• by Josue M. Gonzalez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 1997
Educators in the United States are in a love-hate relationship with technology. A recent book in the field describes the problem as a monster hiding under the collective bed of education. We fear falling asleep because the monster might emerge to do us some unspecific but dreadful harm (Davis and Botkin, 1994). It appears that many educators have unresolved fears about technology or at best, an ambivalence about how to control it and keep it from violating the cherished traditions of our profession. Like children who imagine goblins at night, educators are pulling the covers over their heads and avoiding the inevitable technologization of teaching. Some still regard computers as useful only for math or chiefly as word processing equipment. In some schools, it is still the case that computers are used as expensive versions of workbooks and flash cards. Many of us tend to overlook the deeper issues raised by the computer phenomenon.
I can remember hearing – not too long ago – that computers would never replace teachers. But the monster says different. He claims that he can and will replace at least some teachers and that he is anxious to try. Certainly not all teachers, but some of them are replaceable, and if the persons cannot be replaced, some of their functions most assuredly can. This may not be the terrible prospect it seems to be. The hope is that it will be the dry, routine and most boring aspects of teaching that will be done by machines, freeing up our time for more interesting, interactive and productive work with students.
But the grunting monster under the bed offers little reassurance. He reminds us that students who use computers to guide their learning are delighted with their machine tutors. They especially like the absence of negative behaviors into which teachers sometimes fall. Computers, they say, do not embarrass students; they do not frustrate them by moving too fast or too slowly; and they are available 24 hours a day. Administrators, too, are keen on the idea that computers never demand pay increases or take off unexpectedly for three-day weekends.
It is widely acknowledged that distance learning will soon become the hottest education fad in decades. One of the most attractive features of it is that teachers and students will no longer need to be in the same room or even the same school in order for a teacher-learner relationship to exist. It is already possible for one teacher to reach hundreds of students around the world with exciting materials and dynamic teaching, and to rely on teaching assistants to do the mundane work of supervising the “classes” wherever they might be in local communities worldwide.
All of this is due to the fact that the monster under the bed is an expert at creating all sorts of alliances and partnerships. One of them is “privatization,” the idea that private businesses can be used to out-source some of the work of schools and other public bodies. One of the secrets is that this has been done for years in special education. For example, New York City contracts out to companies some of its work with children who have the most severe cases of retardation and children who were born suffering the effects of drug abuse. The city is willing to pay enormous prices – up to $80,000 per child per year – for their care and whatever education they can get. This has not gone unnoticed by the business sector. (Some states are also doing this with their prisons.)
The latest and most potent partner of the monster under our bed is the Internet, the network of networks built by the Department of Defense for its own purposes and that has now become the symbol of the 1990s. The Internet enables students and teachers to work outside the classroom, the school and even their country in new and exciting learning venues, some real and some virtual. This places school building design and curriculum materials in a totally new light. To benefit from the full range of such technologies, school buildings must be built with networking and the Internet in mind. Any school that is currently under construction without phone jacks in every classroom or fiber optic cabling in the walls will be partially obsolete by the time the paint dries.
As slow and ponderous as universities are to change and as much as they resist it, technologies such as computer-based distance learning are gaining converts every day. Market factors alone require that by the beginning of the next century most colleges and universities have the capacity to teach courses by computer and video to off-campus students. Students will take part of their course work from their homes or workplaces and come together only a few times a semester for face-to-face interaction and discussion. We will need fewer of the traditional classrooms and more Internet infrastructure in order to make the change. Much of the interaction and discussion will take place through the help of cameras positioned at the front of the room or on top of each computer monitor. Assignments will be posted on World Wide Web pages on the Internet. Much of the reading material will also be there waiting to be read on-line or downloaded by students when they need it. Synchronous and asynchronous learning and teaching will make the old lecture halls obsolete. Physical structures in general will be used far less than before and virtual spaces for interactive learning will be created in cyberspace.
At the University of Texas at Austin a collection of course syllabi from around the world is available on-line. The “World Lecture Hall,” as it is called (www.host.utexas.edu/world/lecture), shows the range of subjects that are finding their way into distance learning around the world. The range runs the full gamut from accounting to zoology. In Barcelona, a virtual university opens its web site by asking users to select the language in which they wish to interact with the material: Spanish, Catalan or English. A web site at the Universidad de Guadalajara does the same. So much for language barriers.
