Reinventing the Square Wheel

Reinventing the Square Wheel

Is your district choking the potential out of exciting new technologies?

The issues, questions and controversies regarding the use of technology continue to slow its successful classroom implementation. Kids blog, contribute to Wikipedia and collaborate with others from the computers in their bedrooms, but not their classrooms. Even when schools provide "personal" student laptops they may not be used to listen to music, chat and, in some cases, go home. Such resistance seems at odds with the goals of schooling.

Mindstorms: Computers, Children and Powerful Ideas (Basic Books, 1981) predicted the ways in which schools would appropriate new technologies and bend them to the prevailing practices of the institution. In other words, we tend to use new tools to do what we've always done. Contemporary approaches to new technology seem more like a mugging than appropriation.

Such resistance seems
at odds with the goals
of schooling.

Let's look at three ways in which schools are choking the potential out of exciting new technologies.

Do What We Do

Schools have universally accepted business applications as de rigueur. For better or worse, Microsoft Office is the one piece of software that must be on every school computer because it is on every corporate computer. In fact, many "laptop schools" purchase no other software. Mark Twain, Buddha and Abraham Maslow have all been credited with the quotation, "When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail." The use of Office in schools often involves multiyear scope and sequence and the application of the tool to contexts where it adds little or gets in the way of learning.

I use Microsoft Office. In fact, this column was written in it. There is nothing wrong with writing and editing in a word processor or adding a column of numbers in Excel. However, it is only when schools use their computers in a more expansive fashion that supports knowledge construction and creative expression, as well as additional software, that we begin to realize the potential of computers in the learning process.

PowerPoint sucks the oxygen out of educational computing. As I argued in an earlier column, "Pointing in the Wrong Direction," (District Administration, January 2004) PowerPoint is used way too often for trivial tasks that take too long to produce. Sure kids should develop competence speaking in front of an audience, but PowerPoint requires a specific way of thinking at odds with both the cognitive style of many presenters and the needs of the message being conveyed. That is a kind way of saying that we confuse the false complexity of mastering PowerPoint's features with actually learning something or communicating effectively. Edward Tufte documents the dangers associated with the dominance of PowerPoint in his superb monograph, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within (available from www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_pp).

Of course, PowerPoint can be used effectively and benefit learners, but that is rarely the case in practice. Sure, Al Gore uses PowerPoint magnificently in his film An Inconvenient Truth, except that he uses Apple's Keynote software, your fourth-graders are not Al Gore, and the former vice president has an authentic audience for his message. Spending two weeks to create a five-slide presentation about elephants for a nonexistent audience is just not the same.

Do the Opposite of What We Do

Except with the odd exception of Office, schools have an allergic reaction to innovations created elsewhere. Persistent logic goes something like this: "Kids love MySpace. Let's make our own version!" Eventually d?tente is attempted by schools spending their scarce resources to reinvent something already in existence, embraced by the public and maintained by more clever people. Take the Web for example. Millions of tax dollars have been spent worldwide to create "21st Century eLearning Portals for Education" which aggregate content for teachers believed to be too stupid to use Google like the rest of us.

My daughter just began college. She used the Web quite extensively in the application and selection process. Once accepted she used MySpace to find current students and ask questions about student life, and made a number of friends before ever setting foot on the campus. Colleges are now aware of this phenomenon and responding in precisely the wrong way. As Mark Sikes, assistant dean of students at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., told USA Today (8/15/06), "We realized that in order to communicate truly effectively to students we needed a medium that they are already accustomed to."

So colleges are creating their own social networking sites. Forget that such sites already exist, that they are free, that their students love them and that they are maintained by experts. Schools would rather invent the square wheel. MySpace and whatever replaces it will always be better, cooler and cheaper than what a school develops as a poor, yet ironically expensive, imitation.

We're Just So Entertaining

Another big mistake educators make is believing that all learning occurs within their hallowed halls and that they are the center of each student's universe. Podcasting offers the potential for everyone to be a broadcaster and share their voice with the world. Schools and publishers are embracing this exciting technology as a means to deliver boring content to bored students. Textbook publishers are now selling their riveting content to schools so it may be beamed into the iPods of students. Now every waking moment of life may be consumed by comma rules and multiplication tables.

There is a good reason that podcasts of university lectures have become so popular. Waking up early to watch some guy drone on in a lecture hall full of 1,800 disinterested peers just so you can pass a test makes listening to the lecture at your leisure desirable. However, a podcast is a poor imitation of a stimulating lecture. Schools would be well-served by not emulating impersonal universities and by allowing students to use their iPods for what they love.

Many of us fought to get computers in the hands of children. It would be a shame if we cheated them of the richest possible experiences.

Gary S. Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large of District Administration and editor of The Pulse.


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