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The False Promise of Technology

The False Promise of Technology

Alistair Bomphray

Technology is amazing, hey? The fact that you’re reading this right now is nothing short of amazing. How many new tweets/blog posts/Facebook status updates have been projectile vomited into cyberspace in the short time it has taken you to read these three sentences? It’s like that scene in Stand By Me when Lard Ass Hogan barfs on four-time pie-eating champion, Bill Travis, and then “Bossman” Bob Cormier barfs on Principal Wiggins, and then Principal Wiggins barfs on a lumberjack, and then everybody starts barfing on each other all the way up to the Women’s Auxiliary barfing on the Benevolent Order of Antelopes. Which is all just to say—amazing!

No doubt about it—technology has revolutionized our world. Google is our collective hippocampus (how ironic that I just Google fact-checked that), and wireless broadband our neurons and axons.

But when it comes to school innovation, technology is a crutch. This isn’t to say that it isn’t good, or that it shouldn’t be a part of school innovation, but that too often it enables laziness on the part of school leaders. Rather than do the hard work of thinking about what will really make our students the kind of people we want to inherit the earth (or improve their test scores, if that’s your thing), we compensate for our lack of ideas by bowing before the altar of technology. Got a spare 100K? Build a new Mac lab, by God! Smart Boards in every classroom! Surgically implanted grammar chips!

To wit, here are a few snippets from Slate Magazine’s recent call for school innovation ideas: “Each desk connects to the wireless network, allowing the teacher to distribute digital lesson materials from a handheld device.”; “Highly mobile seats…allow students to easily move between LCD monitors, Smart Boards, video conferencing, computers, and a student response system.”; and, my personal favorite, “Programs and images would be projected…onto the smart boards surrounding the students…The classroom setting is essentially clothed in the images of the content subject matter, whether the interior of a historic castle or animals of Africa or Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.”

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Call me a crank, but if my students need to feel like they’re actually inside the Globe Theater to get into Macbeth, then I’m just not doing my job as a teacher. As educators, I believe one of our most important tasks is to stimulate the imagination of our students. I’m not opposed to enlisting technology to help us in this respect, but the line between “technology as tool” and “technology as master” is dangerously thin. When technology takes the place of imagination—or weakens our own capacity for such labor—we do a great disservice to our students. Anytime there is discussion of bringing technology into the classroom, this simply must be considered. But we don’t spend enough time thinking about this. Instead, we accept as truth, “If the world is upgrading, then schools must too.”

The problem is, the world is upgrading a lot faster than our theories of pedagogy. Or at the very least, faster than those theories are able to trickle down to the average public school. Which begs two even bigger questions: To what degree should schools be expected to keep up with technological progress? And, is this how our limited education budget is best spent?

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