Two cans and a string aren’t enough


Over at Education Week, Jenna Barclay describes how she compensated for her 8th grade students’ lack of access to digital learning tools by making do with the analog teaching resources that they had on hand. They simulated ‘wikis’ with butcher paper and colored pencils. They made a ‘table top blog’ using notebook paper, moving around the room and commenting on each other’s paper posts. They summarized an article by passing back and forth paper ‘tweets.’ And so on…

All of the comments on the post praise Jenna for her initiative and creativity. And rightly so. Instead of whining and giving up, she found innovative ways to try and foster the thinking skills needed by her students. By all accounts, she and her students had many successes. But the more I read, the more I just wanted to cry. Here’s the comment that I left on her article:

I think this is a wonderful tale of a teacher creatively ‘making do’ to serve her students as best she can. And, yes, one can teach critical thinking, collaboration, and other essential skills without technology.

BUT… digital technologies and the Internet take all of this to the next level. For example, as great as what Jenna did here is, it didn’t allow for students to expand their voice – and interact with relevant, meaningful audiences – beyond the local. And as creative as students can be with butcher paper, the simple fact is that students can be even more creative when we expand their toolkit with digital creation, connection, and collaboration tools. We can’t pretend that analog learning environments are equal in power to digital learning environments, particularly since nearly all knowledge work done OUTSIDE of schools is done with digital technologies.

So I love what Jenna did. AND I also want her and her students to have access to robust digital learning technologies so that they can be even more powerful and amazing and relevant to what they’ll need when they leave their analog school environment.

Heroic tales of innovation like Jenna’s are wonderful testaments to the creativity of the teaching spirit. But how many school leaders and policymakers will use stories like hers as an excuse to not put digital tools into the hands of students? Too many, I’m afraid.

In a digital, global world, access and equity issues are important. Jenna and her students deserve true power, not artificial, simulated, “look we can pretend we’re really doing this” experiences that sort-of-but-not-really capture the essence of the real thing. We would never say that using two cans and a string is the same thing as actually making a phone call. We would never say that scooting around in a plastic children’s car is the same thing as actually driving. And we would never say that lying on a flat surface moving our arms and legs is the same thing as actually swimming. Nor should we when it comes to learning with digital technologies and the Internet.

Instead of having our hearts warmed by this feel-good story, how about if we do a better job of getting teachers the tools that they and their students really need?

3 Responses to “Two cans and a string aren’t enough”

  1. Very similar to Computer Science Unplugged, eventually, students need to tools to do what they should be doing.

  2. Thanks – good read!

    I started wondering about this sentence: “But how many school leaders and policymakers will use stories like hers as an excuse to not put digital tools into the hands of students?” I see your point, , but I wonder: is it more likely that a school leader would read Barclay’s article and think “aha! I knew it! they don’t need computers!” or is it more likely that they would think “holy cow – this is an “the emperor has no clothes” moment – this teacher shows how important the skills are – maybe we actually DO need computers so that students can learn this stuff”

    I think Barclay did some effective deep thinking about what the skills actually are during the process of this low-tech “work-around” and maybe this kind of reflection is necessary to really define/understand the skills? Maybe figuring out different ways to get at the skills (low tech, high tech, no tech, paper/marker/whiteboard, etc) is a way to deeply understand the learning objectives, and once those learning objectives are made clear, a better case can be made for what tools are really needed in order for students to (efficiently, effectively, realistically, etc) acquire those skills?

  3. We live a world that is running over with technology, so I feel that we just have to get prepared for the new era.

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