return to return to Teacher Testimony contents

Interested in writing a story
or nominating a friend? Yes 
Translate this story into Spanish? Yes
Technology: Time-saver or time-waster?
A technology teacher echoes B.F. Skinner, who stated in 1969 that, "the real problem is not whether machines think but whether [people] do."1
by Michael Sirois
It's another normal morning in one of my six Media 2000 classes, or M2K as it's sometimes known. The kids are busy working on their projects . . . or are they? As I look around my computer lab, I see students who should be writing the HTML for their homepages, one of the early assignments in here. Some are clearly doing that, but a few aren't. I wonder, as I often have before, "Would they all be on task if they were sitting in nice, neat, straight rows working with paper and pencil, instead of spread around the room in front of computer monitors?"
     This question continues to plague me, and has since I started teaching this course. A few years ago, I was teaching Creative Writing/Journalism when our grant to teach an experimental business course was approved. By the beginning of the 1994-95 school year, we had equipment on order and a new course name, Media 2000. I don't know how they came up with that name, but, since we do delve into several different types of communication media, the name works, at least for a few more years.
student looking at a monitor
Is this student surfing fun sites or working?
One of the major goals for Media 2000 is still the same as the Creative Writing/Journalism course, to teach kids to write clearly and sensibly. But we've added Internet-connected computers to the mix, so that alters the format somewhat.
     We operate as if we are a business--a publishing house. We work on both online and paper products, and we meet every other day for 90 minutes each session. The class publishes the school's newspaper and literary magazine and maintains the school's Web site. Each issue of the monthly newspaper is first printed for sale to students at the school, then marked up with HTML for publication on the Web.
     Every student in the class is required to write an article for each paper. The articles go through a peer review process by the student editors, students who, after applying for the positions, demonstrate a willingness and an ability to work well with words and computer code and people (well, okay--that's the perfect editor). Editors are also assigned a few students to work with individually, to help carry them through the process of article writing or writing HTML code.
Typically, I work with the editors for a while, then the editors work with their writers while I monitor and work with individual students as necessary. It seems to work pretty well most of the time, but lately I've noticed some patterns in the process which make me wonder whether I would continue to teach the same way if the computers weren't factored in.
picture of an online Newspaper
The electronic version of the Lanier red Pup Newspaper.
Here's part of a typical day. Yesterday afternoon, the students finished delivering our first monthly newspaper of the year to all of the classes in the school. The students are in a mood to relax, but they have work to do now if we are to meet the next deadline. I spring the bad news on them.
     "The deadline for the first draft of the October issue of the paper is next Monday. So, today you need to concentrate on two things. First, make sure you've completed all the preliminary work on your October article before next Monday. Have it in good enough shape that someone can look at it and make decisions about possibly using it in the next issue. Today is Tuesday, so that means you'll have today and Thursday to work on them before we take them up. Second, with any time you have left, work on your Web pages, making sure you include some of your information in a table, and some in a list."
     As soon as most of the students are busy, I put some of my student editors to work. Some are going to create posters to advertise newspaper subscriptions, and some are going to fix the HTML for the PTA's weekly newsletter, which we post on the Web. We're behind on the newsletter, and I make sure they know it has top priority before I begin monitoring the other students.
One of the first things I notice is that very few students seem to be working on their articles. I could stop things right now and make sure students work on articles first, Web pages second, but I decide to let it ride for the moment.
     One student is experimenting with different color backgrounds and text combinations. "Suzy's Homepage" displayed in bright pink on a lime red background is definitely not the right combination, so she holds down the Alt-Tab keys and shifts back to her word processor. After a little tinkering, a milder red and a dark-brown mix seems to work.
     On the other side of the room, a picture of Tupac Shakur appears on Bartley's monitor, and--just down the row from him--Angela is looking at the same Mariah Carey page she was visiting the last time the class met, and the time before that, and the time before that. After a little intervention, they are back on track--for the time being.
A curious thing happens. The editors who are working on the HTML are some of the more technically-proficient students I have. They quickly become bored with fixing minor HTML code violations and spelling errors. I stop to scan a photograph a student wants on her Web page. When I look up from that, both my HTML editors are on the floor with the other editors, drawing posters with Crayola markers. The tactile has won out over the technical.
     Another student wants to know why the background image they've chosen isn't displaying on their homepage. I watch them check the Document Source in the View Menu of Netscape. Some of the code is blinking at us. Something is broken. He spots it--a tag wasn't closed off. He closes Netscape, opens Notepad, opens his document, fixes the code, saves his file, closes Notepad, opens Netscape, points the browser to his file, and sees that the background still isn't displaying. Apparently, he didn't get the Alt-Tab shortcut when I explained it the other day. I show him that he doesn't have to keep opening and closing documents. He tries it, and sees how much easier that is, but a minute later he's saving his work and closing Notepad.
The period ends and another begins. Things go a little smoother in here, except the editors all want to work on the posters. No HTMLers in the whole bunch. I have to gradually move them away from the Crayola and posterboard and get a few of them working on some HTML.
     Several students in this class seem to be working on their articles as much or more than their Web pages. Perhaps I emphasized it a little more strongly at the beginning of this period, or maybe it's just the nature of this particular class.
