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When Great is the Enemy of Good
We are all well aware of the fact that if we want to figure out any new technology we basically have two choices. The first is to spend around a thousand hours either actually reading the manual or fooling around with the particular gadget (Do they even call them gadgets anymore?) until we give up in utter and complete frustration. The second choice (recommended, as they say) is to ask a six year old. The second option, while quite embarrassing, will save you time and add years to your life.
The above, while a bit tongue in cheek, points to a particular challenge facing teachers who have been asked to integrate new technologies into their classrooms, what has been termed by psychologists and IT personnel as the ‘Where do I plug this thing in?’ syndrome. To give an example: (No, I am not making this up.) A teacher in Toronto was wondering why a power outage in the school had affected the internet link. “After all,” she asked, “Don’t we have a wireless connection?”
While I cannot offer much assistance to all the luddites our there, other than making sure they have a constant supply of six year olds around, I do want to address a more serious issue which I feel seriously hinders the successful use of technology in the classroom: fear of not being good enough. While I agree with the ‘good is the enemy of great’ philosophy, sometimes great is the enemy of good as well.
Case in point: I was guiding teachers in the usage of screen-recording software to enable the creation of digital lessons. Teachers were excited about the prospect of recording lessons which their students could watch at home as homework, answer the attached questions and be prepared for classroom discussion the following day. User-friendly software, allows teachers to create and record such lessons, make them available to students on the net and even have the quiz answers, which students fill out online, be emailed to them on an Excel spreadsheet. I thought this would be a no-brainer. Two weeks later I was surprised to learn that most of the teachers had not used the technology. The reason: “I can’t compete with the quality of the programs the kids are used to, so I gave up.” The teachers explained that they can create a worksheet that rivals the professional look of the textbook, but they can’t create a digital lesson that comes even close to matching the computer games or other professional media available to and used by their students. “Frankly,” admitted the teachers, “We’re pretty embarrassed with the way our stuff looks.”
And they had a point. Great had become the enemy of good.
But, I think they are making a mistake. Of course they can’t compete with the companies that spend millions on creating digital media, and we do teachers a disservice when we use those media as a model for what they can create. It is important that teachers understand that they do not have to compete with Silicon Valley but only with their classrooms. Students do not approach a digital lesson expecting to be wowed by special effects, nor do they feel the need to be captivated by consistent interactive activities. Kids understand that this is school, not a video game. And, while we wish we could offer our entire curriculum as part of some inter-galactic fantasy adventure, it is simply ridiculous to really believe that is going to happen, or even be a good idea in the first place.
To some extent the popularity of the Khan Academy, with its low-tech and no frills approach to on-line education, should be a model for us all. Millions access his lessons for only one reason; because they teach us something. We must encourage teachers to simply create and leave the bells and whistles to the technology professionals. When it comes to their initial forays into this new frontier, let them know that good is great.