Academics, internet and the elephant in the room

Below is a discussion post I wrote in response to Larry Cuban’s book, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, a set reading and task for one of my Master’s units. Now, I am probably not saying anything here that most of you don’t already know, but then, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not in my target demographic :). I’m posting it here for interests’ sake, for anyone who would like to contribute to the discussion.

On more serious matters, there are two points I’ll raise, one on the big fat elephant in the room, the other on the divide between computers and the internet. Both are on the back of Cuban’s ‘unexpected’ findings, and he does mention some of what I’m about to cover.

The thing I find interesting when we talk about the use of computers in education is that we are not actually talking about the use of computers at all. What we aren’t saying is that we are in fact talking about transforming pedagogy. Cuban’s research paints a fairly accurate portrait of the use of computers in education, in that those who are using computers are largely integrating them into existing teaching strategies. But ‘computer use’ is not really what we’re getting at. If we achieved 100% usage of computers in education by teachers and students (which is quickly becoming realistic), I think most of us would be left asking ‘what did we really gain from that?’. What we are really looking for is a ‘revolution’ in education, an overhaul of pedagogy. The current practice of giving computers to everyone (KRudd’s DER epitomises Cuban’s ‘oversold’) is ignoring the elephant in the room.

The next issue is what got the elephant there in the first place. There is a very fundamental distinction between ‘computers’ and ‘the internet’ that often isn’t addressed. Computers are designed to make tasks easier and more efficient. That has been the case for a good 40 years now. What computers haven’t done is fundamentally change society. Think about what computers allow you to do – write, create media, play games, organisational tasks. They are remarkably efficient (and often very sophisticated) in how they do this, but there is nothing on that list that couldn’t be done in a different format a hundred years ago. Use of computers in schools largely echoes this – old tasks in newer, more efficient, more sophisticated ways. What has fundamentally changed things, though, is the internet. Internet access is the one thing that computers enable that has really changed the way people think and interact. It has changed culture. And that’s what makes people so uncomfortable. It’s easy to put computers in schools, and have kids make Powerpoints or podcasts or whatever. It’s not challenging to anyone’s beliefs on teaching and pedagogy. What’s hard, what’s challenging, is the shift away from teacher-driven, information-based instruction that the internet fosters. And schools aren’t ready for this – changing the way teachers teach is currently too daunting. Those teachers who do embrace change are self-selecting. You only need to look at the DET’s internet filtering policies to know this is the case – anything information-based is allowed. Anything that fosters collaborative, student-generated learning (social media etc etc) is blocked.

The two most effective things schools could do to turn Cuban’s findings around, produce ‘worthy outcomes’ and really make computers a worthwhile investment? Unblock the internet and design an effective development structure that supports pedagogical reform.

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