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May 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 8

Heads-Up Technology

Educators need to view technology as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself.

One recent Saturday morning, 150 people gathered in our high school's multipurpose room to develop a list of goals for the coming decade. We broke into groups of 10 and sat at tables equipped with a large game board, A Trip Down Education Street. My group's facilitator guided us around the board by asking a series of questions. As we brainstormed responses, we moved through three time periods: the 1950s, the 1990s, and the future. For each time period, the questions focused on changes in the family, the workplace, and the school. After our one-hour "trip," each group wrote a list of goals for the local school system and shared them with the large group.
The simulation subtly directed the discussion to the importance of preparing young people for work. And given this premise, it was hard to deny the role that technology would play in preparation. Sensing this message, my group decided to consider other ways to prepare young people for the future. We ignored technology and stressed the need for a balanced curriculum. Most groups, however, included technology in their summation. The next day, the local newspaper dutifully reported that technology was the most important goal mentioned at our session.

Technology Fever

Later in the week, I discovered that our school system was already taking steps to address the technology issue. The local newspaper reported the opening of a state-of-the-art technology center. A few days later, an article appeared about a local middle school teacher who received an award, Outstanding Educator Advancing Technology, from the Industry and Technology Council of Central Ohio. In the article, the teacher mentioned his recent trip to China as part of a science and technology exchange delegation. A poster he saw on the trip impressed him greatly and summed up his approach to education: "Developing the mind is wonderful, but developing the mind and both hands is the ultimate."
All this local enthusiasm inspired me to get my own hands further into technology. As the chairperson of the Education Department at Ohio Wesleyan University, I had long wanted to develop a Web page that showcased our work. I took a workshop on Microsoft Front Page, where I learned the basics. Then I spent 40 solitary hours over three weeks fumbling through the process until I finally had something ready to publish on the Web.
Next, I took my laptop computer to the workshop teacher who had agreed to help me during this final stage. "About 15 minutes work," he assured me before we began. Unfortunately, my computer kept freezing up, and we had to repeat many tasks. Two hours later, I proceeded to the next step—transferring the page to my office computer and publishing it on the Web from there. I spent the next four hours troubleshooting—nothing that required computer genius, just the ability to think things through while testing new strategies. In the end, I overcame all but one of my computer glitches and left my office with the job only partially complete.
Solving the last problem didn't require any specific training in computer technology. In fact, it didn't even require a computer. The solution dawned on me the following day as I sipped my Saturday morning coffee. Of course, I had to test my hypothesis, so I dashed out of the house and went straight to my office computer. Within a few minutes, I made things right.
Back at home with a fresh cup of coffee, I recalled my local teacher's technology award and his trip to China. Although my Web experience seemed to epitomize the "mind and hand" education, I wasn't sure how I had made my mind and hands work together to solve my computer problem. I had demonstrated successful problem-solving skills, but I wondered where those skills came from. What in my educational background helped me solve the particular problem?

Emphasizing Curricular Goals

Looking back at my own education, I can't point to any technical training. And as a child, I received none at home. Yet somehow I am becoming proficient with the computer. The only source for my modest success is my patient attention to detail. Somewhere I've learned to take my time when faced with a new task.
I spent six hours publishing my Web page, and most of the work was fairly mundane. But when I finally faced a problem, my calm persistence allowed me to figure out the answer. This deliberate thinking, however, might have been fostered in any number of places in the curriculum—for instance, by making a series of decisions while working on an art project or by writing, revising, and editing an essay. The problem solving that these two activities require directly parallels the skill required when learning to use a new piece of software.
Over the last decade or so, educators have received a constant stream of messages about the importance of technology. Politicians, the business community, and the media spill forth platitudes about "preparing students for the 21st century." And educators, with similar enthusiasm, often repeat these words. My local school system's simulation ended with a few dozen reverential statements in praise of technology. But what does it mean to say that technology is important when we fail to mention the rest of the curriculum?
To the public we send the message that teaching technology is our primary concern. In school, we set up computer courses but teach skills in isolation. By doing so, we ask our students to learn something that we ourselves have failed to find a use for. Worse yet, we often elevate the importance of technology and diminish other aspects of the curriculum. We cut the budgets of fine arts and other programs to pay for technology, and we encourage students to enroll in computer courses.
Instead of looking to technology for direction, we should focus on all curricular goals. With the whole curriculum in mind, we can consider ways that technology can assist us.
A few years ago, Bill Gates said that within a decade, people will give as little thought to using a computer as they do now to using a telephone. In other words, new technology will naturally integrate itself into our lives. As educators, we should, therefore, focus on developing uses for technology that will enhance student learning. And as we use it, students will join us. Of course, computer glitches will arise. But when the technology is woven into the fabric of our daily school lives, we'll confront these real-life problems with our students and we'll solve them. When an English teacher fosters an e-mail class discussion, or an art teacher puts up a virtual gallery of student work, or a social studies teacher encourages students to evaluate sources on the Web, we help move our students toward technological literacy.
To prepare students for the 21st century, educators need to maintain the goals we have already set for our students. And we should use every means available, technological and otherwise, to achieve them. The Education Street simulation encouraged people to elevate technology above all other goals. Our school district would be better served by a simulation that helps the public understand existing goals and the way technology helps us achieve them.
The Chinese poster had it right. Slightly revised it might read: "Developing the mind and hands is education; developing the hands alone is mere training." Drawing on this wisdom, educators need to convey the message that our technological future will require sound minds to guide skillful hands.

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