I sit on the Technology committee for our local school district. As a geek by profession, I have been both deeply concerned about the way technology is being integrated into the classroom, and amazed at how quickly things are changing for the better. The biggest problem for our District seems not to be the availability of equipment or software, but rather simple cultural issues- sociological problems and barriers to making things happen.

There’s a wider and wider gap developing between a group of educators, including many who have been teaching for years, and our kids. Our kids are digital natives and need to be multimedia literate. They need to be able to express themselves well in text, in video, in audio- in any different format put before them. But many teachers haven’t been teaching that way, and certainly didn’t have a lot of classes in adapting lessons plans to a multimedia environment, so even if they have all the technology in the world available to them, they still aren’t sure or 100% confident in using them.

Case in Point…

A few years ago, I attended a seminar down at the University of Delaware. The Tech team was showing teachers how they could use wikis, audience response systems, podcasts, classroom blogs and other digital tools, but a bunch of the faculty were reluctant to give this a whirl. The objections basically came down to “What if I am up there in front of all those kids and this doesn’t work? I’m not gonna take that risk. It’s got to work completely or I won’t do it at all.”

What’s that all about?  The teachers were reluctant to introduce any alternative or supplementary tools unless they could be assured of 100% effectiveness every time- that nothing would break, that they wouldn’t look foolish or have to improvise during class.  I am not sure chalk or a white board comes with those sort of guarantees.

Maybe it’s my science background, but I know you can’t be successful without lots of experimentation and making mistakes. There’s something all educators should know about, called the learning curve- and it’s as true for them as for their students-no one masters everything first go out of the gates. It takes training, it takes trying and failing and doing better the next time. It requires stepwise progression towards a goal. But here we had a group of educators basically saying they weren’t crazy about learning this new thing- at the heart of it, based on fear and stage fright.

And this is the same problem today in our local school district. There are a bunch of teachers on board, but another whole contingent, including some administrators, who are afraid of these changes. The tech folks may ask for some time to train people, and the response is “We can’t afford it” when all the technology is in place- all they need to do is teach people how to use what they already have at their disposal. How crazy is this?

And the more I’ve thought about this, the more I come to the conclusion that the problem we have, the arguments for and against all have to do with people issues, not tech or money issues. It’s a cultural shift. It’s a change. It’s something they aren’t comfortable with themselves, and they are nervous to get up in front of the kids who may know more than they do. They are afraid to feel stupid- but these same people face a group of kids who have the same fears in the classroom every day. And the irony is that fear keeps each side from doing their best. They could learn together, but instead, fear paralyzes things from moving forward.

Part of it is we have cultural issues about technology that stand in the way of progress.

Parents are told kids shouldn’t spend too much time on the computer because it could be dangerous.

They shouldn’t have too much screen time. (And I am a parent who tries to keep this under control myself, trying to balance screens versus real world, physical versus online, for myself and for my kids, daily.)

We tell them computers are equivalent to toys, games are a waste of time, etc.

But these dogmatic, simplistic answers aren’t anywhere near the whole truth.

The bottom line is I think we are learning, gradually, that technology and computers are tools as much as a pencil or a screwdriver is a tool. Each can be used for good or for evil- you can use a pencil to do your homework, stab your brother, write hate mail, write notes during class- but we still give kids pencil and paper during the school day- why should a laptop and internet access be any different? And shouldn’t we teach them to respect it as a tool versus a toy anyway?

Surprisingly, kids probably already see tech this way- it’s how they navigate the world, and it’s not all new, shiny and gadget-y alone. Lord knows I have tons of gizmos in my home, but my kids know they are tools not toys, and often, they seem to catch on faster that I do with making them sing, and I thought I was pretty cool with this stuff.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to change this culture is for the grown-ups to get over themselves already. We have to let the kids try things, break them and fix them. We need to learn right along side them, and not be embarrassed by that fact, and that we may not have all the answers.

Unless we’re willing to learn alongside our kids, we really will be teaching them to make their way in a 20th century world that will be irrelevant to the lives they actually face once they leave school.

That seems to be a pretty high price to expect our kids to face because some adults were afraid they might look silly or not have all the answers.