Thursday, October 15, 2009

the assumption

I have been reading the Clayton Christensen book Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, and discover that the premise is that computers will reshape education, not by being integrated at the center as has been the incredibly costly and wasteful attempt, but by chipping away at the edges. The idea is based on Christensen's concept of "disruptive innovation" through which technological change takes place by creating fringe consumption and use. Personal computers became dominant, not by competing directly with main frames, which they couldn't do at the time, but by adopting a recreational role in the lives of an at first small set of consumers. It is noted in the book that billions of dollars have been invested placing computers in schools with little real effect on outcomes, but the real effect will undoubtedly come from computers sneaking in from the edges. It is kind of like the way the Apple IIe led to the ultimate demise of Digital Equipment... a sneak attack. I am not done with the book yet, but am growing weary of its direction.

The assumption at this point in the book is that computers can fulfill the entire range of multiple intelligences. Body smart? you want Wii. Art smart? you might want illustrator or photoshop. Word smart? you may want a Kindle. Of course I'm being silly. The concept they present is not as simple as that, but as someone who takes pleasure working with my hands, tools and real materials I question whether technology will solve all our problems. What about the simple matter of the heart?

I question whether we do our children's education full justice by presenting them with made up models of physical reality. Are our children to take seriously the "chem lab" where they just click to mix, and the bunsen burner is a flame on screen? Safer perhaps, but does it not also inform our children that A. we don't trust them with the real thing, B. we don't value them enough to provide something real, and C. what we are teaching is little more than a game and thus not to be taken seriously? If they haven't stood in white coat amidst an array of tubes, open flames, and possible danger of real things happening, will they feel inclined toward becoming real chemists?

The assumption is that computer knowledge is transcendent of all multiple human intelligences and not merely another narrowly defined intelligence field that isolates it practitioners with its own jargon, exclusive culture and sense of entitlement. (anyone know an IT?)

I am reminded of an experiment in which they tested to see whether industrial arts could be taught as efficiently with lectures as with real tools. Wishful thinking no doubt that the school budget could be shaved in half. Can you guess what the outcome was? I believe computers have already offered a revolution in learning. Now, the question becomes will computer technology also offer a revolution in schools, allowing us to overcome the challenges illustrated by a 30% high school drop out rate? No doubt computers will play their part, but revolution? I believe it will take the hands for that.


  1. What about the simple matter of the heart? What about it? In college I had a German pen pal when the Berlin wall fell. We had students in the Vax lab talking online with an Iraqi student when the first bomb strikes of Desert Storm began. Let's have students send video messages to each other all through out different countries in the world. Possibly even work on collaborative projects. Educate a generation ready for the global economy, and possibly even friends with students from around the world.

    Computers can become an enabling technology that does transcend the operation of the computer itself. Olympic athletes use motion capture and computer modeling to increase their performance. They don't write the code, but yes computers help the Body Smart.

    I think that computers could enable students in remote areas to watch lectures from the finest teachers. I think computers could allow for self paced progression in a way that traditional classrooms can't match. Computers could also allow for students to take courses that would not otherwise be available to them if they were in a small school (how many languages are taught at your school?). Don't replace the class chemistry experiment, but show them laboratories and real life applications that you can't create in the classroom to stimulate their interest.

    Please note though that whenever I say computers, I don't really mean computers. I mean that educators will have to open their minds to the possibilities that the technology offers. They will have to envision how they can get beyond the confines of their current limitations and use technology to enhance their teaching capabilities. Not just for "their" students, but for "all students".

    It probably would take a revolution in the education system. I doubt that the funding structures currently allow this to happen. If a physicist from Cal Tech records a brilliant lecture series for high school students then who would pay for it?

  2. First, than you for taking the time to read and respond. I will not ever suggest that technology is not important. I use it far too much ever make such a claim. I do drawings on an illustration program through which I am capable of enticing buyers to commission furniture. I published my last three books using digital photos organized on my desktop, using word documents to cover the step-by-step, email to communicate with my editors, and I blog each day to reach hundreds of readers throughout the world. So I know first hand its potential.

    But the authors of Disrupting Class would agree with me that a large proportion of the billions of dollars spent on technology in schools has been wasted, in that it has not brought the desired effect.

    Yes, with some vision and imagination, teachers can do some pretty incredible things with it. And in time, they will get better at it. At Clear Spring School, our students have done collaborative projects with students in other countries. and we developed a sister schools relationship with a school in Japan conducted via email.

    But to think that computers will solve our educational crisis is narrow minded. Though some wish it could be true, primarily for the money it would save, over the cost of having more deeply interested and engaged live teachers.

    So I will agree that there is potential, but will also agree with the authors of Disrupting Class that its use will sneak in the back door, and trying to engineer learning arrangement using computers in school is not thinking far enough outside the box.

    Technology teachers (who used to be called "shop teachers") were the first to feel the pain of forced integration of computer technologies. They had teaching modules for wood, metals, and lawn mower repair. So I can name names of teachers who long for a return for hands-on, that I know will agree with me.