“The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.” — Alvin Toffler, Future Shock
Beyond using computers to test students, rank students and compile data on students, technology in schools means primarily two things: teacher-directed use of digital tools in lesson plans and students using smartphones to connect to the world and each other. In the first case, using digital tools for teaching and learning reflects changing K-12 education goals; in the second, networked students have made an indelible impact on classrooms by connecting them to events, relationships and interests outside the school.
As general funding for hardware and web access has increased, so too have expectations for teachers and students to use school-provided digital tools (dare I say bandwidth?) to produce content of all kinds, e.g., papers, projects, presentations and portfolios. On the other hand, students coming to school with smartphones present new possibilities for learning, but also a host of new and challenging dynamics for classroom management and discipline. Baby-boomers in the ranks generally feel sentimental about the pre-iPhone culture they learned in and grew up in, but unless/until The Grid goes down, those days are long gone.
For other takes on social media in the classroom, see Michelle Puccinelli and Diane Williams. This essay is part of our new feature: TBR Teach, a discussion about school policy among three Boise teachers. Follow their posts here.
Back in the dark ages, 1970 to be exact, Alvin Toffler published his famous futurist critique of culture and technology called Future Shock. In it, Toffler made the argument that the ever-increasing pace of life and technological change would overwhelm our ability to adapt, leading to isolation, depression, even madness. While not all of Toffler’s predictions have come true, there is no doubt that technology has revolutionized the way we work, socialize, and learn. However, the key component of Toffler’s thesis, that accelerating change would drive us crazy, doesn’t seem to be the case.
Of course, just because technology isn’t driving us crazy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s positively transforming our individual or collective selves. I’m no Luddite, but when I watch kids — adults too for that matter — using technology to navigate their days, my perception is that immediate access to a vastness of information can undermine attention and productivity. Moreover, consumers of web-based news and opinion need a lot of critical reading skills to avoid being misinformed, manipulated or misled. One of the funniest-cum-dismaying things I read earlier this year regarding general reading ability was about Facebook experimenting with a satire tag to ward off confusion when users post articles from sites like “The Onion.”
Many years ago, I heard Elie Wiesel speak about the Holocaust. Someone in the audience asked him what he thought about “Schindler’s List.” He replied that he hadn’t seen the movie and that “as a 19th century man” he rarely spent leisure time with something other than a book; that books were understood to be the vetted authority in the scrum of voices. Today, with an exploding amount of web-based content being produced, shared, boosted and referenced by anyone and everyone, even highly-skilled readers have to tread carefully, using sites like Snopes for separating fact from fiction and posturing from provenance.
For Idaho teachers going forward with Common Core, online competency is about training students to be better consumers of online content, i.e., how to select, read, compare, analyze, order and present information. Some of the more critical competencies students and teachers are meant to tackle from grade to grade include evaluating site credibility and rhetoric; creating and collaborating on digital content of all kinds, including texts, visual and quantitative information; and presenting information using a variety of task-specific platforms. For example, numbers 2 and 5 under the K-12 Speaking and Listening Standards include the ability to integrate, evaluate and use information from diverse and digital media:
Four decades on from the publication of Future Shock, using technology as a tool to learn, produce and communicate is central to 21st century instruction. However, thinking through how, when and why to practice digital learning requires good, old-fashioned lesson planning and class management skills. Looking something up on a phone does not immediately and necessarily imply knowledge, any more than tapping on a keyboard implies composing thoughtful prose or Instagramming the party means you have real-world social skills. Learning is first and foremost a process; therefore, good teaching will always require balanced and thoughtful reflection on learning goals and practices.
In addition to learning targets, a tall order in themselves, part of the the adaptation process also requires hammering out acceptable use policies and holding students accountable to them. The Boise School District requires all students to learn about and adhere to specific “Digital Citizenship” rules, including agreeing to use school devices only for legitimate, school-related purposes. For example, if/when students are caught using social media to cheat on their work, harass classmates or flagrantly waste productive time, teachers must have a method for maintaining a safe credible work environment. This can also be complicated by students use of smartphones and earbuds, especially if the student is easily distracted or unmotivated.
A huge part of teaching is classroom management. Without order and engagement, 15 teenagers — let alone the 24+ that are common now in Boise’s high school classrooms, can be difficult, if not impossible, to teach. Smartphones have complicated the picture for order and engagement. If I want to create an atmosphere for learning without interference from the outside world, I have to set up the culture for that to happen. Because many students are wired in a lot — barricading themselves off from others with earbuds and a 24/7 playlist, or texting, i.e. relationship-managing — they find it very difficult to keep their hands off their phones. Running phone interference with impulsive and gadget-addicted students requires vigilance and a willingness to follow-through with consequences. In my practice, I start every class with the reminder to have all devices put away unless asked for and I back it up with phone-confiscation sanctions.
Regardless, students struggle to resist the power in their pocket to breach the fourth wall, as do their friends, parents, bosses, coaches, etc. Checking out with music or texting instead of attending to the lesson can be a big temptation if the work seems hard or feels boring, and can lead to confrontations like the one a friend of mine working in another high school recently recounted about a young man challenging his teacher to “engage him” as a prerequisite for lowering his Dre Beats.
Technology’s power to inform or seduce comes with a hefty price tag too. So far, my district and others have been trying to bridge the gap between access and cost by cobbling together a “BYOD” (Bring your own device) policy that allows students to work from a variety of devices. This works to solve the problem of getting a digital tool in most hands most days, but although many students are quite skilled at using their phones to web surf and text, most have to be trained in work applications. Transferring basic phone skills to other applications can be a frustrating and time-consuming experience for students and for staff. In my school, a BSD high school that is — relative to other Idaho districts and schools — well-funded due to an urban tax base, bond-passing taxpayer generosity and successful grant writing, teachers and students can access a computer lab, a computer bank in the library and two portable labs (carts filled with Chromebooks that can rolled from room to room and booked via a shared online calendar). Turning in digital work of all kinds — papers, presentations and homework — is pretty common in Boise high schools, but with budget strains around the state, hardware and energy costs associated with online learning will remain expensive line items.
At their best, schools are meant to help prepare students for the future — their own individual future and a collaborative, community future. While no one has a crystal ball to know precisely what demands the future will place on students of today, working with what we know now is the only place to start. As the futurist Stuart Candy said in an interview about the impact of Future Shock with NPR, “What Future Shock got right was that it made a compelling argument for taking the acceleration of change seriously.” Candy told NPR that the value of the book was, “to teach people that the best defense against the future is to think about it, to imagine different scenarios, and try to avoid being taken by surprise.”
While I feel certain that the future will inevitably take us by surprise, technology’s ubiquity as a tool and portal is obvious. At its best, technology can be used as one tool among many to empower thinking, support problem-solving, energize creativity and promote collaboration.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.