I recently came across this old article that I had posted on newlearner.com about sixteen years ago. In those days, we didn't have students walking around with an assortment of "devices" that were loaded with educational "apps." Heck, we didn't even have learning management systems. Primarily, those of us who were interested in utilizing IT in the classroom were pretty much restricted to using basic HTML editors to create web pages. In any case, as I read through this article, I was really struck by how much of my current philosophical approach had been developed within just a few short years. This article highlights the fundamental perspective that I maintain to this day on the use of educational technology: use technology to enhance teaching and learning, but don't teach and learn just to use technology.
Originally published on www.newlearner.com, July 23, 1998
Let me share with you the first piece of advice I give to any educator who asks, "How can I use the Internet in my courses?" My first response to such a question is to ask the teacher what they would like the Internet to do for them. This may not sound like the most technically sophisticated advice in the world, but it genuinely reflects my personal attitude towards technology. Personally, I surround myself with technology - I use it every day within a variety of pursuits and contexts. Nonetheless, I am not a fan of technology. I appreciate what technology can do for me, but I do not admire the technology itself. With this attitude in mind, I will always suggest that a teacher first consider how they intend to derive benefit from the Internet before they jump into it. I believe that a teacher’s use of the Internet, or a school’s "total I.T. solution" for that matter, must always be well grounded in utility – not flair. Technology has provided educators with a plethora of capabilities that we’ve not previously had the opportunity to explore. However, just because we can do something, does not necessarily mean that we should.
Look Before You Leap
Getting the Internet into a classroom usually requires a school to establish an Information Technology (I.T.) program. Sadly, establishing an I.T. program within a school can easily absorb hundreds of thousands of dollars. Furthermore, the annual maintenance of an I.T. program will continue to absorb 25% to 50% of the program’s set-up cost on an annual basis. This reality alone should be enough to cause educators and school administrators to pause before committing themselves toward purchasing and maintaining the latest and the greatest in I.T. gadgetry.
All That Glitters is Not Gold
We have come to associate the Internet with the cutting-edge, status, and style. This has a lot to do with the fact that the web has been so well embraced by commercial enterprises. However, commercial websites rarely offer anything beyond the same banal fluff that one might find within a television commercial or a print advertisement. For commercial enterprises this actually makes a great deal of sense. Owing to the fact that the majority of commercial purchases are inspired by emotionally driven impulses, commercial websites will generally appeal to the emotions as opposed to the mind. If a soft drink company were to place too many genuine facts on their website, they may in fact convince consumers to not buy their product at all. A motion picture studio that placed too much detail on their website might convince movie-goers to go out and buy a book. Thus, we are all quite used to observing the tremendous flair that this new medium has to offer - the “MIDI” music, the flash videos, the animated “GIFs”, and the Java Script “mouse-overs.” As a consequence, we often develop a certain irrational respect for the corporations and products associated with slick websites. More significantly, we've come to identify I.T. flash and fancy as being part and parcel of a successful image – and who doesn't want to be successful? However, we as educators cannot afford to let ourselves become distracted from the genuine value contained within this digital domain.
Educators must remember that there is a significant difference between the academic website launched by a school, and the commercial website launched by a soft-drink company. Education has utility. People pursue education based on a variety of rational, logical, and intelligent goals. A good education will stimulate one’s imagination, inspire creativity, develop skills, and endow one with knowledge of, and appreciation for, the world in which they live. Thus, any educational I.T. undertaking should, in some way, reflect these goals.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It!
As I was growing up, my father often said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This was sound advice given the environment in which I grew up. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so we certainly couldn’t afford to go around fixing or replacing things that didn’t truly need to be fixed or replaced. Our financial situation made such decisions very simple. We knew that for every purchase we made, we would forego another purchase – perhaps something more important. I developed a strong sense of “opportunity cost” at a very young age.
Schools, obviously, are in a similar predicament. As education budgets continue to shrink, the demands placed upon every education dollar will continue to increase. Naturally, school administrators are increasingly forced to prioritize their needs and spend their limited budgets accordingly. So where should the Internet fall within a list of educational priorities? Well that depends on the list. As much as I am a proponent of information technology in education, I am certainly not going to say that an I.T. program should arbitrarily be assigned to the top of any school’s list of capital acquisitions.
Let’s be Honest with Ourselves
Educators who wish to incorporate the Internet within their programs in a meaningful way must first take a good honest look at their motivation. If a teacher feels that the Internet currently offers invaluable resources that will support the curriculum of a given course, then by all means that teacher should pursue acquiring Internet access for his/her students. But if a teacher is simply jumping on a passing bandwagon, then they may be catching a ride they really don’t want to take. Teachers must remember that it is the content found on the Internet that presents exciting opportunities – not the Internet itself. Meaningful interaction with the outside world is well worth incorporating into one’s curriculum. But simply throwing money at computers, and then throwing computers into classrooms, will not in itself succeed in modernizing or improving education. Given the expense of computer hardware and software, as well as the fact that these items are some of the fastest depreciating assets on the planet, no school in the world can afford to invest in I.T. to merely keep up with the Jones’.
Holding the interest of one’s students is without a doubt the greatest challenge that educators face on a daily basis. For this reason, many teachers are quick to embrace any prop, device, or apparatus with which they can share the burden. Sadly, the mere presence of the Internet in a classroom will not hold a student’s attention for long. Otherwise, we’d all still be addicted to playing Space Invaders at the local arcade. The fascination with technology for the technology itself will always wear off. Utility is what perseveres. Activity – genuine active learning – that’s what holds a student’s attention. So, if a school is willing to invest in Internet access, then teachers must be willing to invest time into i) examining the Internet’s utility, and ii) incorporate digital resources and technology into their curriculum... both with a goal of achieving valid and meaningful objectives that would have been more difficult to achieve, if not impossible, without the technology. Rest assured, the utility is there - buried deep beneath the flash and glamour. Nevertheless, facilitating meaningful interaction with the Internet may require more time, more effort, and more money than some school’s have bargained for.
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