The Right Tool for the Right Job
Instructional technology is a profoundly strange field. Strange mostly because, in spite of the shocking amount of communication technology that exists and is in use, there is no consistency in the level of technology that’s considered current and cutting edge. Every little collection of people working on a project has radically different standards. When you click on a link that promises some great new idea about integrating technology into the classroom, you have to be skeptical. What some people think is a great new idea might not seem so great to you.
My example of the moment is Five easy ways to integrate computers into the health science/physical education curriculum. Let’s just say that those five ways basically revolve around using the internet as a reference tool for assignments, which is something I thought we’d all figured out and agreed on in 1998. There’s one assignment that even recommends using Excel.
I realize that not everyone is comfortable with computers. Not everyone is going to have the time or the technical knowledge to create true learning tools. But we have to stop integrating computers just because computers are cool.
You have heard it time and time again: “This is the age of technology! We need to integrate computers into our curriculum!” But with an overwhelming pile of papers to grade and more and more expectations piling up on teachers every day, who has time to add computers to their curriculum?
Perhaps we’re not ready to do that yet. Because you can’t ask people who don’t actually understand the point, or who don’t actually understand the technology, to use these tools in a useful way. Perhaps those tools just aren’t ready yet; how burdensome was it for teachers to shift over from dipping pens in ink to using disposable bic pens in the classroom? An attitude shift was required, certainly; but there should be a minimum of new skills required to use computers in the classroom. The fact that training is still so sorely needed is a testament to the poor design of educational software.
We get a bit too excited about computers, as if they are indeed the new bic pen and suddenly everything should involve computers in some way. Looking over these recommendations for integrating computers begs the question: how are computers actually improving the curriculum? How are computers forging new experiences in education? From Five easy ways:
Using Microsoft’s Excel, have the students track their food intake for a period of three consecutive days. Using a chart-like format, students should record food eaten, the number of food servings, the food groups to which the foods belong, and the estimated calories in each given food. At the end of each day, students can total the amount of food group servings and calories they ate per day and discuss the implications of their choices.
Is there actually a reason why a pen and paper aren’t a better alternative for this? What is Excel adding to this assignment? There is no point in integrating technology if it’s not going to change venue for students, if it’s not going to fundamentally alter the way things are done or thought about or talked about. In the case of this food chart, it would actually be more logical to give students tiny notebooks or calendars to keep track of their eating habits; students in high school don’t usually eat exclusively when they’re in front of a computer. What about a cookie they pick up from the cafeteria? Or frozen yoghurt at the mall? A tiny daily calendar would be the best way to keep track of what’s going into your mouth on the go. Not an Excel spreadsheet. If you really want to get technical about it, get them all PDAs.
Truly making good use of technology in the classroom means using the right tool for the right job. And computers are not the only tools. Everything can be a tool. We know already that technology has the capacity to be damaging to the educational enterprise rather than helpful; if we’re going to integrate computers and technology, we need to be careful about it, and choose the tools best suited to the task at hand.