Technological Literacy and English, Science, and Social Studies Education:
Striking A Balance
Living at the dawn of the second millennium and the opening of the Twenty-First Century is both a blessing and a challenge for teachers, if not fall all of the planet's inhabitants. We are all blessed by the almost unfathomable level to which technology has developed. Every aspect of life has been transformed by the ingenuity of human beings, and the rate of change continues to accelerate as new innovations are marketed and become a part of our mass, globalized culture. As educators, we face the advent of technology presents itself in the context of a multitude of aspects. First, it is incumbent on us as proponents of learning to ascertain how a given technology has an impact on society and culture. We teach our students that the automobile brought about the development of the suburbs, and in turn, people now commute to their jobs in the city, with its related pollution and urban decay. We have all felt the impact of the computer and how it has brought about the advent of the information age. Computers have changed the face of almost every occupation in the service sector and even the manufacturing and agricultural sectors. It is also true that computers and the Internet are in the process of transforming the nature of education as we move from a "factory model" of education, put in place during the Industrial Revolution, to a model more suited to the Information Age, where students direct their own learning and teachers are facilitators rather than directors of what happens in the classroom, and ultimately in the mind of the learner.
Once we have begun to understand how a given technology has changed the face of society, for good or ill, then we must decide how it is best utilized to achieve a specific goal. In the world of medicine, technologies undergo numerous transformations until the scientific method yields a methodology for its use that allows for the greatest good to come from that technology. The same can be said for technologies that can be used within the military sphere. Radioactive materials can be used in both worlds, in X-rays or in the creation of nuclear weapons. It is how a given technology is best used that determines its ultimate value. In this sense, educators are asked to learn those technologies that will not only make their mission easier, but that will do it more effectively. This implies that technologies such as computers and the Internet are designed not only to make teaching easier, but that the student will learn more and learn it better by using those media. Mastering a given technology, both as user who understands its value and as teacher who knows how to put it to work, can be said to define "literacy" in that area. Just as the word "literacy" is originally meant to define the ability to read and master a given piece of written material, so technological literacy calls on the educator to "read" a given technology so that he or she understands its impact on the student, the classroom, and on society. The question for today is: "where are teachers on the scale of technological literacy today?"
Computers and the Internet, which I'll call information technology, were obviously not the first technology to come along and transform teaching and learning. I am sure the first teacher to apply chalk to a slate board saw such action as a powerful innovation. Think about the first time an educator used a motion picture projector in the classroom, how images were projected on that screen that could bring the viewer to any place in the world, or even within the mind of an artist who created moving illustrations to communicate an idea. Think if the first time the phonograph or the television were used in class. What a thrilling moment it must have been for the students, who were magically transported to some other place, time or culture by the use of what now seems primitive and mundane. And those innovators, no doubt, came under fire, for introducing a passive method of teaching and learning, for substituting the human educator for a machine who could not respond to the questions of students, not could it monitor who was on-task and who was daydreaming. Undoubtedly, there would come those teachers who misused the new technologies to do less within the sphere of their jobs, to allow the machine to take over in order that they may save time by marking papers or doing something else while students were transfixed by the images and sounds they perceived on the screen. Indeed, those teachers were, within the culture of their own time, technologically illiterate, because they did not understand the potential of the technology that they themselves were abusing.
The VCR is a technology that still suffers from underfunctioning practitioners who are unable or unwilling to learn how to program the clock, which blinks unceasingly as a way of saying "read the manual, dummy!" In education, I still encounter teacher, who, for whatever reason, continue to resist the computer and the Internet as a way of invigorating their teaching style. I am told "oh I am so computer illiterate!" It is true that students entering even the elementary grades may actually more knowledgeable about how to use information technology that many of our veteran teachers. The younger students have been exposed to the computer from a very young age because their parents have had to work in a culture of technological innovation, and the parents brought that innovation into the household because they felt it could benefit their children and their rate of learning. They enter the primary grades with the basic skills of word processing, calculator computation, and Internet navigation, and they are wired for learning through video, audio, and instant messaging because they are growing up in a culture that has been transformed by those technologies, especially within the last decade. Their teachers may or may not have the same skills. But as we may say to our students who have the potential but are not living up to it: "ya gotta wanna." We admonish them by saying "You must integrate a desire to be successful into your learning style." For us, we must do the same where technology intersects with our teaching style.
