“Fear of Change” as Ed-Tech Slander

For part two of this project, I’ll tackle what is perhaps the most common and reprehensible tactic deployed by ed-tech consultants to promote digital technologies in the classroom: the “fear of change” slander. Here’s Scott McLeod again:

“Another prevalent issue preventing technology change in schools is fear – fear of change, of the unknown, of letting go of what we know best, of being learners again. … Fears about digital learning tools are especially tricky because they’re primarily emotional, not logical.”

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“Spot the logical fallacy” is a fun in-service day game, especially if your school has hired an ed-tech, or “web 2.0” consultant to speak to the faculty. My favorite is this one: “We don’t know what the future holds, but we know you’re not preparing your children for it!” (Followed by a pitch to buy the speaker’s book or app or software package, which promises to solve the problems of our unknowable future). The standard tech-guru falsehoods are more mundane and depressing, simply because they’ve been trotted out for years by consultant after consultant after speaker after salesman, and then cheerfully embraced by administrators who ought to know better. The main point that tech-evangelists like to make is that teachers who display the slightest hesitation toward anything digital do so because they:

  1. fear change and are blindly clinging to a comfortable, familiar past
  2. are unwilling to cede “control of learning” to their students, or
  3. don’t know enough about technology to implement it successfully

My primary concern is with the claim that opposition to or caution about classroom technologies is almost always based on emotion rather than reason. It is a falsehood that also happens to be breathtakingly insulting to teachers. But it’s a clever bit of demagoguery on the part of tech speakers because they always manage to slip that premise into their arguments knowing that it will go unchallenged. I’ve even heard many teachers buy into this false syllogism, perhaps because they’ve been confronted with it so often and have rarely seen it challenged. Perhaps also because the very best teachers tend to be the most highly reflective and self-critical, and in the face of an authoritative figure telling them they’re short-changing their students, they lose confidence in their capacity to know what works best in their classrooms.

It is time that talented, sensible, effective teachers started pushing back against this nonsense. I don’t necessarily mind Mr. McLeod and other consultants and tech-industry workers being enthusiastic about educational technology. Some of it is great. But when that enthusiasm isn’t tempered by ANY skepticism, and when it is invariably paired with the casual and routine disparagement of teachers, it ought to face some robust critique. This relentless, uncritical advocacy has a very real influence over school administrators, and that affects what happens in the classroom. This culture of administrators and consultants deciding what students and teachers need is a danger to sound learning and a tremendous waste of resources.

So no, Mr. McLeod, the arguments for limiting the scope of technology use in schools are not based on emotion, and it is grossly condescending to suggest as much. There is a solid and growing body of research on almost every aspect of tech use in the classroom, enough so that teachers and administrators have a vast collection of empirical evidence available to analyze when deciding which tools to adopt and which to avoid.

Here’s an example of some things I’ve been urged to do in my classroom, either by an administrator or an ed-tech consultant, along with the reasons I’ve chosen not to adopt them:

