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Instant Web Access? 'Fancy' That

One reason we may not be making much progress in tech-based education is a mistaken assumption among the public about the amount of access to technology that teachers and students have. Consider a very interesting article in a recent edition of The New York Times Magazine, "Achieving Techno-Literacy" by Kevin Kelly (nytimes.com/2010/09/19/magazine/19FOB-WWLN-Kelly-t.html).

In the article, Kelly portrays the role technology had in homeschooling his eighth-grade son. "I am struck that the fancy technology supposedly crucial to an up-to-the-minute education was not a major factor in [my son's homeschooling] success," he writes. "Of course, technology in the broadest sense was everywhere in the classroom." He notes having had access to a microscope and a digital camera, and says, "There was a PC always on for research. Our son was also a big user of online tutorials....The Internet was also essential for my wife and me as we researched the best textbooks, the best projects, the best approaches."

Then Kelly espouses the philosophy that we all repeat as a mantra: "But the computer was only one tool of many. Technology helped us learn, but it was not the medium of learning. It was summoned when needed."

Kelly means well, but, unwittingly, he reveals his own lack of knowledge about technology use in K-12 schools. He discovered that you don't need "fancy technology" to teach children, but acknowledges that he did have an Internet-connected PC always available. He doesn't see that an Internet connection would qualify as fancy technology for a majority of classrooms. He's not alone. The notion that technology is abundant in schools is pervasive. The reality is, most teachers are not able to summon a PC for every student for research and online tutorials, or look online at their convenience for the best textbooks, projects, and approaches.

Kelly is more on target when he observes that kids need technological literacy. His definition of tech literacy is different from how most think of the term. Rather than seeing it as a set of hands-on computing skills, Kelly describes a "proficiency with the larger system of our invented world....[We] need to be literate in the complexities of technology in general, as if it were a second nature." Part of that literacy is showing restraint: "Find the minimum amount of technology that will maximize your options."

Unfortunately, schools don't even have that. The minimum technology that will maximize options is for every student and teacher to have instant access to the Internet--and it wouldn't hurt to have a digital camera for everyone as well. But Kelly does recognize technology's imperative presence in education. He closes with this valuable, commonsense nugget: "If we listen to technology, and learn to be proficient in its ways, then we'll be able to harness this most powerful force in the world. If not, we'll be stuck at the bottom of the class."

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of THE Journal.

About the Author

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).