Computer Backlash? How about a classroom revolution!

Four nearly 20 years, my colleagues and I were involved in using technology to enhance teaching and learning not only at the university level, but at the K-12 level as well. We wanted to use computers to enhance active learning in the classroom, and to find ways to help students engage in collaborative scientific research projects. We used computers and modems to connect schools on several continents starting in 1990. This was a difficult task in that schools were not set up with phone lines in each classroom, and in some cases the nearest phone line was hundreds of feet from the classroom. In this global project, teachers and students studied environmental science at the local level, and used computer networks to share data, make interpretations and draw conclusions on significant environmental issues such as the quality of air, water pollution, solid waste disposal, acid rain, and other topics. Most of the classrooms of the participating schools had access to only one computer that was connected to Internet, and when we started, our principal means of collaboration was by means of email. But this transformed the classroom. Instead of being isolated, these classrooms were connected to other schools by means of the Internet, and opened up a new way of thinking for teachers and students. When the World Wide Web emerged, we expanded the way students and teachers could collaborate with each other by the use of web-based data forms, a project website which contained the ongoing work of students, real-time chats monitored by us and collaborating teachers, video conferences, and bulletin boards for students to post their findings and their questions. As technology advanced, we saw the participating classrooms change as well. The “wiring” of schools began in the mid-to late nineties, and now classrooms could be equipped to have multiple computer-work stations connected to the Internet that enhanced group and project research work. As schools moved toward wireless networking, students and teachers were able participate and advance the ongoing revolution in learning that had been going on for years.

On October 19, I read Don McKee’s column entitled “Laptop backlash affecting colleges.” His real motivation in writing this column was to take another swipe at the Cobb County School District’s laptop program, and put another nail into the former superintendent Dr. Joe Redden. I realized that McKee was unaware or unable to find out that there is a revolution in learning going on right before his eyes, but for some reason, he chooses to look the other way.

McKee based his piece on an article written in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Laptop Backlash” by Gary McWilliams, a staff reporter on the Journal. Unfortunately, Mr. McKey did not delve deeply into the controversy about how and whether wireless networks and laptops should be used in colleges, and that some professors report disappointing results when using them. The problem is not with the laptops or a wireless network, but the pedagogy (yes, it’s a term used by professors to describe teaching methods) used in the classroom. In each of the cases reported in the McWilliams article, the professors were lecturing, and then became bent-out-of-shape because students were not listening or taking notes with their $2000 computer; instead they were surfing the web, or chatting each other. What is the need of a computer in these classrooms when all the professor is doing is lecturing. A $2 notebook would work very well.

If McKee had used Google and typed in the phrase “laptop backlash” he would have found more than two-hundred thousand results. And one of the links would have led him to an article by two professors at the University of Cincinnati Law School entitled “TAKING BACK THE LAW SCHOOL CLASSROOM: USING TECHNOLOGY TO FOSTER ACTIVE STUDENT LEARNING. They acknowledge the laptop backlash, but they take issue with it, and lay out a framework for using technology to establish an active learning environment, a learning environment that did not exist in the classrooms of professors who were simply lecturing. They describe it this way: “We offer a competing vision of how technology can be harnessed to increase active student learning and, in the process, empower students to resist their laptop’s siren song. In particular, we describe how we combine both old (substituting word processing text for PowerPoint slides) and new (using handheld wireless transmitters) technologies to infuse our classrooms with active learning vigor.”

McKee and others at the MDJ are stuck in a time-warp of the 19th Century, when teachers all around them in Cobb County and the Marietta Schools are working to implement one of the most radical changes in American education in over a century. In McKee’s case, he uses a very brief article to try and convince us that maybe wireless computers in schools is a bad idea. It might be, but there is another side of the issue. Mortimer B. Zuckerman, Editor-in-Chief of U.S. News & World Report, sees it another way. In an editorial called “Classroom Revolution” Zuckerman makes the claim that “computers are changing the way our kids learn, but we must do more to ensure that this fascinating new tool is fully integrated into all our schools.” It was impressive that Cobb County sent 54 of its educators (to the dismay of the MDJ editors) to a technology conference in Boston to learn how to build learning communities, and to see and participate first-hand in ways of using computer technologies, wireless networks, and how laptops and other technologies can be used to enhance student learning. The laptop backlash is the result of professors and instructors assuming that they can continue to use the same methods and strategies of teaching in an environment that begs for more innovative teaching. MDJ, look to the wisdom of the teachers in the Cobb and other schools, as well as professors at colleges and universities who are forging new ways of using this technology in support of learning.

The Case of iBooks in Cobb County Schools

This is the county in Georgia where I reside. I followed the story in the local newspaper on the Cobb County School District’s decision to provide Apple i-Books for all teachers, and students in grades 6 -12, beginning with an experiemental phase beginning next school year in four of the district’s high schools. It created an outrageous stir, especially with the editors of the Marietta Daily Journal. Not only did the paper print many negative letters to the editor (as expected), but the editorials were biased against the implementation of the program in the schools. Fortunately, the district’s superintendent held firm under intense criticism, and the first phase of the program, known as the “Power to Learn” will soon be underway. In my opinion, this is a couageous undertaking in light of our experiences with technology in schools. Putting iBooks in the hands of every student is a powerful idea, but will require a shift in the way teaching takes place, day-to-day. For example, the iBooks, with the district’s move to create a wireless environment, will enable teachers to link their students with students in other parts of the world in a variety of projects. One example of this is the work of I*EARN, which enables teachers and students to collaborate on a variety of projects in writing, language, science, geography, history and culture, to name a few. We’ll discuss other aspects computers in schools at this site. This gets us started.