  • Use Twitter and Facebook in the classroom. I’ve seen very effective use of Twitter in the classroom, particularly in foreign language learning. If a teacher finds it useful that’s fine…maybe. I don’t happen to have any use for it (or Facebook) that can’t be accomplished more effectively via other methods. I’ve also seen very superficial use of these apps, though I know that ed-tech proponents would be just as opposed to that poor usage as I am. But the use of social media apps raises legitimate concerns about student privacy and data security.  Also, do teachers have the right to compel their students to create personal social media accounts and then link them to our courses? I’m not sure about that, and it makes my Spidey-Sense tingle. I’ve never seen a substantive discussion of the privacy/security issue. Mostly I’m told to shut up and use social media or be stigmatized as an irrelevant dinosaur.
  • Allow students to have their laptops out at all times to take notes and look up information. Simply, forcefully, and on behalf of myself and most of my colleagues: NO. There is sound research showing that taking notes by hand is much more effective than taking notes on a laptop. Having a laptop out is distracting, both to the student using it and to those around that student. The pull of the computer’s many features is irresistible, and we are not effective multi-taskers. My classes are heavily discussion-based, and a laptop is a physical barrier to effective communication. My students always have laptops with them, and we can pull them out at a moment’s notice if there’s something we want to use them for, but the default position in my class is pens and paper and a complete presence and engagement with the discussion.
  • Abandon paper books and use e-readers This one is easy. All you have to do is listen to the howls of protest from students when you assign them an e-book or e-text. It’s been my experience, and I’ve started explicitly asking my students about this over the past few years, that ninety-nine percent of students are vehemently opposed to e-book usage, because they find it inconvenient and distracting. If the book is on their computer, they are too tempted to multi-task. If it’s on an e-reader, it’s too inconvenient to navigate and annotate. Research supports their anecdotal contention that they don’t learn as much from e-books as they do when using paper books. There is also the affect that screen-glow has on sleep patterns, which is a particularly important issue for adolescents. Lest I be labeled a Luddite yet again, I happen to own and make heavy use of a Kindle, but I use it for reading light fiction and journalism. That is, like most readers I do more serious reading in hard copy, and enjoy the e-reader for lighter fare There’s no nostalgia or emotion involved in that decision; it is based solely on practicality and effectiveness.
  • Have students make YouTube videos. If I ever come across a YouTube video that demonstrates real depth of learning about its subject matter, I’ll adopt videos in a heartbeat. But I haven’t seen anything that comes close to the effectiveness and sophistication of a well-written research paper or a substantive and creative discussion.
  • Go paperless. I’ve said this before, but the value of writing as a craft seems to have been downgraded over the past decade or so (in schools, anyway). Blogging is still acceptable, apparently, but writing an essay on paper somehow no longer counts as “doing.” But to craft a well-structured historical argument supported by strong and relevant evidence, an argument that considers the nuance, ambiguity, and varying interpretations of its subject, is still, as it always has been, an extremely valuable intellectual endeavor. And I think that my overworked, stressed, and anxious students, who rarely have or make enough time to give sustained focus to their many responsibilities, ought to have a sense of a finished product. When you’ve made your argument, supported it, refined your language and structure, proofread, polished and improved it as much as you think you can, you should print it out. And you should think about how you feel about that finished product. Is it your best work? Are you proud of it? I think that if there’s a cursor blinking on the screen, or an “edit” option just a click away, a writer has less of a sense of accomplishment, of crafting something real and permanent.
  • Allow students unfettered use of smart phones during the school day, including during class time. When people advocate this, I always want to ask: “Have you been outside recently, among people?” My school prohibits cell phone usage during the school day without the specific permission of a teacher or administrator, and it is one of the nicest things about being on our campus. It fosters a sense of community, inclusion, and good manners. It helps students develop important social skills, and it eliminates a major impediment to deep thought and sustained concentration. It takes no time at all for a student to ask to use it for a legitimate reason: a useful app, to call a parent, e.g., and teachers can make use of smartphone apps with their students as much as they like. But the expectation that unless there is a specific, intentional reason for using them, phones are to be invisible and inaudible while we are together with each other teaching, learning, and interacting is a beautiful policy, and one that I would man the barricades to defend.

It is disappointing to read yet another educational technology professional using a broad brush to paint teachers as narrow-minded and fearful rather than having valid reasons for making their own choices about what technology is most appropriate for helping students learn in their disciplines. You’re excited about the possibility of social media and other technologies to enhance and transform education. That’s great, and though I have my concerns I respect that enthusiasm as coming from a place of integrity and sincerity. But the respect is never a two-way street. Teachers with questions, concerns, and critical thoughts always seem to be branded as enemies of progress, fearful of change. And change is not the same thing as progress. If you want to convince me to make my classroom wholly digital, you need to start by respecting my concerns, and then convince me that the change you advocate is in fact progress.

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