I like Mark Bauerlein.

I had the chance to speak with him, then post the interview with him on my website about his book: The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.) It is an interesting read, and if the number of comments on my site is an indication, he has hit a nerve that has caused the ed tech community to at least sit up a little and take notice. Some of the responses, as you would expect are downright vicious. Some are very well thought out, and some are in the middle as would be the case with any controversial topic. (To hear my interview, go here: http://snipurl.com/gi0df)

Bauerlein’s book looks at how students, especially post-secondary students today have little cultural knowledge, come to the university ill-prepared for the course of study that university life entails, and he paints a dire picture of the future. He says that a culture, any culture, must have an identity with the past in order to understand why things are done the way they are, and keep grounded when winds of change blow. Without this cultural awareness, America will flounder. Not surprisingly, he blames technology for much of this cultural illiteracy. Why learn about the Magna Carta when it is much more fun to learn how to get through the next level of Halo? He makes the argument that many people that read this column would agree with: Technology in schools has not made any great academic difference, so we probably should de-emphasize it and move back to traditional methods of teaching.

I think criticism like Bauerlein’s is a good thing. It allows a group to occasionally self-asses, it allows one to formulate an argument pro or con, and it allows a group to make sure that they are all traveling in the same, correct direction. Often, in the ed-tech world, at least in the edublogosphere, we read about other bloggers blogging. I subscribe to a list that goes out everyday and essentially, it is a guy telling everyone about all the blogs he has read about ed-tech, then he comments on them. An ed-tech blog about ed-tech blogs. Like looking in a mirror with a mirror behind you. I really don’t know how useful that is, yet I subscribe and happily read his comments.

It is hard to reconcile what Bauerlien says (Educational technology has little or no effect on learning because no-one is using it properly) with what I know instinctively happens (Kids get excited about learning when technology is added to the mix.)

Do computers, smart boards, laptops, recorders, document cameras, projectors, Web 2.0 tools, and all that money that has been spent really make a difference?

Bauerlein would say no. Scores have stayed stagnant, the knowledge of cultural affairs has declined and kids seem more interested in non-educational technology than in educational technology.

He cites research that says the common knowledge base of our culture is rapidly declining because kids can find out information, but essentially they are becoming walking-talking trivial pursuit players, because they cannot critically link the information they have access to.

Fair enough.

But I would postulate this: Kids do what they are taught. If they are taught to think critically, they will think critically, if not, then they will not. If we are not teaching the kids how to USE information, and there is a lot of it out there, then the ADULTS are to blame for the kid’s lack of knowledge not the technology.

Also, I think there is a critical error in Bauerlein’s thesis. He seems to think that technology (as an all-encompassing item) is in itself, something that that needs to be assessed as to whether it is good or bad for our children in school.

Why is that? He does not look at technology as a tool, which it is. Technology is not “one thing.” It is a wide variety of tools from laptops to iPods, to Smartboards, and on and on.

Technology is a tool. Just like a pencil. Just like an overhead projector. Just like a chalkboard, just like a ballpoint pen. I have never ever heard someone ask the question: “I wonder if overhead projectors make a difference in student achievement?” “I wonder if using a whiteboard is better than using a chalkboard?”

I wonder why no one looks at books, at notebooks, at desks, at the lights in the classrooms and asks, “I wonder if these things make a difference in student achievement?”

When I attended Crosby Elementary back in the late 1960’s there was no air conditioning. I seem to have come out okay. Does air conditioning improve learning? We don’t question the use of all other things we spend money on in education, but we love to question whether technology makes a difference.

No one questions the use of pencils. But they question the use of computers.

I think it is not fair to ask “Given the choice between writing with a pencil and paper or writing using a word processor, which has a greater affect on student learning?” These two are asking the same question. Which tool is better? A tool is a tool. Word processors, just like the pencil, are tools for learning. Bauerlein would say, okay, if they are the same, then why go with the more expensive solution; why not go with the less expensive one?

I would say back, because what you are asking is not deep enough. Ask the kids what they would rather write with? What produces more content? What allows for greater collaboration? Given the choice between a pencil and a computer screen, which would a student prefer?

Has anyone ever tested to see if the pencil is an appropriate learning tool or are we just using it because everyone else has over the years? One would think that by now, there would be a much better tool than the 17th century technology of the pencil. Maybe there is, maybe there is not, but I doubt if anyone in academia is saying “I think I am going to test the pencil.” Test the computers, yep. Test the pencils..nope.

Test the pencil as well as the computer. All tools in education should regularly be evaluated for effectiveness. But, it needs to be fair.

Finally, my friend Dr. Richard Smith from the University of Houston Clear Lake said after listening to the interview with Bauerlein: “I think the key to the problem is that frequently technology is placed in schools without much thought as to what problem it is supposed to solve. Dr. Bauerlein is not arguing for an end to the use of technology to improve instruction. He is simply saying to use technology in a way that will improve the outcomes instruction and enable students to become aware of the world around them.”

Nicely said.

Test the pencil.