to work to change the system. What changes to improve schools I see (some I like, some I hate), are top down. Sorry.
  • Adequate time for planning is not part of the regular school day. Good decision-making requires time to learn and time to meet.

But I would also agree with Larry that we should do a better job of involving practicing teachers in the decision-making process and encouraging innovative technology use in the classroom. Some things that may help:

  • Teachers and librarians must be at the table when big decisions are made about technology goals and policy making. Decisions made only by the tech department or administration are too often ill-informed, resulting in the kinds of avoidable implementation problems Larry writes about.
  • Staff development in technology needs to be restructured, making it less "how do I use this program" and more experimental, constructivist based. I'd rather a teacher knows a couple tools and lots of ways to use them, than lots of tools and only a single way to use them. Staff development that is teacher, rather than technologist, led would be a good start.
  • Teachers need to work in as least restrictive environment as possible. Minimum Internet blocking, adequate bandwidth, and ready availability of equipment are a big part of this. But so also is giving teachers the passwords to their own computers and allowing the downloading of new software. (One of the things I am seeing about iPad management is that these devices cannot be controlled to the same level as regular computers - the desire for trying new free and low cost apps overrides tech concerns over security.)

All areas of education reform and change need to be wrested from the hands of politicians, consultants, pundits, and state/federal departments of education and returned to local school boards, administrators, and especially thoughtful, committed, adventurous, excited, brave TEACHERS. The creation of teachers who "are mere technicians who hammer the nail and turn the screw," is not happening only in tech implementations but in curriculum, classroom management, and assessment. And you just can't separate technology implementations from curriculum, classroom management, and assessment if you are doing it right.

I want innovative teachers to be empowered by technology, not constrained by it.

* Larry did respond to this, saying in part: "Come on, Doug, that is a fair, not cynical, question. Historically, teachers have been treated as non-professionals and their advice, ideas, and common sense have been largely ignored."

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