Dina’s pushback on digital dependence

So Dina Strasser—-my friend and favorite digital skeptic who blogs over at The Line—stopped by to offer some healthy pushback to our recent conversation about teachers who fail to embrace new digital tools independently.

Dina wrote:

In closing I’ll suggest one of those legion reasons beyond laziness, which happens to be most often my own: I remain firmly skeptical about the use of any technology that pulls my kids away from face to face, local, sense-based interactions with the world. I’d rather figure out how to get all 90 kids on my team to a decent play, first.

Here’s the deal, though, Dina:  What about those people who live in places where “local, sense-based interactions” with the world are impossible, either because of cost or location?  Couldn’t technology provide solutions that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible?

Let’s use your efforts to get your team to a decent play as an example.  In about four minutes of web searching this morning—-I used Google’s Wonder Wheel and searched ‘Watch Plays Online’—-I found the Plays in Perpetuity website, which includes a collection of several stage plays broken down by scene and performed by professionals.

With little more than an Internet connection, you CAN get all 90 of your kids to a decent play.  And you can do it today.  With no field trip permission slips, with no organizing busses.  With no ticket prices.  All you’ve got to do is turn on a data projector and a computer.

What’s more, I’d bet that with another hour, I could probably find an actor, director, producer or stage manager—-from a major stage company or from a local university—-who would be willing to Skype into my classroom and talk with my students about performing.  Again, all I’d need is a computer and a data projector, and I could plug my students into knowledge they’d never get if I had to load ’em all up on busses and drive them to campus.

If this were my own unit on plays, I’d probably have my kids create their own performances and record them with a Flip video camera.  With a bit of quick editing in Moviemaker—another free application—we’d have a final product ready to post in Voicethread, where groups could receive feedback from peers, both in our classroom and all over the world.

(While it’s not a play, check out how kids in my class are using Voicethread to give and receive feedback about stories that they’ve written about adaptation.  The same kinds of interactions are possible around any performance that your kids cook up.)

Now, I floated these thoughts by my resident tech skeptic here at Salem, and he told me that none of the experiences that I describe are as “real” as actually going to a theater and seeing a play in person or as having an actor come to class and speak to students.  “What’s wrong with actually doing things the old fashioned way?” he said.

My answer is that there’s nothing wrong with doing things “the old fashioned way,” as long as you ACTUALLY can (and decide to) do them.  But for many teachers, “the old fashioned way” is enough of a pain in the rear that nothing ever gets done.

I don’t take kids to plays simply because it’s difficult at best to do.  It requires several phone calls to ensure that theaters have enough seats for my team.  It requires filling out about three million forms and getting permission from eight dozen people.  It requires finding money for students who can’t afford to go, finding busses to schlep us all over town, and finding parents who can volunteer their time as chaperones.

If it weren’t for digital plays, my kids wouldn’t see plays—and while that might sound cold, I’ll bet it is a deep, dark secret hiding the hearts of dozens of overworked and underpaid educators.

My friend Mike, who used to live in rural South Dakota, didn’t take kids to plays either because his school was in the middle of nowhere!  Getting kids to plays for Mike would have involved an overnight excursion—-which was just not possible for the poor farming families that he was trying to serve.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that digital tools, opportunities and experiences aren’t automatically “better” than face-to-face opportunities, Dina—-and maybe that sentiment comes across in the tone of my pieces.

But digital tools, opportunities and experiences aren’t automatically “worse” than face-to-face opportunities either.  When I hear teachers say that watching plays online isn’t a “real” experience, I cringe because what’s “real” to a person is an experience that they’re having—-and for many, online plays may be the only plays they’re ever able to attend.

And for me, digital opportunities are far more efficient, making the “once-a-year” experiences—-having guest speakers, going on field trips, interacting with students in other states and countries, giving and getting meaningful feedback from peers—–things that I can tackle every day if I want to.  Digital tools make once complicated instructional practices possible for every teacher—-not just those who are willing to invest hundreds of hours into planning and preparation.

What’s more, whether we like it or not, our definitions of what’s “real” are changing—-and that’s a reality that we can’t ignore.  I heard Stephen Downes explain it like this once:  The Web 2.0 revolution—the tendency to interact online and the proliferation of tools that make complex interactions possible—-is like the water at the bottom of a rushing waterfall.

You ain’t going to stop it no matter what.  The best you can hope to do is work like a kayaker, adjusting and navigating your way through troubled waters to get to your desired destination.

My frustration—-and the frustration expressed in so many of the comments connected to my recent post—-rests with teachers who just plain refuse to get on the boat.

Any of this make sense?