Ed Tech Trends | Viewpoint

The Digital Resistors

"I hate math. It's just so abstract. And besides, I'm just not good at it."

"History is just boring to me. It's lots of dates, battles and people no one really knows about anymore. Besides, I just don't care about it."

"Chemistry just seems like a bunch of abstract numbers and concepts. I mean, what is a mole anyhow? And when will I ever use this stuff?"

"This is my second language. I tried French, and now I'm trying Latin. The truth is, I really don't like studying languages and they don't seem to like me either."

"Art is fun, but I just can't draw!"

Classroom teachers hear comments like these every year. And good classroom teachers never let comments like these go unchallenged. We try different strategies so that students will approach our classes more positively. We strive to make subjects relevant and even fun. Ultimately, we hope every student can find achievement, understanding and personal satisfaction in our courses. And we never willingly allow students to simply opt out from instruction we consider important.

Yet ironically, these same teachers may hold an entirely different attitude toward learning when they are the learners and the topic is technology. I know this to be true because daily I work with faculty and administrators who are, to be generous, less than enthusiastic about the digital revolution that has changed the ways schools operate. And though most of our school employees either embrace new digital learning challenges or are at least curious to learn about the possibilities, there are some whose comments echo those of our reluctant student learners:

"I'm really not interested in learning much about my computer. Really, I just need it for e-mail and maybe to write something."

"I can't keep a grade book online. I'm more of a tactile person."

"These passwords are driving me crazy. I'm just not doing anything that requires another password."

"Why is every professional development program centered on technology? I'm definitely tired of it."

"I'm not using my class Web page. I think writing the homework on the board and having students write it in their planners is still the best way to learn organization skills."

These adults are not easily swayed from their position. Often enough, they simply dig in and refuse to fully participate in the systems the school has created. These systems include intranets, e-mail, online grade books, Web-based library catalogs, and more. And my understanding, gained anecdotally, is that every school acknowledges their "digital resistors" and allows them considerable freedom to operate apart from the systems created by the school.

Collision of Attitudes
These digital resistors represent today's version of a long held antipathy toward technology. And the issue is about more than password overload and a frustration with conflicting file formats; it's really about a philosophy of education. The issue pits those educational professionals, teachers, and administrators who embrace digital technologies as an important part of our school fabric against those who tend to see a technological presence as at best, irrelevant and at worst, essentially dehumanizing.

It's a collision of technology attitudes that goes back at least as far as the early 19th century, and probably quite a bit further. It was in the early 1800s that the Luddites rebelled against the automated looms that they feared would devalue their skills in the textile industry. The early Luddites saw their way of life threatened by a technological revolution.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, an intellectual movement coalesced around technological fears. These fears centered on the dehumanizing effects of technologies as varied as assembly line production and computer driven systems. In the popular culture, films like Modern Times and 2001: A Space Odyssey explore the topic as do books like Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang and George Orwell's 1984 . Academics including Jacques Ellul, Siegfried Giedion, Theodore Roszak, Neil Postman, and many others have explored the topic at length. Just a few years ago, Nicholas Carr asked a provocative question in giving title to his Atlantic Magazine article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

Without ascribing the term "Luddite" to those who actively resist the growing presence of digital technologies in our schools, I would argue that group of people see a threat to an educational culture they understand and endorse. New technologies, coming as quickly as they have over the last decade or so, have been disruptive to norms that were established over previous generations. Most, I gather, embrace the change. And some resist.

I've had a great view of how people and philosophies can clash. I'm currently the director of academic technology in our school. But my stint as a "technology person" is relatively short-lived; I'm in my fourth year. For about 35 years before that, I was firmly a part of the humanities as a history teacher and college counselor. For many decades, I tended to hang around with people generally skeptical of new technologies and their classroom roles.

My first big project four years ago was to create a password-protected intranet for our school. I talked with technology directors at other schools and spoke with our teachers as well. Our intranet would offer each class its own Web page and offer the school a new tool to communicate to families and alums.

Given authority to select our provider, my main concern was ease of use. I knew our teachers were busy and any system that was overly difficult to learn would not gain traction. The system we chose was, to my mind, exceedingly easy to learn. It provided the basic array of tools teachers would find useful. There was a place to post homework, an ability to create folders and store documents and other files, and a section to list links to other sites.

As we rolled out the new system, I was occasionally reminded of the advice uniformly provided by technology directors at other schools who I had befriended. "There will be some faculty members who will outright refuse to participate. Don't waste too much time trying to convince them. You're not likely to get anywhere."

