Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Prisoner - What Classic TV Can Teach Us About Tech

[Updated August, 2017]

I have a love-hate relationship with technology in education. 

I love to use technology in my classroom.  In fact, in some ways, I can’t do without it.  Not long ago, I arrived to an 8:00 class all ready to do a scintillating lesson that required use of the computer and LCD overhead projector in a so-called “smart classroom.” The tech didn’t work; there was a problem with the toggle that switched the feed from the Elmo to the computer, and I could not get the computer monitor’s contents displayed on the big screen. For a few minutes I tinkered with it to no avail.  Then I shut down and restarted everything. No dice. I even tried to go all “The Fonz” (you younger teachers fresh out of school will have no idea what I mean by that, and believe me, I weep for you…) and aside from a few chuckles out from my students, reaped no positive results. I glanced up at the clock and realized I had wasted a good 6-8 minutes, out of a 50-minute class, on this pursuit. I paused, uncertain for a few moments. More time wasted. For a short while, I felt quite stupid that my brilliant and carefully choreographed lesson was dashed against the rocks of fickle fate.

See? Technology makes me so crazy, even my metaphors are stupid.

Long story slightly less long, I called an audible, lateral-tossed the football to an alternate me (stupid metaphor #2), and got on with the class, and my extemporaneous lesson was fine. Why?  Because as much as I was hoping to be able to use the technology, I still was well-prepared and conversant in the subject matter, I knew where I was in the course sequence, I had good personal relationships and rapport with my students, and I built the course to be responsive to their needs, as opposed to dragging them kicking and screaming through the course on some pre-determined and inflexible pace. In short, when the tech failed, the human element was there to save the day.

I’m not so sure we’re headed in a good direction with tech. It’s bad enough standardized tests have become practically the gold standard for educational assessment. It’s worse that rigid adherence to bullet-point lists of standards are all that is required to “prove” to an observer that the education is sound and of good quality. In fact, in many schools, as long as your lesson plans have the appropriate sections, list the links to the State Standards, and as long as your instruction follows a particular sequence of steps and a designated format, and as long as you incorporate all the relevant trendy buzzwords from the district’s educational philosophy du jour – probably the product of the ministrations of some high-priced and charismatic outside consultant – you are a “good teacher,” and it doesn’t really matter if your students are benefiting or not: as long as your instruction at least superficially follows the prescribed norms; there just simply isn’t time to provide more thorough analyses of teacher performance, so superficial indicators have to do.

But the superficiality does not stop there. An onslaught of trendy new technological platforms, gadgets and processes are threatening to take the human element even further away from the educational experience.  Now, when most people talk about integrating technology into the classroom, they’re talking about much more than simply projecting traditional content or using web-based communications to interact with students.  Now, students can do class "presentations" with no content, but they look good, and that's just as good as an essay, right? (Buzzword of the day: "alternative assessment.")

Now there’s talk of “a tablet for every student,” or “an iPad for every student.” Wot?

Have you ever seen how well students take care of textbooks? Notebooks? Their own papers? A school I worked at recently didn't even have procedures for being compensated for lost materials such as books, and used to lose some $20,000-$30,000 per year in unreturned supplies.  Just sayin'.

How bad has our love affair with tech gotten? Now, out of expediency (I say laziness, stupidity, and is there an adjectival form of "bandwagon?"), some institutions are even starting to computer-score essays. No, not multiple-choice tests... essays. For the record, I once submitted an essay to be machine-scored.  It got a perfect score (a 6, top score on a six-point rubric).  And it was a very well-written essay. (Duh.) Except for one thing – the essay was total nonsense.  Not only was it not even remotely related to the assigned prompt, but it was not internally consistent. If an Alzheimer’s patient wrote a paper while high on cocaine (yet somehow managing to maintain good grammar, syntax, punctuation, etc…) that would have been my essay.  I did it on purpose. I wanted to see what would happen.

Never put all your trust into something that cannot trust you back.  Except my ’04 Camry.  Love that thing. [Edit - As of August, 2017, it has 294,000 miles or so on it, and is really showing its age. It will not last to the new year, alas.]

I don't think tech is necessarily a bad thing, but I do get the distinct sense that tech is being forced into classrooms because of its "cool" factor and not because students (or faculty, for that matter) are developmentally ready and primed to receive the changes. I think that can and will have disastrous effects.  Too much tech without the human element and you basically have, well… The Matrix.

At just 17 episodes, the British TV series The Prisoner was short-lived, especially by modern standards.  The fact that it’s not a title that’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue might further lend one to think it irrelevant or – gasp! – a failure.  Make no such mistake.

Number Six, the show's ex-secret-agent protagonist, does have a lot to teach us.  My last post on this illustrious television show answered that age-old question: Can’t we all just get along?  (Correct answer: What are you selling?)  In this post, I direct my gentle reader to the episode entitled “The General.”  In it, Number Six learns that a fellow named “The Professor” has created a revolutionary educational process that, by hooking students/subjects up to a sophisticated machine (called “The General”) they may be given the equivalent of a three-credit college course in a matter of minutes.  Soon, The Village (the setting of the show, basically a black site for interrogating and breaking rogue agents) is aflutter with newly erudite scholars of “Europe Since Napoleon,” the title of the first such “course.”  Number Six quickly realizes that everyone who tries to describe what they have learned in the course does so word-for-word each the same as everyone else he encounters.  Realizing that the machine completely eliminates the normally clearly demarcated line “between knowledge and insight,” Number Six correctly deduces that it is intended to be used as a form of mind control in order to control the denizens of The Village and extract information from them. The Villagers’ apparent trust in the process makes them even more susceptible, and Number Six reasons he must destroy The General (which he does, of course) in order to save both himself and his fellow Villagers.

View the full episode here

My very next post will be a research-based look at my general angst about our rush to over-technologize American public education.  It will be longer and denser, but more “scholarly.”  And it will read rather as a “Part II” to this post.  Read it!

For now, I leave you with this question: Are we going too far, too fast? Should we not pace ourselves a little bit more? Will upping the tech really change the culture, which is perhaps the real source and reason for school failure? And what exactly is meant by “change the culture,” anyway?  And why am I asking so many questions, when I only said I was going to ask one?

1 comment:

  1. We are not going too fast. We need to change with, and keep up with the kids. However, I don't believe in using tech just for the sake of using tech. It's a tool like anything else. I use what works for me and the students in my particular classes and discard the rest, just like any other teaching technique.

    - Paul