New technologies available to schools could well prove essential elements in a restructuring process, or they might just as easily prove to be serious obstacles or distractions. Because restructuring has been so variously defined by different camps and groups, much depends upon the particular hopes, dreams or apprehensions each reader associates with the term and what versions of technologies are selected for the restructuring process.
The Cart Before the Horse Again!
Time and again we make change in schools by buying some flashy new cart, tying on some horses, providing a half day of training, pointing the new cart down a very steep hill, giving it a shove, issuing a glowing press release and closing our eyes with crossed fingers as the horses scream and the wheels roll.
"Wake me when it's over?"
Is it any surprise that so little change ever seems to stick? We lunge from bandwagon to bandwagon as closets fill with yesterday's broken carts and faculty rooms fill with wounded horses.
When we ask if restructuring requires the new technologies, are we once more placing the cart before the horse?
Only if we fail to consider which new technologies are basic to citizenship and problem-solving in an Age of Information. Only if we purchase technologies to perform smokestack tasks. Only if we buy first and think last.
Mastery of new technologies is a fundamental rite of passage for young people who will do their problem-solving, voting, loving and living in the next millenium, especially, mastery of information technologies. Any school which fails to blend such mastery throughout the day and the curriculum is failing to achieve its fundamental mission at a very basic level. Any school which buys its technology carts without considering Neil Postman's new book, Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, endangers its students, as Postman warns that such an uncritical embrace of technology is "a form of cultural AIDS."
Technology as Cultural AIDS
Just what does Postman mean?
Technopoly is a stage of civilization during which technology undermines much of the underpinnings of human connectedness. Traditional beliefs and institutions crumble and finally collapse in the face of what Postman calls information glut and information chaos. Making meaning is subverted by a tidal wave of information. Technopoly then imposes its own belief system, ". . . by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technocracy."
In Technopoly people must find meanings in machines, technique and scientism. Postman sees the process as subtle, insidious and largely unnoticed. An advertisement, for example, urges us to "Reach out and touch someone!" and yet few notice how Technopoly has distorted the meaning of the word "touch" to replace real touching with an electronic substitute. Technopoly even offers virtual reality, an electronic out-of-body substitute for real world experience. When will Technopoly offer virtual schooling? And at what price? Or is it here already?
According to Postman, Technopoly destroys the essential narratives of a culture, those myths and belief systems which make us human.
The Antidote: Technology in the Service of Humankind
While some of us can easily build a case that Postman is technophobic, his warning is well worth heeding. If we carefully weigh the impact of each new technology prior to embrace, we can better avoid the painful side-effects of infatuation and infection. We can select those technologies with the greatest likelihood of enhancing human togetherness. We can introduce those technologies in ways which improve communication, add to the power of human creation and increase warmth rather than isolate, insulate and chill the users. We can go with technology which is "high touch" and "user friendly." We can practice "safe technology."
The Curative: Technology as Purgative
Those who would restructure schools come at the task with vastly different motives. Some leaders from institutions outside of schools bring relatively narrow agendas to the task. Theirs is no search for the "Grail." Many of them would be satisfied with the capable worker. No lofty social goals emanate from this camp. Here we find the emphasis upon world markets, global competition and workforce basics.
Elliott Eisner has done a fine job in recent articles critiquing their limited curriculum. Little attention to citizenship, cooperation, the arts or any of the character development which would make this country truly kinder and gentler. This group is intent on raising the productivity of America, intent on the bottom line, focused on child as worker.
Those who see children as workers are quick to jump on technology as teacher, opting for applications which substitute machines for teachers. Holding generally low opinions of teachers, they see technology as "teacher proof." The teacher steps into the background, becoming machine "operative" while artificial intelligence takes over the task of feeding children lessons and rewards.
These are the same folk who use the word "restructuring" to replace "layoffs." Mean and lean. They love terms such as "right-sizing." They jump at "voice mail" as a way to channel telephone communications efficiently and inexpensively.
Fortunately, many business leaders are far more enlightened. Recent contact with Ameritech provides an excellent example of a school-business partnership in the Chicago area which stresses the networking, communicating and reasoning potentials of new technologies. Through the generous support of Ameritech and IBM, Project Homeroom provides hundreds of high school students, their parents and their teachers an opportunity to communicate about learning over a Prodigy network.
In the Age of the Smart Machine: Informating vs. Automating
In her 1988 book, In the Age of the Smart Machine, Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School coined the term informating as an option to the prevalent business strategy of using information technologies to reduce human involvement in the work place (automating). After studying the introduction of such technologies in ten or more industries, Zuboff lamented the tendency to replace human decision-making with carefully programmed technologies and chronicled the negative social effects as we came to experience what one commentator has called "the electronic sweatshop." Zuboff noted the contrasting benefits arising from the attempt to elevate human decision-making as a result of the enhanced information supply and processing tools.
Leading studies of IT (information technology) such as that conducted by the MIT Sloan School of Management, have taken Zuboff's thinking much further so that IT is seen as an essential strategy for "restructuring" business organizations to be more flexible and more responsive to customer preferences. In The Corporation of the 1990s, IT is viewed as the vehicle to build what is called the "Networked Organization." The authors call for a radical shift in the culture of such organizations:
"In a firm's efforts to change strategic market positioning, set strategy, or increase performance, the need to manage effectively the interdependence of subunits and people within the firm is increasingly recognized.
"The firm's ability to continuously improve the effectiveness of managing interdependence is the critical element in product, service or strategy innovations in the marketplace (the proactive dimension to strategy) and in effectively responding to new competitive threats (the reactive dimension). Networks, designed and enabled by information technology, are key to effectively managing this interdependency.