Most teachers embraced their class site(s) as a great convenience. They used them daily and saw them as an efficient way to complete necessary tasks. But there was a group who resisted. And though it's easy to think they were the more veteran teachers, it was not always the case. In fact, it was difficult to correlate the resistant faculty to any category. And the advice I had received was essentially true. No matter the training, support, and coaxing, a few managed to simply not utilize our intranet.

This year, we created a new school Web site that includes public access and a password-protected section. The transition included ending our contract with our now three-year-old intranet service. Again, most looked forward to a more robust site that allowed for greater design freedom and functionality. Predictably, digital resistors complained about the change, wondering aloud why we needed a new system.

What's at Stake
The acceleration of technological change in schools is apparent to virtually all educators. What are these new technologies that are the cause of the collision of educational philosophies? They are evident in hardware and in software, in systems and in pedagogy.

When a school commits to a 1-to-1 laptop or tablet program, there's more at stake than the purchase of new equipment. A school is implicitly stating, "This is how we believe a sizable slice of our budget is best spent. And we also believe that classroom instruction will be best conducted in an environment where students utilize these devices."

When a school commits to an intranet that includes class sites for every class, there is also an implicit belief. "We believe that every class needs an online presence as the most effective communication tool and it will be a teacher's job to keep that class site up to date."

When alert systems and conference scheduling systems and library catalogs migrate online, it becomes increasingly incumbent on users to be conversant with a variety of Web site interfaces and to keep track of a growing number of user names and passwords. These systems also imply a school belief. "We believe that Web-based systems ultimately provide the greatest access and convenience to our families."

These examples, and a host of related changes, invariably call into question long held pedagogical practices. The idea of the flipped classroom, for instance, is inconceivable in a pre-digital world. But with the vast library of pre-packaged lectures through providers like Salman Khan and hosting services like YouTube and Vimeo, it's relatively simple to consider whole new ways of instruction. Especially when schools begin to encourage or even insist that faculty get onboard with a new approach, pushback is inevitable.

Issues related to digital resistors are little spoken of in schools. Stories are told, sometimes around the lunch table and other times behind closed doors. There might be a rolling of eyes, but, in the end, nothing changes. What's curious to me is that another set of problems related to some who are not using digital technologies get significant attention. We've given a term to this other set of problems. We call it the digital divide.

Catch-up Plan
The problem of the digital divide is widely acknowledged in independent schools. We've created school systems that depend on Internet access for functions as diverse as daily homework assignments, athletic team schedule information, theater production tickets, and conference scheduling. And we know this serves most of our population efficiently and effectively.

In every school, however, some families cannot afford a broadband Internet contract and the associated devices needed to access information. These families are at a significant disadvantage. Students are unable to maintain the type of 24/7 learning schedule their peers enjoy. Parents feel they are not fully in the school's communications loop.

This divide is a source of considerable concern for independent school people. We know we have worked hard to make it possible for economically disadvantaged families to join our school communities. We feel it is an important part of our school mission. And so we grapple with how to bridge the gap between full and partial digital access.

Schools create solutions, each in their own way. For some, including a laptop as part of a financial aid offer might make sense. For other schools, extended hours for the library or a computer lab might seem best. But few schools ignore the problem completely. We all know that those without full digital access cannot take full advantage of the education we offer.

Schools should be equally active in seeking ways to fully incorporate all employees into our new, ever evolving digital culture. This process begins with honest, open conversations with people about the need to become part of the changed school environment. I've reached the same conclusion many have; there is simply no going back or avoiding our new digital reality. This is the world we live in. If you choose to work in a school, you'll need to become reasonably adept at using a variety of systems that did not exist a generation ago.

The next step is to formulate a catch-up plan. As with the digital divide, each school will need to find the strategies that work.

Some possibilities include:

  1. Asking resistors to participate in the planning of training programs so they can help identify topics of interest and the training schedule.
  2. Giving resistors--and all employees--a voice to question new systems. Top-down implementation of new hardware or software is most likely to draw protest. Include stakeholders in decision making when reasonable.
  3. Assign savvy mentors on a 1-to-1 basis so that each resistor has someone to look to for assistance. Whenever possible, allow resistors to choose their mentors.
  4. Acknowledge the progress resistors make as they improve their skills. Learners of all ages want their successes validated. Find a way to do so.

The digital divide is an acknowledged challenge for independent schools. The fact that easy solutions do not exist does not deter us from seeking remedies. We know the digital learning environment we've created is worthwhile and we strive toward complete accessibility for our school community. For those working at our schools, we should insist on no less. We should set a goal of 100 percent accessibility and use of the systems, both hardware and software, that we provide.