From Now On

The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 12|No8|April|2003
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Beyond Bamboozlement

by Jamie McKenzie

(about author)

© 2002, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

This article appeared first as a chapter in Jamie's most recent book - Just in Time Technology: Doing Better with Fewer.

Available at FNO Press


Informal To take in by elaborate methods of deceit; hoodwink. See synonyms at deceive.

OTHER FORMS: bam·boozle·ment —NOUN
bam·boozler —NOUN

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition.  2000.

We are emerging from a troubling decade of bamboozlement and skullduggery. The technology and dotcom bubbles have burst, the fanciful forecasts have collapsed and many of the false prophets have been caught in the harsh light of publicity.

Cooking books and misstating earnings in order to line personal pockets has thankfully been stopped cold. But meanwhile, millions of people are looking at severely depleted pension funds and the prospect of delayed retirements. Thousands of others find themselves out on the streets as telecommunications companies stumble, and sales of technologies dwindle and stall.

As this book goes to press, the American stock markets remain depressed and volatile while the trust of investors is so uncertain that billions have been diverted to bonds and other investments. New financial scandals seem to pop up from week to week so that corporate earning reports are viewed with suspicion.

Just what is the true price/earnings ratio? This is a difficult question to answer when earnings reports may conceal billions of expenses and losses in order to put a best face forward.

Educators might ask some of the same questions about the benefits of new technologies.

1. What is the real return on investment when a district connects all classrooms to the Internet at the cost of millions of dollars but spends little money on program and professional development?

2. How much of a day will teachers and students be able to use newly purchased laptops when the batteries last just half as long as promised?

3. How many years will classroom computers last before software companies introduce combinations of improvements and upgrades that render those computers obsolete and require premature replacement?

Dotcom Lessons

We are emerging from a period of frantic speculation. Many dotcoms have bombed. After several years of disdain for old time values such as profit, value and return on investment, many of the upstarts and renegades have depleted their cash reserves, folded their tents and hit the streets looking for work with the same companies they recently derided as “old economy” dinosaurs. Instead of early retirements with fat stock options converted into fortunes, many of the evangelists and prophets of the “new economy” have launched a search for pay checks and security.

There is a lesson here for educators. Many of the promises, projections and products being heralded by enterprising education dotcoms are truly exciting and worth a careful look. But others are ill conceived, violate essential educational philosophies and carry with them substantial risks.

Internet Hype and Bombast

Despite the claims, not all digital experiences are automatically beneficial or preferable to print experiences. One author and speaker popular on the technology circuit, makes the following statement in one of his books:

Time spent on the Net is not passive time, it’s active time. It’s reading time. It’s investigation time. It’s skill development and problem-solving time. It’s time analyzing, evaluating. It’s composing your thoughts time. It’s writing time.
Growing Up Digital (Tapscott, 1999)

Those who work in schools and have watched students making use of the Net might quarrel with Tapscott’s assertion, as many students will squander time on the Net doing many things not listed by Tapscott like chatting, downloading songs, and playing Doom.

It turns out that the Net may prove valuable and worthwhile in particular cases, but value is not an inevitable by product of mere exposure. Schools and classrooms do not improve simply because Internet connected computers sit in corners or because students surf the Net. Students do not automatically analyze, evaluate, and consider what they are browsing. They may snack. They may gorge. But thoughtful, discerning, and deliberate use is not a given.

Digital learning is not automatically better than other kinds of learning. Results depend upon the way activities are planned and structured. But mere exposure to the Net rarely works the miracles claimed by technology cheerleaders. To the contrary, we witness technology-related disturbing new phenomena such as “the new plagiarism” and tendencies toward powerpointlessness, mentalsoftness and glib thinking. Along with the Net comes the disneyfication of much information and a focus on edutainment and infotainment.

Making Wise Investments

Before committing huge sums to new enterprises, schools need to consider the likelihood of winning a major return on the investment.

Those leading schools must protect them from edutainment and infotainment. The most promising strategy is to apply a filter to any newly proposed venture.
Before adopting an innovation, the planning group should ask the following questions:

1) What evidence exists indicating that this venture might enhance student performance on demanding new state tests and prepare them to show mastery of new curriculum standards?

2) If there is no reliable performance data available to assess the value of this venture, what aspects might contribute to producing the following outcomes?

• Improved reading, writing, and thinking
• Collaborative problem-solving
• Persuasive communication
• Enriched world view

3) To what extent is the new venture likely to win broad acceptance by the teaching staff as a valuable element to be blended into normal programming? Will it seem practical, relevant and user friendly or will it appear peripheral, frustrating, and off task?

4) To what extent will the adoption of this innovation require a substantial shift in staff attitudes, skills, and behavior such that major investments will be required in the form of professional development opportunities?

5) Could the learning activities and outcomes involved in this venture be accomplished just as well (or better) using books and other technologies? Is there a case of technology for technology’s sake?

A Focus on Value

An emphasis upon student learning and information literacy is probably the best protection against education dot bombs, bamboozlement, and skullduggery.

When schools ask how they might best teach students to analyze, interpret, and infer with these new tools, they dramatically increase the likelihood of realizing a real return on their investment dollars.

Online resources do not always provide the quality of good books and other print resources.

When we engage students as infotectives, expecting from them the same kind of thinking that Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew would employ to solve a mystery, we stand a good chance of improving performance on state tests.

• Finding meaning
• Creating meaning
• Extending meaning
• Reading between the lines
• Working with clues
• Building theories

In contrast, when we engage them in trivial pursuit or investigations that involve more entertainment than rigor and substance, we waste their time and risk inspiring the (warranted) resistance of staff members who already have too little time to address the demanding curriculum standards of this decade.

Traits of Effective Learning Products

School leaders may protect students and staff from educational bamboozlement by clarifying criteria and values. To qualify for investment, an educational program should meet traits like the following:

1. Challenging

Students are engaged in exploring essential questions requiring analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

2. Standards-based

Activities are explicitly designed to develop the skills, understandings, and knowledge required by state standards. The product offers direct links with standards.

3. Motivating

The product is designed in a way that will capture students’ interest by sparking their curiosity and emphasizing essential questions, themes, and issues rather than relying upon glitzy entertainment strategies that emphasize an arcade approach to learning.

4. Attractive and User-Friendly

The digital pages and activities are designed to appeal to young people and support efficient navigation without surrendering to pop culture values.

5. Scholarly and Reliable

The information, the writing, and the learning activities are based on the work of professionals in the field of learning who have a deep and solid background in the material combined with an understanding of how young people learn, explore, and build meanings. The company supplies background of product developers.

6. Research-Based

The product is based on independent and reliable research findings, “best practices,” and field tests of prototypes.

7. Enhanced

The product offers students new experiences, opportunities and types of learning that would not be possible with older technologies. These opportunities are not only novel but also valuable as preparation for ways of living and working that will be essential aspects of the students’ futures.

8. Cost Effective
The product delivers opportunities at a reasonable cost - cost that stands in proportion to the value being delivered.

9. Sustaining and Richly Varying

The product offers many choices, varies learning experiences and appeals to different learning styles so that it can maintain a high level of interest over time. The product will not suffer from an early fading due to :gadget effects.” The product is organized so as to support and encourage the development of independent learning skills and attitudes.

10. Assessable

The product provides a substantial battery of assessment tools and opportunities so that students may evaluate and then adjust the quality of their own learning.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .

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