"Characteristics of the networked approach:
1. Shared goals
2. Shared expertise
3. Shared work
4. Shared decision-making
5. Shared timing and issue prioritization
6. Shared responsibility
7. Shared recognition and reward
Corporation of the 1990s (pages 192-193)
Schools undertaking restructuring can learn a great deal about the potential of IT for new visions of the society, the work place and schooling by reviewing this segment of corporate literature. Stan Davis' book, Future Perfect, echoes the Sloan authors:
"This time around . . . the network is very different because it relies, not on an informal web of personal contacts, but on a technological web of information-handling systems.
"Networking means hooking together people who are geographically and hierarchically separated so that they may communicate with each other quickly and directly.
". . . enable communication across organizational space.
"Organization structures and systems both deal with the same issue: how to create an architecture that best relates together the many parts of the whole.
Future Perfect, pages 86-87
In a more recent work, 2020 Vision: Transforming Your Business Today to Succeed in Tomorrow's Economy, Davis and Davidson claim that the success of any business will depend upon its ability to informationalize.
". . . the essentials of every business are being altered so fundamentally that you had better not be in the same business five to ten years from now that you are in today. You had better be the first, not the last, to know why, and the first to know what to do about it.
". . . information enhancements have become the main avenue to revitalize mature businesses and to transform them into new ones.
" . . . to survive, all businesses must informationalize.
". . . the economic value from generating, using, and selling information is growing significantly faster than the value added by producing traditional goods and services.
"Choice, variety, and service embedded in traditional products create smart products and new market opportunities.
2020 Vision, Pages 17-18
This corporate literature suggests that we in schools must raise independent thinkers and info-tects, a citizenry which can ride the waves of information with the skill and style of great surfers, carving into the data to gain power and insight, building new organizations which are collaborative and communicative rather than hierarchical and rule oriented.
To Speak with a Human, Touch "O"
While voice mail may bring us efficiency and cost savings, many good companies have decided not to use it to handle customer complaints or requests for assistance. Recognizing the frustration felt by the person forced to listen to long recordings with "no exit," other companies have inserted exit instructions early in the message.
Schools face some of the same choices. Shall we automate or informate? Is a machine really more patient than a teacher or simply less sensitive?
Clarifying the Mission
When asking whether technology and restructuring are in conflict, we come back to philosophical issues and the parable of the cart. If we do not clarify what we are trying to achieve on behalf of young people, we are likely to buy carts which sweep us down paths which lead to no place fast. As long as we allow smokestack paradigms to go unchallenged and unexamined, restructuring will pass and be forgotten with the rest of the bandwagons which have roared through education for the past few decades.
Restructuring, then, should begin with a reconsideration of philosophy and belief systems. What is it we really believe about children and how they learn?
Committees of educators, parents, students and community members might well spend time challenging the following beliefs:
1) Most children are too lazy to persist in a demanding task requiring much reading and thought.
2) Children of the TV generation require babysitting and entertainment. They cannot operate independently.
3) Our real job is custodial.
4) Parents are no longer doing their job.
5) Some kids (and types of kids) are not worth our time.
6) Most teachers prefer routine to adventure.
7) Change is the enemy.
8) It isn't fair to hold teachers responsible for student learning.
9) There will always be job security for teachers.
10) There will always be public schools.
11) People learn best by repetition.
12) It is our job to sort and sift students according to potential as early as possible.
13) Teachers can stop learning when they finish school.
14) Learning is something that happens in schools.
15) People learn best when they see a clear payoff.
16) People learn best in rectangular rooms listening to teachers explain things.
If these kinds of beliefs go unchallenged and unexamined, then it is unlikely that restructuring will proceed meaningfully with or without new technologies. The belief systems will twist the new technologies to serve the old ways.
Witness the frequent mis-use of videodisc science programs which provide students with rich visual data which could lead to the development of student insight. Unless the teacher appreciates the value of students "making meaning," the videodisc player becomes a 1953 slide projector as the teacher shows picture after picture in sequence, explaining each to the class much like a slide show of a recent trip to Europe. Instead of asking open-ended questions which coax the class to convert data into insight, the teacher does the thinking for the class.
In a similar fashion, networks of computers tying teachers together across a vast school system can rapidly fall into the most pedestrian uses, data collection to serve administrivia or hierarchical control. Rather than reducing the isolation prevalent in most school systems by providing a new basis for community and the sharing of great ideas, these new networks often serve more of a surveillance function than a community-building function.
Without Investing in Adult Learning, Significant Change is Unlikely
The MIT Sloan study concluded after reviewing a number of ambitious IT projects that most of them fell far short of expectations because they failed to invest sufficiently in the human resource development and cultural cultivation required to prepare employees to take full advantage of the new systems. Old ways were slow to respond to new opportunities and new technologies.
Restructuring is doomed from the beginning if participants have had little opportunity during their careers to "climb the mast" to the crow's nest and scan the horizon to see what is possible. Unlike college professors who are treated to many hours each week of time for research and exploration, the typical public school teacher is kept close to the "grindstone," working with children in a pressurized context allowing little time for reflection, research, discussion with other adults or investigation. Innovative outcomes do often emerge when groups of practitioners gather, but the culture of K-12 education does a great deal to suppress imagination and limit awareness.
School districts should invest first in the development of a collaborative learning community, holding off on vast technology expenditures until those who are charged with the invention of new programs have had a chance to "see the world," as it were, from the crow's nest, that lofty vantage point at the top of the mast which allows one to see over the curved surfaces of the immediate surroundings and also gives one perspective with regard to the deck below.
Restructuring should begin with human resource development, cultivation of the human organization. As philosophy and ideas surge into the daily discourse of educators, the question of which technologies will best serve our students will seem far less perplexing than when philosophy remains embedded in smokestack verities and time-honored routines.
Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.
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