“Easy” isn’t “useful” (and it might be just kind of “dumb”)

Via Will Richardson’s blog and his entry “Transformative Technology?  Really?” about a video from a company (maybe the company?  I don’t know) that makes “smart boards,” those touch screen white boards where you can project all kinds of stuff.  Here’s a link to the video (I don’t think there’s a way to embed it). The video shows elementary school teachers using the board and discussing its use in mock interview-style discussion.

It’s all rather bothersome in at least two different ways. First, I swear they say “ease” or “easy” at least 30 times in this 5 minute video.  Second, the uses they demonstrate of this board aren’t exactly “transformative:”  really, it seems to replicate classic elementary school pedagogy, with students sitting in neat rows, the teacher pointing at something on the board, and, instead of writing with chalk and erasing with an eraser, the teacher just uses his hand!  Wow!  And to the extent that the students are actually involved in using these things, it is to do stuff that would just as easily be done on a whiteboard or a chalkboard.

It’s all rather odd because I know these smart boards can actually be interesting tools.  They have them at Will’s school (none in Pray-Harrold as far as I know, and I don’t think there will be any coming into the building anytime soon), and, from what I’ve seen, Will and his teachers use them a lot to project some sort of web-based thing, to project some sort of slide show, and/or to demonstrate something on the computer desktop the teacher wants to show.  The touch screen makes it a lot easier to do these things than it is with a computer hooked up to a projector. And at Will’s school, I think the students play around with them as much the teachers– at least that’s what I’ve seen.

After seeing this, I immediately thought of this recent CHE article, “Class Produces Parody of ‘The Office’ to Highlight Challenges of Teaching With Technology.” This one does include a YouTube video:

It’s funny because it’s true, and the smartboard promo video is also not funny because it’s true.

I wrote an essay a while back about chalkboards as a technology, and I quoted Larry Cuban in it as saying something along the lines of teachers don’t change the way they do things as a result of technology just because they can.  Rather, teachers change the way they do things as a result of technology if they perceive that new use of technology as being beneficial to their teaching– both for their students and themselves.

I guess I’d amend/revise that slightly. If teachers aren’t willing or aren’t able to really rethink the way that technologies can transform their teaching, then they shouldn’t bother with the expense and hassle of things like “smart” boards.  And if teachers want it all to be so “easy” that they don’t have to think about it all, well, that’s kinda dumb.  I worry about this at my own institution where I see some of my colleagues wanting things like “smart” boards and other bells and whistles not because they would do anything significantly or meaningfully different because it’s cool.  Kind of like that Monty Python sketch about the button that goes “bing.”

Actually, that University of Denver video has some good advice for getting started with teaching with technology:  get the students involved, allow for more collaboration, and don’t be boring.  Of course, the professor at the end of that video also talks about trying out “those clickers.”

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