Class Tech

A student recently asked me to respond to some questions about technology in the school. Because my insights are glorious and must be appreciated by all the world, I am reprinting them here.

Note: I did a Google Image Search for “technology in the classroom” and found the graphic on the right. It sums up the technophilia so common in our current era: Why is the old-school image on the left in grey? Why is the teacher (or student?) smiling so much more on the right? Why have the diagrams of the right triangle and cube been replaced with pie graphs and bar charts? Where are all the books? It’s a series of subtle demonizations of quality forms of education. Of course we should add new tools to our education toolboxes all the time. But when we get a new digital gadget, we don’t have to throw away our hammers and screwdrivers.

1. Do you believe technology is setting students up for failure or success?

Both. As Neil Postman explains in his 1992 book Technopoly, the technologies around us are tools, and tools can be used for all kinds of purposes. A hammer can be used to make a dollhouse, or to bash in someone’s head. Chromebooks and cell phones have similar powers. It all depends on how they’re used. I think the two biggest dangers of technology in the classroom are (A) thinking of it as a “silver bullet” that will fix all the problems faced by students and teachers; and (B) serving technology, instead of making it serve us. For example: the lights in our classrooms are set to go off at a certain time if the motion sensors aren’t activated every 30 minutes (or whatever the time frame is). This is fine so far as it goes. But in some rooms, the lights go off constantly during class, so the teacher has to wave her arms around and roam around the room to reactivate the lights — or, if she’s too tired — just work in the dark. That’s dumb. We teachers should have easy access to the controls of the tech around us, so that we control it — instead of letting it control us.

2. Do you believe that an increase in technology is to blame for certain discipline issues our district experiences?

I think there’s an increase in discipline issues caused by a blind confidence in the pure good of technology (without recognition of the downsides), along with the general tendency of humans (and young people especially) to take the path of least resistance. In other words, people take their cell phones out when they’re bored. That’s a problem, because school is sometimes boring. When I was a bored student — back in 1472 — I would draw comics or write silly stories. The difference is that a student who is drawing can more easily engage with a class discussion. It consumes less of the student’s attention, and it’s easier to break away when necessary. Digital media are designed to be engrossing, and to bring us back constantly. The “egoboo” and social elements and user-interface (UI) components are carefully designed to keep us coming back all the time, like a chemical narcotic addiction.

Meanwhile, there are some positives to student behavior related to technology. Ten years ago, if a class got done three minutes early, the teacher had to find some way to keep the kids entertained. Otherwise, there was a chance that student goofiness could lead to some conflict or a fight or noise that could disrupt a nearby class. Now everybody just stares at their cellphones, and we have a room full of silent zombies. So in some ways, students have become much more docile and cow-like. On the other hand, I recently had to break up a conflict in the hall between two young ladies who were angry about what one of them had posted on SnapChat about the other. (One of them declared her intention — loudly — to spit on the other one, to prevent future video posts.) Students have always fought about rumors and accusations, but social media have obviously brought these problems to a new level.

One last thing I want to say here is that it’s not necessarily the technology that’s to blame. When a student posted on RateMyTeachers.com about me that (I’m quoting here) “I would rather be devoured by sharks with AIDS than be in his class”, I didn’t flip my lid or lash out at the world. I was hurt, but I was able to laugh it off quickly. (And, I realized, the joke’s on him or her — that was a creative way to critique me, so s/he learned a lot from me. I must be a good teacher after all. Ha!) My point is that SnapChat and Facebook beef is more likely to take place among students who feel threatened and beaten down by the world to begin with. Just as graffiti is a symptom of people feeling alienated and despised by society, we have to recognize that the way to deal with these new problems is not banning the tech, but healing the people and helping them find alternatives to the impulse to rage up and lash out.

Keyboard Adventure

I spent a few hours yesterday cleaning my keyboard. Fortunately for the history books, I documented the steps along the way. Now it’s good as new. Hurray!

iPods, China, WoW, Suicide, and Explosions

There’s a good chance you own a Foxconn product. They make stuff for Apple, HP, Dell, Nintendo, Microsoft, Intel Cisco, and other hi-tech giants. If you’ve never heard of them, don’t feel bad.

But listen up.

In 2010 there was a rash of suicides at Foxconn plants in China. Workers were jumping off factory and dormitory roofs. An article in Wired from 2010 describes leisurely hour-long lunches and concludes that “those unskilled laborers who get jobs at Foxconn are the luckiest”. But a 2006 study by the Daily Mail paints a very different picture of work conditions at Foxconn.

‘We have to work too hard and I am always tired. It’s like being in the army. They make us stand still for hours. If we move we are punished by being made to stand still for longer. [...] We have to work overtime if we are told to and can only go back to the dormitories when our boss gives us permission,’ says Zang Lan. ‘If they ask for overtime we must do it. After working 15 hours until 11.30pm, we feel so tired.’

The Hong Kong advocacy group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) has been following the situation at Foxconn factories for a while. When the suicides got big press attention, Apple said it would demand changes and make sure that Foxconn changed, as they promised to do. But according to SACOM, Apple and Foxconn have failed to keep their promises.

Apparently the only thing Foxconn did was put up nets, so that workers physically could not jump off the buildings.

And then there was the explosion at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu last week. When I first saw the headlines about this incident, I was amazed by how worried everyone was that iPad production might be slowed. “What will it mean for Apple stock?” one news report asked. “Will there be enough iPads for Christmas?” asked another.

It wasn’t until I dug to the bottom of the second article that I learned that three workers had died. How twisted is that? The news doesn’t even want to talk about the dead workers until after we soothe the fears of stock traders and consumption trend-watchers.

Then I found the Make IT Fair campaign, of which SACOM is a member organization, and it said that the explosion was the result of gross negligence on the part of Foxconn.

In March and April, SACOM conducted investigations at Foxconn’s plants in Chengdu. The work safety in both northern and southern campuses is alarming.

During my research, I learned about a 2008 law in China that made some tiny little changes to make workers’ lives better in that country. Guess who lobbied against it? Wal-Mart and other corporations, including Google, UPS, Microsoft, Nike, AT&T, and Intel, through the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

China’s proposed legislation will not eliminate its labor problems. The law will not provide Chinese workers with the right to independent trade unions with leaders of their own choosing and the right to strike. But foreign corporations are attacking the legislation not because it provides workers too little protection but because it provides them too much.

But wait, there’s more! Today I came across this fun article, about prisoners in China. It features an interview with Liu Dali, who served over two years in a Chinese work camp for “‘illegally petitioning’ federal authorities about corruption in his local government”. So after spending a full day digging trenches and carving chopsticks, how did the guards help him relax?

They made him farm gold.

The scheme, a practice referred to among gamers as “gold farming,” required some 300 prisoners at the Jixi labor camp to gather currency (usually by repeating monotonous tasks) in multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft, which the guards then hawked online for cash.

I’ve always viewed the concept of gold-farming as repugnant, but I read a defense of it somewhere recently. (“I have a busy work life. I want the best sword but I don’t have time to quest for it. It’s better than lots of other jobs in China!”) Just remember this, if you decide to buy that +3 Plate Mail on WoW: It may be lacquered with the blood of a Chinese political prisoner.

TimeWaster™

Annie Leonard is my favorite internet person right now. Her Story of Stuff series is excellent and entertaining. Apropos of the above, here’s The Story of Electronics.

Today I’m listening to: Brother Ali!