Becoming technologically literate to the point where our teaching is
transformed takes numerous sacrifices that many of us are just not ready to
make. The greatest sacrifice is time, and for teachers, time is sacrosanct. We
are already overloaded with grading papers, writing interims, calling parents,
attending meetings, serving on committees, not to mention meeting obligations to
our family, our community, and our place of worship. You may be sitting there
saying "now he wants us to take the time to learn how to develop web pages
or create graphics. What do I look like, and information technology
specialist?" The answer is YES! That is exactly what teachers are, and we
must strive to become just that as a profession.
It has been said that there are three classes of teachers where technology are concerned. The first is the technological innovators, those that experiment with a new technology and make it a part of their pedagogical repertoire. They use the technological savvy students that come into their room as a resource, learning about what is new from those who use the technology every day, and turning those skills into useful methods to reach their technically skilled students. Then there are those who use technology on a limited basis, usually e-mail, the World Wide Web, and word processing, partly because those capabilities make the transfer of information easier, but there is no observable use of technology within the classroom. Then there are the resisters, the critics and cynics who see the technology as negative and who avoid it at all costs. Their greatest complaint is that they don't have the time to learn how to use something that they feel will not improve instruction anyway. Often times, such innovations such as information technology are seen as passing fads and classified with the block schedule, cooperative learning, and multiple intelligences. Interestingly, information technology lends itself very easily to all of those methodologies.
So another sacrifice teachers must make on their way to technological literacy is pride. They must humble themselves to say that there is something in the world that they do NOT know, and they must go to someone to learn the new skill. That someone might be a student, a co-worker, or to a trainer found in a teacher workshop or college-level course. It is incumbent on the person who has the skill to understand what it was like before they learned the skill so that they can communicate it without alienating the learner. Teachers have a reputation for being poor learners. So they must be handled with extra special care when it come to teaching them computer and Internet skills. We can't be like the computer nerd on the Saturday Night Live skit who commands those who seek help from him to "MOVE" when he wants to fix a problem. Those in the know must empathize and remember what it was like to learn the new skill themselves.
Once we have the basics down, the next step is to use that skill in such a way that makes teaching and learning easier, more fun, and more effective. Word processing can make our worksheets and quizzes more attractive to the eye, and we can create them in less time than if we hand wrote them. Using the Internet as a resource for acquiring information is a basic skill that we should not only have ourselves but that we must effectively communicate to our students. Most progressive schools systems have criteria in place when evaluating their own teachers that demonstrate basic competency in the areas of using the Internet for research. Teachers are now expected to reach the next level of literacy, where they can compose web pages using electronic publishing software such as FrontPage 2000 and place those materials on a web server that is accessible to the world. Technological literacy includes the idea of information sharing with colleagues though e-mail, web publishing, and instant messaging, and even using collaboration software such as NetMeeting and Lotus Notes.
How are teachers supposed to gain these new skills if not through on-the-job experimentation? My own experience led me to experiment at home with web page development software and graphics editing programs so that after the first year or two I was thinking about how to integrate those skills into the secondary classroom. First we started with en e-mail essay exchange. Then we placed them on a website that became the nucleus of one of the first K-12 websites in the state of Maryland. From there the website became a resource for students and teachers who were looking for information or who wanted to collaborate on numerous projects.
The time it took to learn the skills and develop the sites took its own toll that was unforeseen to me at the time. One aspect of technological literacy that I had to learn was that of balance. The computer became a medium of workaholism, and my family life and personal health suffered as a result. Too many hours in front of the computer led to weight gain and a lack of interest in anything not related to computing, It's addictive. Only after the disintegration of my marriage and the breakup of my family did I see the narcissistic nature of becoming too involved in too many projects, even if they did bring me awards and notoriety. Balance is an aspect of technological literacy I cannot underscore more.
Technological literacy demands that teachers of Language Arts, Social Studies and Science know how their discipline will be enhanced by using computers and the Internet when developing meaningful learning activities. Teachers must know the risks in using these technologies, and they need to respond intelligently when problems associated with those risks are encountered. Probably the most prevalent problem with using the Internet in the classroom setting is the possibility of displaying inappropriate material. Most school districts run highly effective blocking software on the network level so that teachers may have a false sense of security about students encountering adult material when conducting research. Teachers also need to be concerned that students or their colleagues are violating the acceptable use policy (AUP) of their districts by downloading sexual or violent content deliberately. Teachers need to communicate in clear terms to their students what the consequences are of misuse of the school district's computer equipment and network facilities. Teachers need to understand the dynamics of conducting Internet searches on websites such as Google. They need to check to see that Google's "Mature Content Filter" is operating with to the "on" setting activated. They need to know which search terms can be used by students, deliberately or inadvertently, that generate inappropriate results. And teachers need a disciplinary plan to put into effect in the event that students make an effort to skirt the AUP as it is stated in the student handbook.