The more I teach, the more I'm amazed that some people have the attitude that teaching must be easy because "you teach the same thing over and over again, several times a day," in my case, three times a day, two days in succession. What they don't seem to take into account is that teaching has changed drastically for many of us. Lesson plans are more like an outline than a script. The days of constant rote learning and lecture are long past--or should be. We are more guides than lecturers, allowing students to self-discover within parameters. Given these circumstances--that students are the center of the learning--the truth is that every class is different, the focus in every class changes.
The focus of this class seems to be on the next article, as I had hoped it would be. When I monitor the room this time, some students are tapping furiously at the keys, others are staring into space with furrowed eyebrows, while a few others are scribbling on sheets of paper.
     First I stop and talk to those who seem to be just staring. The answers are fairly typical for a first day of writing. Some students get that glazed-over look when they find out they're going to have to write something. Their typical response is something like, "I just can't think of anything to write." I encourage them to not listen to that little voice in their head that's telling them that, and show them some brainstorming techniques and work with them for a few minutes.
     Next I check in with the scribblers, to make sure the writing is about their articles. I find one which begins, "Hey, Chica, wuz up . . ." (actually "wuz" followed by an upward-pointing arrow), so I keep it and get Linda thinking about the next newspaper, then I start wandering through the room.
screen with colors that make the text difficult to read
The color combination that Suzy rejected.
Most of the students seem to be on target, either putting thoughts that will develop into a possible article suitable for a school newspaper on paper or monitor.
     A few are inappropriate, like Jimmy's, which begins, "I think that the school dress-code sucks bigtime, and so do lots of others. I asked 100 seventh graders what they thought and this is what they thought."
     "Sucks," said Ron Darwin.
     "Sucks, said Kavonna Smith. It went on from there. You get the drift.
     Maria's began, "One of the most terrible things that we in the world have to face today is the environment," and continues with a quote about global warming, which she correctly attributed to an encyclopedia, but which goes on for three paragraphs.
     I take a few minutes to explain to Jimmy why his article won't work. Essentially, it's too personal, uses inappropriate language, and was already covered in our first issue of the year. I let Maria know that the idea of her article is fine, but that the words need to be at least 90 percent hers.
The rest of my wandering seems to deal with formatting. The students have been encouraged not to concern themselves with the look of their articles. After we choose the articles we will probably use for this issue of the paper, the editors will work with each writer to fix problems and get the writing as perfect as possible before we try to dump the articles into Aldus PageMaker. The less shaping the students do to their writing in advance, the better. The problem is that many of them are very visual learners, and they not only are concerned with what their words say, they are also very concerned with what their words are going to look like on the page.
     Some are very carefully tapping on the space bar to line up their titles in the center of the 80-character wide monitor. I have to explain to them (again) that the newspaper is divided into columns that are only about 35 characters wide. If they shape their words to fit the monitor, it will be all wrong for the publication. Some are also tapping on the space bar when they finish a paragraph, to push their cursor to the next line. I have to use the same explanation to let them know what all that extra space is going to do when their article is placed into a column in PageMaker. A few others are hitting the return key at the end of each line instead of letting the words wrap by themselves. All are symptoms of the same disease--worrying more about the way the words look on a screen rather than worrying about what the words convey.
     Most of the students were using the Notepad text editor as they were encouraged to do, but Sam has discovered a copy of Lotus Ami Pro word processor on his computer, and is busily centering, bolding, changing type sizes and fonts. It looks pretty good, but would be totally useless for our purposes. I have him save it to his disk as plain text, and open it in Notepad. It looks like a pretty good article, but I noticed Sam working on it earlier while I was working with some other students. He spent about 30 minutes working on the article, and most of the rest of the period fiddling with fonts. How much more complete would his article have been if he had just concentrated on the words?
It seems like this period has barely started, but the bell rings and students scurry to their next class. Third period is my conference and lunch period, so I have some time to reflect.
     I have more questions than answers, though. I wonder if the students will ever understand how much time they waste on various things. I wonder if they've figured out how insidious time can be, sneaking up on you and saying, "Surprise, there's no more of me left," at the most inopportune moments.
     The more I think about it, the more I realize I used to and sometimes still do exhibit some of the same traits. How often have I stopped what I was doing to fiddle with my computer's interface, adjust the look of Program Manager to get it organized just right, played just one more game of Solitaire, changed the fonts on a document five times to get exactly the right look?
Oh, well. One more period to go. Maybe it'll be different. Maybe they'll surprise me. I'll continue to teach this course, and continue to see results that students do, in fact, learn quite a bit when supported by technology. But I will also continue to wonder how to stop the unproductive fooling around that seems to come with the computers. Maybe someday I'll find come answers.
[1]. Skinner, B. F. (1969). Contingencies of reinforcement: A theoretical analysis. New York: Appleton Century Crofts.

Link to Teacher testimony and to comments and suggestions for

Michael Sirois is a teacher in Houston, Texas. Read more about this author.

Teacher Testimony authors are nominated by people like you. Send nominations to the editor.
© 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 SCR*TEC.

This page is Bobby Approved.