As we work through the Solomon introduction, we need to consider the problems inherent in the current state of Education. I’ve talked about this before in other contexts but it’s particularly important here. While many of the philosophical points raised in the introduction remain depressingly valid — actually showing almost no significant change — many of the descriptions of current condition depict a world that no longer exists. The peril, of course, is that if we try to address the philosophical shortcomings based on the described conditions, we find ourselves grasping at shadows. This condition rises out of the disparity between “research based practice” — the cultural imperatve to take action based on published knowledge — and the rate of change in the culture. The publication cycle is between 18 and 36 months. The innovation cycle is between 6 and 9 months. By the time an innovation hits your awareness, you determine a valid research question, conduct the research, analyze the results, and publish the findings, the innovation may well be obsolete — repaced by 2 or 3 generations of change. We find ourselves responding like a punch drunk boxer, blocking the punches that have already come and gone while being unable to even perceive the blows that are coming.
“Today, 60 percent of jobs require skills with technolgy, and people who use computers on the job earn 43 percent more than other workers (Solomon, Allen, & Resta, 2003, xvii).” The problem with his is that it’s based on a publication from 1998, which was undoubtedly reseached in 1997 or before. Given the ubiquity of the computer in the workplace, a situation grown even more common since the late 90’s, can we still say with any certainty that the wage gap persists? I haven’t found any data to support that, but my annecdotal observations cause me to question it. Consider that the counter help at the local fast food joint uses a very sophisticated computer every time they ring up a sale. I’m pretty sure they’re not earning a premium on that. While you might argue that this isn’t what the original Irving article was talking about – nor is Solomon – the reality remains that these systems didn’t exist when this stuff was published. It wasn’t considered. The limited – and arbitrary definition of computer use – would probably preclude its consideration even today, but it’s an important factor. The marketplace has responded to the need for workers who can use computer based tools by simplifying those tools to the point of appliance, reducing (not increasing) the need for workers to have any knowledge of how they work. While I’m sure that the cash register appliances wouldn’t fall under the definition of jobs that require the level of skill with technology, I submit that the substitution of wordprocessor for typewriter and spreadsheet for calculator have done no more for the average worker’s skill level than the cash register appliance has for the fast food worker.
Rephrased: We’re not doing new things. We’re using the technology to do the same things, with the same structural controls, and the same economic models we’ve always used. We’re merely adapting the technology to strive for efficiency in those models.
I won’t quibble over the importance of technology to student learning or the importance of bridging the gap between haves and nots, but while I agree that the causes put forth by Solomon (increasing dependence on technology and increasing diversification of population) are still valid, I would argue that the government intervention these days is less about eRate and access than about filter and control. The grand rush of connecting the schools has now turned into a battle of blockades. The very technologies that we’ve invest in the institutions are being knee-capped in the name of “protecting” the students from learning something “inappropriate.” The problem, of course, is that neither the tools nor the teachers and certainly not the government has sufficient handle on “appropriate” to be able to apply a technological fix to what is – at root – a political problem.
Even the definition of the divide is open to interpretation at this point. Solomon cites the Pew statistics from 2000 as one aspect of that definition. That’s not bad, given that the world had already moved away from that snapshot by the time the book was written. It was the best data available at the time, but already lagging reality. Look at the Pew Internet & American Life data now and learn that the bruited gap between blacks and whites has narrowed significantly. More importantly notice that a key technology isn’t even on the Solomon radar. A significant proportion of the global population access the resources of the internet, not on computers, but on cell phones. What does it mean to education when you can read a novel on your phone?? Where does this fit into the digital divide? And who’s on the far side when educational policy blocks cell phone access in the school?
More concerning than the description of the world that no longer exists are the pieces of the puzzle that persist in spite of the fundamental shifts in technology adoption.
The ongoing crisis in professional development is an excellent example. With 7million teachers in the US, almost all of whom have been trained in the Industrial Model of education, the need to skill up the existing population is not merely daunting. It may well be impossible unless we find some breakthrough in process, product, or perception that allows us to address the issue in a reasonable and timely manner. Ironically the very technology that we need to use to achieve this goal is in our hands (we’re using it now), but the economic obstacles of time, money, and administrative need are actually preventing the evolution of the profession as a whole by limiting access.
Moreover, teacher preparation programs are taking huge steps backwards by requiring that the courses offered to teach future teachers about technology have actual K-12 classroom certification and experience. Virtually all teacher preparation programs in the US now require that the faculty have K-12 certification and experience in addition to the doctorate. While this seems like a good idea on the surface – and it’s undoubtedly a logical political move – the reality is that we’re asking a group of people who generally lack the necessary skills and knowledge to teach the next generation of teachers how to use skills and knowledge they themselves lack. As a product of the doctoral process myself, I can assure you that earning a PhD in educational technology does little to prepare you for the realities of technology adoption. My anecdotal and highly subjective observation of the field is that the majority of PhDs in he field are on the wrong side of the Digitial Divide themselves. Starting with the population that generally needs the training to begin with, failing to provide it, and then requiring them to teach it is not a particularly useful exercise.
Before you get all bent, I’m not criticizing the teachers here in some kind of “blame the victim” trope. It’s unreasonable to expect anybody who is not exposed to a knowledge base to be able to adopt that knowledgebase with any degree of utility. By recognizing the need to skill-up the teacher base we take a valuable step. By adding the requirement that the instruction for that effort come from the population of teachers for whom the the instruction is intended without guaranteeing that those instructors actually have the requisite skills, knowledge, and attitudes is not going to be terribly productive. Yes, those teachers will know what the classroom teacher is up against, but I submit that – with some very rare and exemplary exceptions – that very experience will create a precondition that precludes sufficent innovation to make a difference.
Finally, my general criticism of this introduction extends to the very last lines.
[W]ith access to technology, technology proficient teachers, appropriate content, and student-centered instruction, disenfranchised students may experience significant educational gains. If technology provides access to information, experts, and appropriate and varied means of expression, digital equity may be a way to break the cycle of poverty through the only valid path our society offers — education. (Solomon, Allen, & Resta, xxiv)
The arrogance exemplified by that statement is almost unbelievable. While it is certainly true that education *may* offer a path out of poverty, it is hardly the case that it offers the “only valid path.” When any kid with a good idea, a little initiative, and access to a terminal can create money making content, the educational system that blocks access to the resources he needs to succeed is hardly going to break any cycles – let alone poverty. I think it would be more accurate to change that last sentence to read “technology may be a way to break the cycle of poverty in spite of all the best efforts of society to limit learning through the narrow lens of education.”
Other than that, it’s not a bad book.
Solomon, G., Allen, N.J, & Resta, P. (2003) Toward digital equity: Bridging the divide in education (1st ed). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon