The Computer Is Just a Tool

Our school is a K to 8th grade school; so near the end of our student’s 8th grade year, their parents take them to neighboring schools for high school visits.  A couple years ago, near the end of the first year of our one-to-one laptop program and the end of my son’s 8th grade year, we took him on those customary high school visits.  Because of our technology drive/focus and because of our son’s keen interest and abilities with technology, most of our questions to the schools we visited were technology flavored.  One of my favorite responses came from a non-technical high school administrator when we pressed him to respond to the question, “Do you allow your students to use laptops in the classroom?”  His answer was amazing…and I assure you, I am not making this up…he said, and I quote, “We teach the classics here and you don’t need a computer for that.” 

That response was so far off the chart, it didn’t even register.  I knew right-then-and-there that this school would not be a place my son would enjoy.  Would he learn there?  Probably.  Would it be relevant?  Without technology present, no…how could it be?  The response to our question basically told me that the administration here really knew nothing about education technology or really anything of computers in general.  We ate their cookies and drank their punch…but promptly moved on.

At another school, we had higher hopes because the school had IT infrastructure and support personnel.  But here, it was a response from an IT support/computer teacher that really shook me to the core.  His response to the same question about using a computer in the classroom was, “Now the computer is just a tool.”  Whoa!  This was no clueless administrator; this was the school’s IT professional saying this.  How incredibly oppressive!  It was as if he was saying, “Now hold your horses here, we can just let a kid run around using a computer in all his classes.  IT is MY domain, you think I’m gonna let just any students on MY network?!?!”  You would have thought we had asked if our son could sit his desk on the roof of the gym during the spring semester so he could work on his tan!  Just a tool?!?!?

Saying a computer is just a tool is like saying Michelangelo was just a painter… Beethoven was just a musician… Joe Satriani is just another guitar player (look him up, seriously).  Yes it is a tool, granted, but as my boss says, “It’s the most powerful tool for education ever invented!”  There are two issues I see as real hindrances to true adoption of education technology today.  One is containment and the second is over-emphasis. 

Let’s look at what I’m calling = Containment.

Don’t pigeon-hole technology.  If you have or create a computer lab or if you have a common space on campus where multiple computers exist for use, you are missing the mark.  I would even say having laptop carts for middle school and high school students is equally short-sighted.  What is this saying to your students?  This.  Technology exists in that space over there, outside the classroom and, when we have time or a specific topic that relates, we’ll go fire up the computer…but in the majority of your studies and work, you don’t need to worry about those things. 

Another common form of containment comes from the IT department itself…and it is sort of the underlying tone from the IT guy at the second school I mentioned above.  It’s the, “You (the student) don’t need access to this folder or that computer…Access to a printer?  Not gonna happen…and you certainly will not access the Internet from MY network!” sort of attitude.  Old school IT folks are VERY protective of information systems resources.  I think it stems from the equally old and outdated notion that information, and the access to it, is power..so by buttoning up the network so tight you can’t breathe, they remain in power/control. 

This concept of information as power can be traced back to the middle ages and is really the driving force behind what we know today as social classes.  The upper class, the kings, rulers, etc. had access to all information in the land because they had the money/wealth to pay for it.  And by keeping it very close to the vest, this information was truly what made them powerful.  The middle class had limited resources for information access but they did have access and thereby limited power.  The lower class could afford nothing and were always in the dark.  With our unprecedented access to information today, these classes are quickly dissolving… but I digress…

Now let’s look at what I’m calling = Over-emphasis.

There are schools today that have a non-integrated approach to technology use.  Often times, they don’t even really have any sort of classroom technology in use at all on a normal basis.  These schools devote massive amounts of resources to outlining and defining their position on technology, filling webpage after webpage with techno-jargon and creating detailed plans which elevate technology to a level equal that of their curriculum…a sort of technology podium if you will, there to admire but with a little imaginary sign around it reading, “Do Not Touch”.

Obviously, this is the wrong approach in my opinion.  Setting technology apart from and equal to classroom curriculum has the potential to be detrimental to a technology program.  Over emphasizing technology can bring about anxiety and fear to teachers who are not necessarily up to speed on its use, running them off rather than having them embraces it.  We’ve all had those uncomfortable moments in our own educational upbringing where we were called upon by the teacher to demonstrate something we have little knowledge about, in a room full of folks we think are all experts on the topic…not pleasant.

But now here is where I will say that the computer IS just a tool…one of many, in-fact, in the teacher’s arsenal.  No one would dream of devoting multiple webpages and vast sections of a curriculum maps to the use of pencil and paper, would they?  No.  So why is it reasonable to treat technology that way?  It isn’t.  The tools should facilitate the curriculum, not compete with it.  Teaching a student to use a computer is not an end in and of itself.  In-fact, I believe teaching a student to use a computer is not even necessary today…I think it’s very much like dogs being born with the knowledge and ability to swim, kids are seemingly born with computer skills. 

Personally I think students, and younger kids too, do not have the in-grown fear of computers that many adults have.  Let’s face it, there were no computers available that the average child could interact with in kindergarten forty-plus years ago.  Our vision of computers was of these massive machines that filled rooms, had spinning reels of tape whirring constantly and highly educated men in white shirts and ties who were the only individuals privileged enough to be allowed behind the glass walls to interact with these machines and make them perform what seemed to be magic. 

Not at all the same images kids today have of computers.  Kids encounter computers every hour of every day.  Growing up, we had one TV in the family room and I was my dad’s remote…any time he needed the channel changed or volume adjusted, he called me…even if I was back in my room!  Today, we have a TV in just about every room and the remote is attached to a computer that is responsible for receiving and decoding digital signals.  Other examples, the microwave has a computer in it.  Their calculators have more computing power than Apollo 11 had to navigate its way to the moon! 

Vastly different environment here for kids today.  They are at home behind a computer screen.  In-fact, I like to refer to them as “screenagers”…because everything they interact with has a screen!  Their comfort level is nothing short of amazing to my 48-year-old brain.  Over-emphasizing the technology, however, can instill traits of our childhood misconceptions about computers and push students away from very legitimate and relevant use in the classroom.

Technology is a tool and in must coexist in the classroom or our students will be lost in a world that is becoming increasingly technology centric.  The world is really not a techno-have or have-not but a techno-can or can’t do type of existence.  Be reasonable and safe but be creative in your use of technology and don’t be afraid to let the students lead.

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About Darryl Loy
I am into all things technology…especially education technology. I am currently Director of Technology for a private school in Dallas Texas…previously 13 years as Associate Head of School for Operations at a private school in Fort Worth Texas.

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