At the kindergarten through 12 levels, collections of lesson plans for teachers and other teaching resources are made available by PBS, Scholastic, museums and any went on-line to help parents become better teachers of their children (www.families.com). Advertisers and potential partners are flocking to this new venture. These are only a few of the content providers who are offering material on-line. Many are being used by teachers on a daily basis, such as the public television programs that offer lesson plan on-line days before the programs air, making it possible for teachers to prepare a class in advance, watch the program along with their children, and enter immediately into follow-up learning activities directly related to the production. The possibilities are endless.
It has always been true that universities call the shots on school structures and instructional design, and kindergarten through 12 schools follow behind. Technology will be no exception. Market-driven changes in higher education will filter down through the grades. Already, children who are homebound and cannot go to school for health reasons can be integrated into a regular school classroom with the help of a computer, modem and personal camera. Inclusion has a new meaning. In many ways, and unexpectedly, these children have become the leading innovators in the use of technology. But it will not take long for the others to follow suit. To accomplish all of this we will use whiteboards instead of greenboards, devices that allow teachers to write on them and have the same things appear immediately on the students’ monitors at home, at a hospital or wherever they may be. Early in the millennium, laptop computers will replace Big Chief tablets in the backpacks of most elementary age students.
A number of nagging questions surface as we anticipate these changes, whether gleefully or with sadness: What is the price we shall have to pay as a profession to assuage the monster beginning to stir under our collective beds? Is it likely that technology will further divide rich schools from poor schools? Will schools in poor communities be able to keep pace, the schools that educate most of the country’s minority children? Will teachers balk at the learning curve required in order to master new technologies effectively, or will we turn to private businesses to do this work for us? Will education become even more impersonal and marginalize some children even more than our current system? And will we lose some of the positive socializing and leveling power that schools bring to poor students? These are but a few of the things with which we must concern ourselves in the years ahead. There are many more questions like these. If we fail to do this soon, the monster will surely crawl out from under the bed to bite us.
There is good reason to fear that we may not be prepared for the change in educative values that technology brings with it. By educative values, I refer to those values and structures that are almost sacrosanct in the profession:
- A good education requires the physical gathering of people into groups called “classes” that are led by individuals called teachers standing at the front of the room.
- The range and pace of teaching and learning are established for the group rather than for each of its individual members.
- Good learning can only take place if the instructors hold certificates, degrees or licenses attesting to their professional status.
- There are no substitutes for a certain amount of “seat time” for each of several “subjects.”
- Learning is best “delivered” by teachers who have been trained for that function in colleges of education.
- Computer-based technologies are cold and impersonal.
There are other sacred ideas we could mention, but this short list will suffice to illustrate the wide range of judgments that must be eliminated in order to allow the education establishment to meet technology on equal terms at the dawn of the 21st century. To circumvent this challenge proves futile. Such myths as these sacred cows and many others are slowly but surely being debunked in homes and schools throughout the nation as students and parents become aware of the teaching power of computers, modems, CD-ROMs and other devices. They are discovering that learning can take place in or out of schools.
You can decide for yourself whether there is reason to be concerned about the monster under the bed. I take heart from the advice of Peter Drucker who suggests that the best way to handle the future is to create it. The book, “The Monster Under the Bed,” has an interesting twist. It comes from a child’s story, written on a computer by a five- or six-year-old girl using a children’s authoring program. The way this child resolved the issue was remarkably simple. She used her mouse to drag the monster out from under her bed and put it under her brother’s bed! Neat trick. An even neater trick will be if educators are able to do the same.
Davis, Stan and Jim Botkin. The Monster Under the Bed: How Business is Mastering the Opportunity of Knowledge for Profit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).
Josue M. Gonzalez, a native of the Rio Grande Valley, is a professor of educational administration at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. He is an advisor to the Family Education Network and is working on a web site and CD-ROM project. He is also helping to design a virtual university that will link professors and students in the United States and Mexico into a common learning community.
[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]