Editor’s Notebook - Blessed be the gadgets

October 1, 2010 Gordon Thomas
Gordon ThomasOn the Sunday of the Labour Day weekend, the parishioners of the Anglican parish of St. Timothy, in Nova Scotia, lined up for the parish’s first-ever blessing of the gadgets. The ceremony, the brainchild of Reverend Lisa Vaughn, was designed to recognize the place and influence of technological devices, such as cellphones and computers, in the day-to-day labour of her flock.

Vaughn said the idea for a special blessing came to her after she’d read about an old English tradition in which farmers brought their everyday hand tools to church for prayers.

On another technology note, the September 8 issue of the Edmonton Journal featured the article “Mind-reading machine may help paralyzed patients.” It seems that scientists have developed cutting-edge technology that translates brain signals into speech through sensors attached to the surface of the brain.

And in Knoxville, Tennessee, researchers are regenerating lost or impaired mobility for people injured in accidents or maimed in war through bionic limbs.

In my office at Barnett House, I am linked to the entire world by Internet phone, cellphone and computer. I can connect with a teacher-leader colleague in South Africa as easily as I can with staff in our Edmonton office. I have at my disposal more communications power than I could ever imagine in my wildest dreams. It is probable that I’ll never fully employ all the wizardry at my fingertips or keep up with dramatic new developments in communications technology.

We are on the cusp of an accelerating technology that promises to both enrich and threaten our very existence. And in the midst of all this are the questions of technology’s positive attributes versus its control of our everyday lives. Furthermore, the technological revolution is having a profound influence on education—the way we teach and what this means for our students. With that in mind, the theme of this special issue of the ATA Magazine is “Is the Future Friendly? New Media, Teachers and Education.”

Part cautionary tale, part celebration of unlimited possibilities, this issue gathers together researchers, academics, futurists and classroom teachers for an in-depth look at what is transpiring and what is ahead on the technological frontier.

The ubiquity of mobile phones, laptops and e-readers in our schools brings many issues to the fore. Teachers not only have to adapt to using devices in the classroom, they must be comfortable and knowledgeable about technology and, most important, must question its benefit to education.

David Hancock, QC, Alberta’s minister of education, lays out his ministry’s vision of technology for K–12 education. Alberta is an innovative leader in using technology for learning, the minister says. “We are excited—not daunted—about continuing in that role. We are dissatisfied with technology on the margins of learning, and together we’re creating a future of learning that is fully supported by technology.” Hancock invites teachers to take full advantage of what technology offers and to create the future of education by becoming engaged.

Susan Crichton, Gerald Logan, Rouzbeh Ghahreman and Sharon Friesen discuss the good things that technology brings. Crichton and colleagues Curtis Slater and Karen Pegler studied the Calgary Board of Education’s laptop project and how a teacher’s age might affect his or her adoption and use of information technology. The authors found that many teachers reported that having laptops in the classroom was a “transformational experience.”

Logan is a classroom teacher and president of the ATA’s Educational Technology Council. His article discusses mobile technologies in the classroom. He believes that mobile technologies can engage students in learning and argues that it’s time to invest in designing learning activities to take advantage of the technology.

From a different perspective, Ghahreman, a PhD student in special education at the University of Alberta, writes that technology and teamwork can broaden the learning experience of deaf/hard-of-hearing students and teachers.    

Friesen and colleague David Jardine extol the virtues of Internet research by students doing projects in archaeology and biology. The authors note that education is undergoing an upheaval in which a new image of knowledge and a new role for teaching are being defined. Friesen and Jardine write: “This new role for teachers requires them to renounce old habits. ... these new roles mean that the walls of the classroom have been breached, and now we can share the excitement, questioning, exploration and work that are involved in coming to know about the world.”


Phil McRae, an ATA executive staff officer who spearheaded this issue of the magazine, tackles the notion of personalization in education, tracing its roots to England and a former Labour government’s belief that public services were failing and what was needed was a more personal approach to delivery based on each citizen’s actions. McRae notes: “Of course, the benefit to the financially strapped state is to encourage citizens to take on more personal responsibility for the public good.” What follows then is that “personalized learning is part of the mantra of many educational reform efforts across Canada, where it is often coupled with technology as a means for more flexible learning delivery.” McRae invites teachers to participate in defining what exactly personalized learning means.

Catherine Adams, in “PowerPointing with Class, or Learning to Duck Our Own Bullets,” cautions teachers against blindly embracing technology without first conducting critical research. She writes: “Teachers would be wise to be more critical of digital technologies, attentive not only to what technologies do but what they could undo; to what they say and what they cannot say.”

John Mould, Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate, provides frightening observations about children and youth selling their privacy on the Internet. His sobering remarks are tempered by his belief that adults can play a beneficial role when counselling youth about giving too much of themselves away online. Children are not the only ones needing guidance in matters of privacy and inappropriate Internet use. Marv Hackman, an ATA executive staff officer, illustrates with real examples from the files of Member Services the perils of teachers using social media to criticize colleagues or to conduct inappropriate business on school computers.

The stuff of science fiction rounds out the magazine and kicks wide open the door onto unimaginable vistas. Amara Angelica, in “Intelligence Augmentation—Education in the Year 2110,” speculates that in the year 2050, there will no longer be “any separation between human and machine brains. ... knowledge is synthesized and communicated at ultra-high speeds ... aided by advanced imagination-enhancing drugs like piracetam that were developed in the early 21st century. Many human brains have also been rewired through advanced genetic modifications and uploaded into computer networks created by reverse-engineering human brains.”

Angelica’s vision reminds me of the movie Cold Lazarus (1996), in which actor Albert Finney plays Daniel Feeld, who dies of cancer sometime in the 20th century. The last part of the movie ends in the 24th century, in a dystopian Britain where everything authentic has been replaced by synthetic substitutes. At a cryogenic institute, the bodiless head of Feeld, from which electrodes extend, floats in a vessel of thick fluid. The scientists studying Feeld’s brain are attempting to wake the head in order to read Feeld’s memories, which originated in the 1940s. “As more of Feeld’s thoughts and memories are unearthed, it becomes evident not only that Feeld’s mind is conscious of its predicament, but also that Feeld is attempting to communicate with the scientists, and is pleading to be allowed to die” (Wikipedia, September 10, 2010).

Back to reality...

Technology can be wonderful. It has its benefits and its shortcomings and will undoubtedly have a profound influence on our classrooms. That’s why it’s crucial that amid all the hoopla propelling technology, we mustn’t forget to pause and reflect on the multitude of directions we’ve embarked upon. I urge you to make time for stillness. Sit back, close the door to the outside world, so chock full of buzzers, beepers, ringers and incessant updates. Close your eyes, savour the silence and plug into your thoughts.

We live in a constant state of distraction that allows us to avoid reality and dodge full engagement in thoughtful exchange with another human being. A profound relationship between people is the foundation of teaching—the inexorable connection between teacher and student as they share in the exhilaration of discovering themselves and the world at large.

Finally, but not ironically, we welcome your feedback to this special issue on Twitter or Facebook.





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