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Is George Ou right?

Former ZDNet blogger, George Ou, is always good for a discussion of educational technology. As he wrote on my post yesterday ("Enough already with the Luddite schools"),I'm no luddite and I remember carrying an electric typewriter to a High School English class for a final so I can type faster in 1988 when barely anyone else typed anything at the time.
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Former ZDNet blogger, George Ou, is always good for a discussion of educational technology. As he wrote on my post yesterday ("Enough already with the Luddite schools"),

I'm no luddite and I remember carrying an electric typewriter to a High School English class for a final so I can type faster in 1988 when barely anyone else typed anything at the time. However, computers were TOO much of a distraction for me personally because I'd do nothing BUT the computer and spend too much time on it instead of studying what I should have been studying.

I have a lot of respect for George (he's forgotten more about computer networking than I'll ever know) and his educational background. As he's noted before, during the first two years he spent in primary school in a mud hut in rural China, he learned more math than he needed through the sixth grade when he came to the States.

We had a fairly wide-ranging talk this morning about tech in schools, but particularly on my perspective that kids should be introduced to a variety of broad computing skills (from programming to social media) at a very early age. His take? To paraphrase, programming: possibly, social media: no.

The question is, have I gotten this wrong? Was I off base to suggest that kids are better served by carefully (yet fully) integrated technology in the preK-6 classroom than they are to have the technology largely turned off in favor of more traditional education?

George is certainly right in his assessment that computers can be, and often are, a distraction in class. What if, however, computers can be so woven into the fabric of instruction that they become a tool for a student just like pencil and paper, or just like computers in business?

Computers can be a distraction for all of us, but what if we were taught to use them rather than play with them from the minute we hit primary school? When George and I talked about the use of social media, he had serious objections to kids using toys like MySpace and Facebook in school. While I couldn't agree more, maybe I've been reading Jennifer Leggio's blog too much. I'm starting to see social media not as MySpace (which a lot of kids will tell you is passe anyway) but as the sum total of collaboration tools that could make the educational space richer and get kids and teachers working together in new ways.

The Classmate PC includes a robust software stack with teacher control of student PCs. Teachers can share, black out, message, and otherwise collaborate with their students in a controlled way. When students get home, they have plenty of time to work on computers in uncontrolled, often unsupervised, and generally unproductive ways. School, however, seems like the perfect place to teach kids to be really productive and innovative, even for youngsters.

George's points are well-taken; however, watching my own first grader's literacy be greatly enhanced through the use of software that not only helped identify weaknesses for his teacher to address (a mild speech problem was affecting his phonetics), but allowed him to move ahead of his class at his own pace in areas where he was stronger convinced me of the value of software in early elementary education.

No amount of hardware or software can replace a good teacher. However, I remain convinced that hardware, software, and well-thought out tools can help children learn in individualized ways and work very well within the context of solid classroom instruction. It's for this reason that I believe Intel's Classmate PC model can be really successful; it was designed to supplement classroom instruction rather than turn kids loose with a PC like the OLPC XO.

A followup note from George, 11/5/08 George sent me an email tonight to follow up on our conversation. I wanted to include the text as I think it not only clarifies his position on the matter, but lends some additional insight to this conversation:

Just to clarify Chris, I would NEVER oppose more computer science education at any grade level. I was just saying that there was some merit to the traditionalist arguments for not using them in every single classroom based on our current understanding of computerized pedagogy. But saying that there is merit in this traditionalist education point of view does NOT mean that I don’t see merit in your point of view. I think we should explore paperless classrooms because I believe that education can always be improved, and I certainly don’t want you to have the impression that I was opposing you. In fact in our conversation yesterday, we both agreed that there needs to be some real research on how to best put computers to work in the education environment so we agree a whole lot more than anything we might disagree on.

Like I said, I've seen and lived through both extremes and I see the pros and cons of both systems. I just want to make sure we avoid the pitfalls of either systems while adopting the best of both worlds. I'm sure that's the holy grail that we're all after.

Thanks, George...talk to you soon, I'm sure (check back on Friday for some more serious consideration of paperless schools).

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