Monday, July 27, 2009

The Boy Who Cried Tech

Been reading some of the old criticism of ed tech back in the 1980's.

And I have to say, from my vantage point as a child of the '80s who'd been put in a GT class to learn how to program in BASIC at age eight, I'd have to agree with a lot of the criticism. Memorizing how to write GOTO commands probably wasn't the best use of learning time.

I also remember the god-awful math games. Once a week, starting in fourth grade, our math teacher would take us to the school's "computer lab" (years-old Apple IIes and dot-matrix printers) and force us to play mind-numbing sprite-graphic ed versions of games like Space Invaders and Asteroid. In addition to being an insult to the aesthetics of geeky kids, the math games really just made all of us want to cut school and hike over to the bowling alley in Arbutus where they had real video games like Galaga.

As I recall it, there were two serious pre-WWW gaming events. The first was the release of Zork. Being a text-based game, a lot of folks now look back and figure that the game proved that graphics weren't necessarily the most important thing. That's not true. 'Graphics' at the time amounted to Breakout and Pac Man; so that was sort of a moot point. The cool thing about Zork was that -- to the degree that it could -- it put the player in the driver's seat. It, along with Oregon Trail [a rare engaging ed game of the period] and some others, presented for the first time a style of gaming that would be a different experience for each player (or at least that was the ideal). It was an ideal rarely, if ever, lived up to by most 'educational' games.

The second event was the release of Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers. That, in my opinion, was the game that killed pre-WWW ed tech. Mario took the concept of gamer-driven adventure and combined it with really cool graphics and -- most importantly -- tricks that only savvy players would be able to figure out. Whereas in Space Invaders and Donkey Kong, levels amounted faster or more populated versions of the previous level, in Mario you had the element of surprise: you really didn't know what was coming next. I've played the new Mario games for Wii and have the same immediate affection for them; at their best, they are sort of like little surrealist games. The point to winning is figuring out the logic of the virtual world. They are the complete opposite of simple didactic 'educational' games.

So, in the mind of a kid, this sort of gaming experience should have immediately dashed the hope of folks who would have us believe that a computer version of Hangman was really going to hold our interest. Unfortunately, it didn't. And rather than learn anything from Mario, ed games held on to Frogger.

And then came the MMOGs. Game over. As soon as you create a shared virtual environment in which players are collaborating with or competing against other live people, you've created a mindset in gaming that can never really go back to the old single player island games. How do we think about the old styles of games now? Well, it's sort of like trying to use a laptop without an Internet connection. You can do stuff -- like type documents or listen to music -- but it doesn't take long before you get antsy to get back online.

Because the connection is the thing.

It's what's changed the scene. It changed the way we use computers and it changed the way we play games.

The connection, therefore is the new technology.

A lot of folks don't understand this. To them, the computer is the technology. And computers have been around for a long time.

But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about the network itself. We're talking about the paradigm of immediate global connection. We're talking about social technology.

We're not talking about computers and computer games.

And in our zeal for educational technology, I think we're seeing a backlash based on this misunderstanding of exactly what we're talking about when we're talking about technology.

We've got teachers who suffered through DOS and sprite-games. We've got teachers who suffered through the Word document wars. We've got teachers whose introduction to online management was SharePoint.

Give these folks a break.

In a sense, we've done nothing but fill them with the expectation that -- at the very least -- the technology we put in front of them and expect them to use is going to be clunky, difficult, and well, kinda boring and obvious.

It reminds me of a fable:

There was an ed techie tending the school's computer lab who would continually go up to the faculty lounge and shout: 'Hey! We've got fantastic educational technology that we can use here at school to make the learning experience so much more engaging!"

The teachers would all come running down to the computer lab only to find lame educational games and Byzantine proprietary productivity applications.

Then one day there really was a revolutionary shift in educational technology as social media entered the scene. But when the ed techie shouted, none of the teachers believed him and no one bothered to try out the new apps.

And so, they (and their students) all missed out.

This is the reason so many of our colleagues think we are full of it. Because for thirty years, we shouted to them about glorified typewriters, calculators, and overhead projectors. And then we're surprised when they show reluctance to try out social technologies.

We need to be careful about preaching to each other and thinking that the excitement we feel is shared by all of our colleagues. What we need to do is have an open discussion with our colleagues and admit that much of what we have considered beneficial educational technology in the past has in fact primarily been our own excitement dressed up as a learning paradigm.

But things have changed. And this time, it's for real. And if we don't all buck up, throw aside our differences, and engage this thing for the benefit of the students who are already living their own lives in this digital domain, we might as well hope that next time it's wolves.

Thanks to Aesopica, the Internet's best resource for all things Aesop.


  1. Many teachers, myself included, teach to a filtered subset of students. I try to evaluate the subset sitting before me and adjust my goals. I try to determine what would make them a balanced individual and attempt to open there minds to things that have been limited by their environment. Pushing buttons is not new to them, it’s all they do.
    Students today have tricked their parents into believing they are good at math and science because they know how to use computers. So many parents brag how their kids and grandkids “know all about computers”, they don’t. They only understand short-cuts and will always gravitate to the short-cut.
    Education to me is teaching the student something they do not know, no sense going through all the effort to get them into class and then hand them short-cut tools.
    They only appear to look educated to their parents because they stand on the shoulders of the giants before them…..Microsoft, IBM, Dell, HP, etc. Other experiences of their lives, if there is not a computer involved, will fall flat. Now maybe not the subset that spends their summers abroad, but many, many, many.
    So maybe there are teachers that realize the last thing their students need is more virtual anything.

  2. I appreciate your comment, and I think I understand your concern, but I see it as exactly the reason we need to teach teachers and students how to fully integrate social technology into their classrooms.

    This isn't about kids -- or teachers for that matter -- "knowing about computers". It's about kids and teachers understanding how to best use the network that exists all around them to facilitate deeper understanding and engaged active learning.

    It's not about "pushing buttons", it's about making connections and being engaged in the world in the ways that the 21st century offers.


  3. I recently completed a four-day edtech workshop and encountered a similar frustration. Rather than thinking about how we can use technology to change things in our rather broken school system, we're taking the technology that we already know about and asking ourselves how we can "fit it" into our curricula. We're working backwards!

  4. Anthony writes that he tries to evaluate his students to determine what will make them more balanced, and he adjusts his goals to wahat he thinks the kids in front of him are capable of doing.

    The Renaissance goal was the exact opposite: play to a child's strengths. As a boy, Leonardo da Vinci scribbled drawings on everything, so his father apprenticed him to a painter right away. Math, science, engineering... everything, in fact that Leonardo did later... grew out of that early, highly unbalanced training.

    Meanwhile, our responses as modern teachers is the exact opposite: "oh, well, kids are good at pushing buttons and finding shortcuts through these technologies, rather than 'really learning' the material... we'd better make them learn something else."

    If we built educational games with elaborate graphics of the pyramids, and clues written in ancient Egyptian on temple walls... kids would learn hieroglyphics to read them. And Greek.

  5. Andrew
    I believe I see your point but must agree to disagree with your assessment on Leonardo. I could understand da Vinci's father recognizing a potential or gift and exploring that with a master of the time. It is my opinion his education was indeed "balancing". From the start his environment was perfectly balanced with a lawyer father and well grounded mother. Also consider the fact Leonardo was "connected" as we would expect with a father of means. Leoardo would have been in the group that traveled abroad.



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