Saturday, April 15, 2006

Technology and the Transforming of Education

My wife and I have four children, all of whom are very different--and that difference is reflected in their academic lives. I think it says something about our generation (we're in our forties) that we have felt comfortable creating individual academic programs for them. One has been home-schooled since fourth grade (a self-motivated learner), one is in a private school (not a self-motivated learner), and two are in public school. I would imagine that this variety of educational paths would have been relatively unheard of in my parents' day, but for our friends, while it's not normal, it's not that unique.

If our school experience is, at least partially, to prepare us for what our work life will be, then the experience our family has had may actually become the norm. I've noticed a number of our friends' older children have been graduating from high school early, taking the GED, and then starting college courses early. Maybe this is a reflection of the fact that the adult life that they see ahead of themselves (and that their parents see) does not appear to reward the educational road most traveled. The publicized superstars of our world today--in music, sports, and business--are generally not those who took the common path and pursued the American dream by going to college, paying their dues in as they slowly moved up the corporate ladder, then using their accumulated wisdom to help run the large companies of the world. No, our new superstars come out of nowhere in their early twenties or even in their teens, dashing to fame and fortune in a matter of months even. From unknown to American Idol or Web 2.0 genius or NBA starter overnight.

But even when we devote some logic to this discussion and recognize that media coverage is not reality for most of us in the regular world, we do still recognize that some fundamental shifts have taken place. The 1990's saw a dramatic change in how we view employment, employer responsibility, and worker loyalty: companies that had never laid off an employee began large-scale "reorganizations," and not always because they had to. Maybe it was the democratization of the stock market--if we are all "owners," then it's hard to argue with companies making changes for the benefit of the shareholders. And worker loyalty seemed to extend just as far as the stock options did. Whatever the causes, companies and workers see each other differently now than they did fifteen years ago, and the average worker will work in more jobs in his lifetime than ever before.

So what skills will be needed for those entering the labor force in the coming years? And what type of school environment will help prepare him or her for an environment of rapidly changing challenges, and provide an ability to steer an independent course? And what role will or can technology in the classroom play in this changed reality?

First, I think it's important not to forget that technology can be addictive. Technology for the sake of technology is a significant trap, and one that occurs with some frequency today. Educational issues can be very complex, and it is tempting (and common) to tout today's newest technology advance as the answer to our educational shortcomings or problems. Educational software for the home PC was all the rage ten years ago--until we discovered that most of it didn't actually help our children understand math any better. I think most of us understand the significant influence of a great teacher in our lives, and no matter what the technological advances, we still need other people to help guide and teach us, and I would quickly trade all the best educational software programs in the world for a teacher who truly cares about a child. And I don't care how snappy your PowerPoint presentation is if you haven't learned to think deeply about a topic and write an essay that reflects that thinking.

Now, having said that, we must also understand that not having access to computers, understanding how they work, and knowing how to use them will put a child at a serious disadvantage in life. And advances in computer technology are going to dramatically change education at all levels. The ability that computers have to provide direct access to incredible materials should not be underestimated as a powerful change in education. If we think that the printing press had a profound impact on world history, wait until we understand what the Internet has done and will still yet do.

I think we can fully expect that high competency in computer-driven collaborative work, blogging or on-line idea expression, open source programming, technical adaptability, and web research will be essential for the job markets of tomorrow. How do you teach those things? And especially, how do you teach them with teachers who may not have those skills themselves? This is a dilemma we have to solve--and what makes it particularly difficult is that simply throwing money at computers won't actually solve it. We are going to have to find economical ways to make sure there is plenty of access to computers in schools, and then help teachers 1) become proficient in the computer tools that are available and prepared to be learning something new themselves each day, 2) find ways to harness the incredible creativity provided by the Internet, and 3) figure out how to help the ADD-prone generations (whose talents lie in juggling email, text messaging, web browsing, homework, and cell-phone conversations all at once) to focus on enduring truths and academic self-discipline.

As David Thornburg said recently in an article for eSchool News: "The main thing that's holding technology back [in schools] is ... a fear--a well-placed fear, I might add--that if technology becomes ubiquitous, it will totally transform the practice of education. There are a lot of people who don't want the practice of education transformed, because they're very comfortable with it."

Hang on to your hats. This should be an interesting ride.
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