Evolve or Die

The 5.25-inch floppy, circa 1990. Remember these?


by Richard White


In education, we hear a lot about gaps. At Berkeley High School where I used to teach, they have been struggling for years with the “achievement gap” between White students and African-American students at that school. As teachers, we worry about the socioeconomic challenges facing some of our families, and how that affects students’ ability to perform. And recently, the distance between the “haves” and “have-nots” is only increasing. It’s a challenging time to be an educator.

It’s ironic, then, that many of these same teachers, justifiably concerned about student-based gaps, are suffering themselves from a gap of a different sort: the technology gap. Here it is, in a nutshell: even as our students, at an increasing pace, have rapidly acquired and adapted to advances in technology and communication, teachers and schools have not. And as a result, we are at grave risk of becoming dangerously irrelevant to our students.

Our students are infamously connected. Perhaps in part because of the fact that they no longer are allowed to play outside after dark, they text each other, they email each other, they chat online, and they leave messages for each other on their Facebook walls. They “friend,” they “twitter,” they “skype,” and a few unfortunates make the mistake of “sexting.” They have immersed themselves in an enormous, primordial, technology-fueled experiment, with wild abandon and wide-ranging results.

Meanwhile, those teachers without a network—without a smartphone, with no experience with Twitter, some struggling even to add an attachment to an email—seem content to be part of this experiment’s control group. “It’s not part of my lifestyle,” some say. Or “it doesn’t really affect what I’m doing in the classroom.”

Twitter is not part of my lifestyle, it’s true, and I don’t consider Facebook the nucleus of my social existence. But understanding the way that our students are interacting with their world and with each other, I maintain, is at the very heart of being a good teacher.

There’s an evolution happening here. There’s a revolution happening here. And as someone who works with young people, you need to be well-acquainted with it.

Drive-ins gave way to TV movies, which led to VHS, then DVD, then Netflix, and now streaming video, via cable, satellite, or Internet. Technologies change, and people and the ways that they interact with each other change too, as a result. You may have updated your home entertainment system because the new products looked sexier than the old ones, or because that new classic film that just came out wasn’t released on Betamax. Either way, your life evolved, and you’ve benefited from that evolution.

It’s the same thing for teaching. Even if you feel that the core fundamentals of teaching haven’t changed in the last fifty years, our children and their parents have changed. This is simply due diligence, people: we ALL need to have a better idea of how our students are interacting with each other, and you can’t do that by sitting on the sidelines and reading articles about Facebook in the New York Times.

It’s time to jump in and get dirty.


  1. Get a gmail account. https://mail.google.com
    Using Google’s web-based email is a nice way to jump in and get your feet wet. Nearly everyone knows the basics of using email. Learning how to use a slightly different email system will be a nice way of expanding your abilities without over-taxing your brain. It’s free, and who knows, you may come to like it better than your current email.
  2. Get a Facebook account and play with it. http://www.facebook.com
    Again, you don’t need to jump in to the deep end here, and you don’t need to fork over your life history if you don’t like their privacy policies–I certainly don’t. But sign up with a fake name, invite a few people you know to be friends, and get an idea of how it all works. Regardless of whether it’s something you continue to experiment with, at least you’ll have some experience with this platform, and a better understanding of what people are talking about when they make reference to it.
  3. Get a Twitter account and play with it. http://twitter.com
    Same thing: go to Twitter.com and follow the instructions. It probably won’t be your cup of tea, but know you’ll get all those Twitter jokes that people make.
  4. Get a smartphone and play with it.
    You don’t have a smartphone yet? What are you waiting for? Seriously! What, you think this is a fad that’s going to go away? You ARE going to have one in 3 years, so why not get one now so you can get started, because you are going to feel SERIOUSLY lame if you get any farther behind. (I’m talking to you, Laura Holmgren.)
  5. Develop a “texting” relationship with someone.
    Texting is the best thing to happen to phone communication since… well, the portable phone. There are good reasons to have some facility with texting: Text messages consume less bandwidth than a voice call, and will sometimes go through when an actual call won’t. Also, they’re less invasive and less time-consuming than an actual call. Along with other cultural protocols, being able to receive and respond to a text is an important part of current phone etiquette. You just need to know how to do it.

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re already a member of the choir, and all this preaching is falling on the wrong ears. In that case, it’s up to you to do a little proselytizing of your own. Get out there and help another teacher make the jump to light speed.

Their students will thank you for it.

3 thoughts on “Evolve or Die

  1. I agree with your premise: teachers should develop at least a passing familiarity with current technology. I recall from my own youth, though, that in most classrooms, it was a student who knew how to trouble-shoot the 16mm film projector, not the teacher. Now it is a student who trouble-shoots the showing of a YouTube video in class. Most teachers will always be behind the technology curve. Fact of life.

    As you point out, I don’t have a smart phone and do foresee getting one in the near future. The month service charge is money better spent on saving for those two college tuitions that will hit me in ten years. However, in the spirit of your suggestion, I do now own an iPod, specifically so that I can experiment with different apps (and games, truth be told) with free wi-fi. It’s a decent start.

    You have an interesting take on the value of texting. I’m not sure I agree when all one has to do is look around the room during a faculty meeting and see people texting one another. About what? The presenter’s choice of shirt? I’m not sure I want less invasive communication — I want to communicate meaningfully with people. It might be interesting to take a month’s worth of text messages and analyze the types of messages sent and received.

    Is instant communication always a positive? If I need to pick up my son and can’t find him on campus, a quick call would save time. And cell phones are invaluable in emergencies. But if a student can text, or even call me, when she has a question, does this hinder her ability to problem-solve? To think through alternatives?

  2. Lholmgren asks, “Is instant communication always a positive?” This is a key question. I think you’re correct, Richard, in encouraging colleagues to find some way of getting on the tech bus, even if it’s a small step aboard. (Your post inspires me to write one of my own, if I have time tonight, on my adventures with Twitter.) Some of your suggestions are in the nature of baby steps. We have colleagues who are in a very different place with technology, and we are well to provide manageable entry points for them to get started. That’s one of the virtues of our tech committee: it provides mentors like the two of you who understand the hardware and software–on both the human and the machine sides.

    In the longer run, though, an important problem for us to resolve in this generation of educators is how to use these Web 2.0 tools instructionally. Laura’s question is a piece of that puzzle, I think. One implicit premise of this experiment in blogging is that much of our communication–perhaps too much–is instantaneous, and as such, it imperils more reflective, deliberative methods and dispositions. We’re trying to use this blogging tool to do what we can’t or just don’t do in the faculty room: really communicate with one another about the work we do.

    So maybe what we digital immigrants bring to the conversation with our students is the sense that some communication benefits from being completed instantly, and some comes out better with reflection.

  3. Hey, and thanks for checking in. I would have responded earlier, but I had to put the horses away after riding back from town, and there was all that firewood that needed chopping… ;)

    Instant communication IS almost always a positive, in appropriate circumstances. It’s true, I find the process of walking 15 minutes to the river to fetch water on my backpacking trips a quaint part of the overall experience, but it’s not something I want to make a part of my everyday life. I prefer the faucet, assuming I have control of the tap. (See previous post for more on that.

    On the other hand, I hope my original post didn’t imply that I wanted students to have 24/7 access to me. This post was less about what I think we should do with students, and more about what tools I think we educators should have experience with, in order to better inform our understanding of those students. And if, in some circumstances, use of that technology seems appropriate or worth exploring, then we’ll have that as an option. That’s part of what Laura’s blog experiment is all about, right?

    The question of whether “faster = better” in education is a complex one. Hmmm… that gives me an idea for my next post…

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