Computers as 21st Century Scapegoats for Lazy Teaching

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We’ve all been bystanders to the water-cooler conversation about ‘that’ teacher from ‘back in the day’ who secretly had a smoke at lunchtime behind the school gym, or the teacher who put some questions on the board and simply sat behind their desk or aimlessly walked around the room. I’m sure those of us who have been or are currently in the profession have also been privy to the snarky saying “those who can – do, and those who can’t – teach” at some point across their careers. Unfortunately (and please believe me when I say that it pains me to admit this) the teacher of this awfully shallow perception of teachers, does exist. They simply do. It’s not a pretty fact, but it’s one we need to remember when we are coaxed by the media portrayal of teachers as martyrs who will always go above and beyond for the betterment of their students. There are certainly many, many teachers who are like this! But there are also teachers who are not.

As technology evolved (so incredibly rapidly in the last 10 years) the discourse around lazy teachers has started to shift, as has the responsibility of teachers to enact certain types of pedagogical approaches in their practice. It evolved from the teacher who would simply have students copy out of a textbook, to the teacher who would photocopy worksheets they never checked, to the teacher who scrolls their phone or sits behind their laptop; and the introduction of EdTech has complicated this further, with its ability to shift the role of the teacher in the classroom. Further to this, the world wide web and search engines have challenged the reality that teachers are the ‘fountain of knowledge’. The prolific sharing and cataloguing of resources online also means the teachers’ role is becoming less about being a content creator; leaving their pencil case and laminator behind for space in their Google Drive or file downloads folders.

It goes without saying that the role of the teacher has shifted away from being a presenter to being a facilitator, from a lecturer to a tutor – from captain to navigator.

It is also interesting to consider the power of this technological age to neutralise the factors which once created distinct hierarchies, for example: in the pre-internet and computers world students would seek information out from a few sources that included libraries or the media, or through the stories or conversations they had with the adults in their lives. Developing understanding would be a truly ‘active’ process requiring travel, research, and a process of recording the information manually to consolidate and present it. Teachers were trained and revered as the experts in their fields, the ones to create and design lesson resources and activities for students who would in turn absorb and develop that knowledge to the ‘expert’ level of their teachers. In this context, the teacher sits at the top of the hierarchy as an equal source of truth to books, and the student falls below as the one who relies on that knowledge to be passed down. I would argue that the invention and use of computers did not necessarily shift the hierarchy as much as the invention of the Smartphone – and nowhere near as much as the introduction of the world wide web.

Not only did the internet equalise the opportunities individuals have to access information, but it also destroyed the notion of intellectual exclusivity – all of a sudden everyone could become an expert at anything with a fraction of the effort and time. It also started to shift the attribution of credibility and integrity associated with particular individuals and resources. Web materials were given equal status to printed materials, and people without tertiary credentials were able to claim expert status with a fraction of effort and time. In a post-internet world the previously understood hierarchy of teacher as source of truth and student as empty vessel has been destroyed. Information is now a commodity for which anyone with access to the internet can obtain.

So in an era where information is freely available and consumed at such a rapid rate from a much younger age, what do we constitute as the new role of the teacher? And how can a teacher effectively fulfil this role and avoid the ‘lazy’ title?

I have had numerous heated discussions with family, friends, colleagues in corporate and in the teaching profession about this exact topic and the current discourse splits people into two opposing teams – team pro-tech and team anti-tech. Team pro-tech supports the use of new technologies by teachers and by students, they believe that devices with internet connectivity have the power to reshape the traditional teaching and learning dynamic, empowering students to drive their own learning guided closely by their teacher. Team anti-tech are conflicted about the effectiveness of technology in education, preferring traditional methods of resourcing with printed materials like textbooks and handwritten and hand marked assessments. Individuals also justify their choice of team with either a personal anecdote from their experiences pre, during, and post COVID or a headline they’ve seen floating around the tabloid media.

Often parents will fall into the anti-tech team, seeing their children use devices for entertainment and procrastination at home, or they are confronted by the newness of the technology their children are interacting with for school and feel incapable of contributing to the learning, preferring to sit with them and work through something on paper. Students tend to be pro-tech as their curiosity and adaptability mean they are eager and able to learn new ways of working on devices, apps, and systems with the guidance of their teachers or YouTube. Teachers themselves are quite split, and the ferocity of opinion for each team seems to be increasing in a post-COVID teaching climate. Their approach towards the lack of training and support in converting from a multimodal teaching scenario to a completely tech scenario tends to be the defining variable for their choice of team. Some teachers are thankful that they had to make the shift, even though it was uncomfortable because it forced them to see the benefits that technology could offer their workflows and how they could keep students more accountable and engaged. Others found the transition unmanageable, struggling with the actual technology and the adaptation of their practices into a virtual space, convinced that students were getting too much screen time and therefore should revert back to as little as possible pending the COVID restrictions on being at school.

Yet – I am still faced with the challenge of convincing teachers that the computer itself does not constitute lazy teaching as much as it does not constitute lazy learning. Do we blame the comfortable chair for the aforementioned teacher falling asleep at their desk? Do we blame the printing company for creating the textbook that the teacher placed in front of their students without any other instruction? Do we blame the photocopier for successfully producing numerous copies of the worksheet that the teacher hands out and collects without checking or providing feedback on? Is the computer just the 21st century scapegoat and our current sour flavour of the month?

So I put it to you like this, as controversial as it may seem – schools who are adamantly against the use of technology by students in the classroom are not authentically preparing their students for the world that awaits them. There are not many jobs or careers that students might explore in their formative years after school that will not require at least a basic understanding of tech operation and etiquette. How many workplaces have rules around mobile phone use versus an outright ban? How many careers require their staff to have a competency in word and number processing software? In a 21st Century neo-capitalist economy where the smart phone blurs the lines between work and home life, should we not be equipping young people with an experiential understanding of what, how, and when technologies and software should be used – and for what purpose? If we’re expecting students to build their skills of independence, responsibility, and self efficacy, it seems reasonable to be exposing them to a daily context in which they will also likely find themselves in the next stages of their lives.

Lazy teachers will always be lazy teachers, no matter the scenario or repertoire of resources. Desk, photocopier, laptop… It’s not a debate about the resource. It’s the time for a revolution in the way that resources are being used.

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