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“We Need Teachers, Not Computers”

I’ve been noticing for a while that a lot of articles about education technology have a similar ring to them: “Must Have Apps for K12 Educators,” “What Every Teacher Should Know About Using iPads in the Classroom,” “The Best 50 Education Technology Resources for Teachers.” You get the drift.

This type of headline suggests that educators are the ones in need of schooling when it comes to technology, while the articles themselves often portray students as technology natives, naturally gifted at all things digital. One almost gets the impression that, when it comes to technology, students should be teaching their teachers.

But maybe my perception is skewed. After all, a portion of the education news I read “comes to me” via Zite,Flipboard and other news aggregators. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that that these types of software applications have a bias toward certain types of technology-centered stories which may not be representative of the broader education technology press.

So, is it me, or is it true that the media sometimes sees educators as a bunch of technological neophytes, while seeing students as technological whizzes from whom teachers must learn? And, if true, is this particular to the field of education or is something similar seen in regard to professionals in other fields?

How much do we judge doctors’ skill levels by how many advanced technologies they utilize in their offices? Perhaps to some extent, but off the top of my head, I can’t think of the last time I saw a headline like “30 Apps That Every Doctor Should Have” or “How Technology Can Improve Your Patients’ Diabetes,” but I tried to approach the question a little more systematically. I searched the New York Times archives for articles written in the last year on “technology and teachers” and “technology and doctors.”

Here are some of my “findings” and thoughts.

Vital Signs by Phone” (April 11, 2012) discusses medical technologies with a focus on how specific ideas were generated:

In 2005 Stephen Moore, software engineer, asked Dr. Cameron Powell, an obstetrician, to describe an ideal mobile app, one that would make his job easier and improve the quality of care. Dr. Powell suggested an app that would let him see on his smartphone — even when he was not at the hospital — the fetal heartbeat and mother’s contractions in high-risk deliveries.

Lesson number one, a technology for doctors needs to be designed by asking doctors what they need. Practitioner’s input is essential. While this might seem obvious, I don’t believe the same approach is always taken in regard to education technology.  Instead, we – or at least the staff of the New York Times – ask students: “Do Your Teachers Use Technology Well?” (January 5, 2012).

Classroom Lectures Go Digital” (June 24, 2012) opens like this:

The virtual teacher has arrived — flickering away on a screen on a school bus, in a bunk bed or in the shade of a beach umbrella, and turning traditional education on its head.

A beach umbrella. Really?

The article goes on to discuss different – how should I call them? – initiatives we’ve all heard about ad nauseam, such as Khan Academy and TED-ed. The only faint call for prudence comes at the end of the piece, and follows a rather disturbing statement: “But before technology replaces real live teachers entirely, education experts urge caution in rolling out new resources.”

Meanwhile, in the medical field “Exploring the Role of Mobile Technology as a Health Care Helper” (May 13, 2012) describes how 60 faculty members and 120 students in Johns Hopkins Global Health Initiative are investigating the use of mobile technology in health.

Similarly, “The Virtual Anatomy” (January 7, 2012) describes the “virtual cadaver,” a 3-D technology that may be used to train medical students. “It is too soon to tell whether studying a digital human model will help medical students understand anatomy more deeply than they can by dissecting cadavers alone” the article notes. Then diverse opinions by actual users (in this case medical students) are presented:

“In a cadaver, if you remove an organ, you cannot add it back in as if it were never removed,” she said as she adjusted her 3-D glasses.

But her colleague, Susanna Jeurling, a first-year medical student from Washington, disagreed. Dissecting a real cadaver, she said, gives students a unique, tactile understanding of the body. “I don’t think this will ever replace cadavers,” said Ms. Jeurling, 24. “There’s something about being able to hold it and turn it in your hand.”

The piece concludes:

Administrators at the medical school say they have no plans to phase out dissection, an educational method that dates back to the Ptolemaic era. The 3-D digital human body is merely a complementary teaching method, said Dr. Marc M. Triola, associate dean for educational informatics.

A Game to Help Doctors Ask Tough Questions” (May 25, 2012) describes technology designed to help differentiate deception from pain and assist doctors in spotting patients who may be addicted to analgesics.

The video game was designed based on research by Dr. Michael F. Fleming at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and draws on technology used by the F.B.I. to train agents in interrogation tactics.

The game, which is in its final phase of testing, is aimed at primary care and family doctors, who often feel uncomfortable and unqualified assessing their patients in this regard.

Lesson number two, the best medical technologies are designed based on actual medical research. The technology component draws from techniques validated in other domains (security and intelligence here). Interestingly, medical innovations undergo testing before they’re implemented – a practice we would do well to heed in education.

Sadly, I was unable to find similar stories about education technology and teachers – I focused on the first few items when ordering the results by relevance (as established by the Times algorithm). The technology in education talk is often vague and shallow. Much too often the debate remains focused on the extent to which teachers use technology and/or how well they do it. Little attention is placed on the specific uses of software or concrete innovations, such as the examples from medicine above.

In my – admittedly cursory – examination, I also saw little discussion on whether and how teachers were involved in the design of various educational technologies. Do developers routinely ask teachers what would help them improvetheir jobs?

Teachers Resist High-Tech Push” (January 3, 2012) tells us about Idaho teachers who are “resisting a statewide plan that dictates how computers should be used in classrooms.”

Last year, the state legislature overwhelmingly passed a law that requires all high school students to take some online classes to graduate, and that the students and their teachers be given laptops or tablets. The idea was to establish Idaho’s schools as a high-tech vanguard.

I am not sure what a “high-tech vanguard” means or what it accomplishes, but okay. Then the article goes on to say:

Some teachers, even though they may embrace classroom technology, feel policy makers are thrusting computers into classrooms without their input or proper training.

“This technology is being thrown on us. It’s being thrown on parents and thrown on kids,” said Ms. Rosenbaum, 32 […]

The article also cites Tom Luna, Superintendent of Public Instruction in Idaho, who said that “technological change could be scary, particularly because teachers would need to adapt to new ways of working” and that “teachers will need to learn how to use the new devices and how to incorporate them into their lesson plans, which could involve rethinking longstanding routines.”

Perhaps. And perhaps they are “longstanding” for a good reason, just like the dissection of cadavers – a teaching tool that dates back to Ptolemaic times.

Judging from these articles, at least, the nation’s approach to technology in education is markedly different from that we take toward technology in medicine – disregarding practitioner input, lacking in specific objectives (unless you think “high-tech vanguard” is specific enough), and imposed by a bureaucracy of non-practitioners, with the expectation that teachers should obediently adapt in replacing current practice with “innovations” of unknown value.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge technology fan, and think that there are a number of amazing new tools that could be of enormous help in improving teaching and learning. But I also think that there’s probably something to my initial perception that teachers are being infantilized when it comes to education technology (or maybe just in general).

And I’m not the only observer who realizes that there might be a problem here: The story about the “high-tech push” in Idaho reports that half of the student body at Post Falls High School rose up in protest to the new policies, some carrying signs that said “We need teachers, not computers.” Why don’t we believe them?

- Esther Quintero

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Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. Her work focuses on highlighting research that can inform critical education issues such as eq...