Another area of teacher vigilance involves student privacy. Using grading software may seem like an example of computer literacy, but such teacher must know that such software allows grades to be published to print form or to the web with student numbers available rather than student names. Student's last names must be kept off of work that has been published to the WWW unless the student has waived privacy rights because they are 18 years of age or older. Most school districts have students and parents sign media releases so that t heir child's name and likeness can be published by myself on the WWW or in other school publications.
Teachers must also respect the idea of copyright protection in areas of
software piracy as well as the copying of Internet resources into student
projects. Techno-savvy teachers know how to use the Internet's search engines
and the Windows operating system to fight cheating and plagiarism.
We must teach students that techno-literacy involves identifying the source that the student used to develop their project. Teachers and students must both be wary of using pre-existing images from the web or that already exist in print. In this litigious age of protecting intellectual property, we must be ready to help students write to copyright owners to ask permission for a piece of artwork that is to be used on a school website. Until that permission is granted, students must be propelled and compelled to develop their own original web content. Copyright protection may not make web design easier, but it forces the student or teacher-author to develop on a higher creative level.
Teachers are professionals, but in the area of technology, they need to be given the latitude and freedom to experiment that other professionals have in their given fields. Indeed, developing technological literacy among teachers requires that they have a free hand to try new approaches to curriculum development and implementation, to see how new software behaves when in use in the trenches of learning. Music teachers need to be able to burn CDs and import MP3 files to demonstrate new musical structures from all over the world. Even social studies teachers can use MP3 files of famous speeches to share them with their students. Real Audio and Real Video files of NPR, CSPAN, and PBS can be used in the Social Studies, Science, or Language Arts classrooms to bring up to date events into the discussion.
One of the most rewarding areas of information technology in which teachers and students can engage is student publishing on the World Wide Web. Along with students projects that have appeared on my own school websites and Cyberlearning-world.com, there are numerous examples of student projects on the web in all subject areas and on all levels. To see highly exemplary student web projects, be sure to investigate http://www.thinkquest.com, which also includes websites created by teachers. Student publishing holds students to a higher standard because they must engage in the writing process, use Internet and print sources wisely, and they must write for a global audience. Teachers who encourage student publishing become editors, in essence, and they must make editorial decisions so that their school websites are useful and exciting examples of student work. Their students' work must also act as a resource for anyone using the Internet for research purposes. In that regard, students and teachers must engage in careful planning and well-designed execution when considering student publishing as a project option.
Using the Internet in any aspect of education has become a double edged sword with the benefits of constructivist learning styles on one side and the liabilities of a litigious society on the other. One teacher may have a relatively free hand when using technology because the bureaucracy of his or her district may not be aware of the potential liabilities inherent in the use of a given technology. This teacher may be willing to place student work on the web, experiment with new Internet-based software, or develop projects that involve interaction from the general public who might read and review student essays or other published work. This teacher has a free hand not because the administration is encouraging innovation, but because they have little or no understanding of what technologies are available for classroom adaptation and application.
Another teacher may also want to try those innovative techniques, but this teacher finds that he or she is limited because of bureaucratic roadblocks. These obstacles are placed in the teacher's way not out of ignorance or even just to be unpleasant, but because decision-makers in the system know and understand the potential of the technology, and rather than encourage innovation, they stifle it because they know the damage it can do. School systems are in a situation where they must walk the fine line between educating thousands of children every day without getting sued by someone looking to make an easy buck. The Internet makes that occurrence easier to bring about in two ways: the first way involves the risks that come with innovation. The second is that a litigious parent can use the Internet as a tool for searching out something to sue the school system about. Both act as a wet blanket for the teacher interested in using technology to its fullest, unknown potential.
We no longer live in the dawn of the Internet Age. Information technology is here to stay. It's part of our toolkit, and without it, we can't really do an effective job of preparing young people for the world that awaits them. Sure, we might be able to avoid using the tools that are available to us, but in doing so we do a disservice to our students, many of whom will come to us with a variety of technical skills but with little understanding of our to use them constructively. And if we choose to use technology to enhance out level of instruction, we'll have to really look at how to use it in a new, refreshing, and meaningful way.
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All materials © George Cassutto 1994-2003