When Technology Fails

On Friday, I think it was, I read this article in the New Yorker.  “The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom

It was one of those articles that I wanted to tuck away and bring out for discussion at the appropriate time.  If you know me, you know my work flow.  I send it to Twitter where it gets identified by packrati.us and sent to my Diigo account.  Then, it goes to Facebook and reappears as an overnight blog post.  Good grief, I can be noisy.


A number of folks that follow me saw the message on Twitter and jumped on it. Their thoughts and comments increased the value of the article for me.

See?  I do read when you reply…

Linda Aragoni

Lisa Noble

Cliff Kraeker

David Fife

Fred Galang

Andrew Campbell

Jacques Cool


It absolutely is a good read and I hope that anyone teaching Computers in the Classroom takes note.

Unfortunately, I missed a great deal of the discussion but did catch up later on.

The whole thing did bring back a university classroom memory for me.  It was first year and I was taking accounting.  At the time, my university didn’t have a Faculty of Business so this was actually an Economics course.  We took the class in one of those huge classroom theatres where the professor had to use a microphone.  It didn’t really matter because his teaching had nothing about him.

The course was on a slide show basis synchronized with a tape recording of the content.  Picture your worse ever Powerpoint abuse presentation and then start digging.

Every time the audio had a beep, the professor clicked a button and the show went on to the next slide.  It was there that I thought being a university professor would be a pretty good job.  It was only this class though.  But, for the university, I think it was probably a big cash cow in enrolment fees.  There were literally hundreds of us in the theatre and we all had to buy the student companion that went along with the course.  Every time we heard the beep, we turned to the next page…

I actually did very well in the course – not because of the tapes but I had brought prior learning to the classroom having taken all kinds of accounting in high school.

Fortunately, I only ever had one course delivered like that.

Later, as I became a teacher myself, I had forgotten a lot of the courses taken, but I do remember how I felt in that particular class.  Nobody seemed to care whether or not we learned anything and it was anything but interactive.  Had I owned a laptop or cell phone during that class, I would have been one of the students whose minds was a million miles away.

Education is a partnership.  Teachers have to teach and at least set the table so that it’s friendly for learning.  Students have to learn.  We know that.  But, does it happen?

We know that it does in some cases but not in others.

The problem with having this discussion in the Twitter forum is that all of the participants “get it”.  We know that students are more than vessels waiting to be filled up.  Does everyone though?

Bring Your Own Device and/or 1:1 Computing is one of the latest phenomena to hit the classroom.  You know, students get outfitted with whatever their family can afford and they bring it to school to assist in their education or they use school provided technology.  In a perfect world, it connects them to people and resources just as they’re needed.  In a perfect world, the teacher sets the table so that the best of learning is possible – sometimes even including student devices, if appropriate.  The activities work best when they’re interactive and inspire student discussion, creation, and doing things that they’d never done before.

But step back for a second.

How does a teacher get to the point of effectively designing learning experiences like this?

If they have fond memories of sitting in a theatre, focused on a screen, waiting for the beep, all of the technology in the world won’t make a difference.  If it’s not used to support the learning, who owns the problem?

BYOD is a reality now in universities.  It’s just another place in society that’s wireless and supportive of connectivity.  We can’t blame the universities for providing the accessibility.  What can we expect from someone who Facebooked their way through teachers’ college?  And, certainly, even the best classes that support what’s possible at this moment in time can become dated so quickly.

The answer?  David and Cliff know it.  We all had roughly the same jobs at one point in time.  It boils down to a continuing program of professional learning.  There absolutely needs to be learning opportunities about the latest “app” or how to make Excel stand on its head.  That sort of learning should never end.  Embedded with it though needs to be a demonstration about the “how” that reaches out, engages students, and exploits the power of those devices that they have in their hands.  The New Yorker article talks about a wireless kill switch which could be implemented more practically just with a “hands up. lids down” approach.  But that’s just the mechanical part of it.  I’ve seen people blame lack of engagement based upon a particular piece of technology without looking at the actual attempts at learning.

That’s not the point.

What is it about the technology, the teaching, and the subject matter that makes it effective and worth the effort?  That’s where professional learning opportunities lie.  An individual, a school, a district needs to devote time and effort to ensure that teachers understand this.  You can’t just buy a bunch of the latest and greatest and expect the magic to happen.  It’s not the technology per se that is the tipping point.  It’s an amalgam of good teaching practice, an eye to the future and its potential, and the technology.  If your plan doesn’t include a combination of them all, it’s not going to be effective.

And…we’ll continue to read articles like this.

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4 thoughts on “When Technology Fails

  1. Oh, I want to stand up and cheer on this one, Doug. That last paragraph is key. You have to have that combination – it’s an absolute must, or all the technology in the world isn’t going to engage your students. You have to go back to the “why?” – why am I choosing this particular activity, at this time, and why is it the best one for the learning goals my students and I are trying to reach?

    I was fascinated by some of the data in the New Yorker article – all the assessment seemed to based on fact-based regurgitation-type activities. Does the way you take your notes really make a difference if you’re using them to turn that knowledge into something meaningful, rather than just doing a “quiz”? And if the only thing students are using their laptops for in a class is taking notes, then maybe there’s an issue right there. Oh….there’s so much to dig into here, and you’re absolutely right about your Twitter followers being the “converted”. It’s hard to get people past “but that’s the way we’ve always done it”. Discussions like this are a start – thanks!

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