Thursday, December 19, 2013

Messages in the Surface advertisement

Since I've been back in the US, there has been one television/hulu advertisement in particular that has caused me to feel progressively more uncomfortable. I've struggled to put into words exactly how or why it makes me uncomfortable, but this post is my attempt to do so. See the advertisement below:

From the outset, let me clarify that I am in no way an enemy of using technology, especially to educate. Obviously I blog. I have used youtube, but my education-focused vlog is on tudou (土豆网), a Chinese service that is inexplicable slow in the US. I have my own website, wherein I describe a myriad of other computer-based technologies I use or have used in my teaching career. I'm currently playing with Language Cloud, trying to determine its overall usefulness for language teaching in general and in different contexts.

I also use technology to learn. I took a online course from Iowa State University back in 2002, in the early years of online learning. It was self-paced, which meant I finished the January-May course during the second week of March. (That's just how I tend to work.) Later as a grad student in a field-based TESOL program, much peer collaboration was done online. An iPod was a crucial piece of technology while studying Chinese, both for purchased and self-produced mp3s, and I still use my computer and cell phone to tune in to Chinese radio. Even now I'm and trying to decide whether to enroll in one or more Coursura courses (Coaching Teachers, Student Thinking at the Core, Blended Learning) or edX courses (Intro to Computer Science, Effective Thinking Through Math, The Science of Everyday Thinking, China).

Despite my clear belief in the potential usefulness of computer technology to educate, I would describe myself as technologically cautious. Perhaps to use a phrasing with more positive connotation, I could describe my approach to technology integration as research-based. Simply put, technology is not a educational savior, and even if used well, it could harm more than help student learning and achievement, especially in the primary and secondary school years, as it is during these years that students acquire so many fundamental skills.

To get back to the original purpose of this post, I think there are three main reasons why this Surface tablet advertisement makes me uncomfortable.

#1 Fatalism
"Change is coming" remarks the teacher (an actor, I assume). He continues, saying, "All my students have the brand new Surface." He makes this seem so inevitable, as if there really is no choice. Because all the students have the tablet (What kind of school is this?), he feels he must utilize them. Wisdom is not something that young people are known for; wisdom requires age and experience. Just because student have them and like them, does that mean they make for good education? It seems unwise to make pedagogical decisions based on what students due primarily for fun, status, etc.

Daphne Koller has remarked, "Now, this is something that to the people of my generation is still a bit foreign, but if you talk to the kids of today, they actually prefer to text each other than to talk to each other on the phone or even get together for coffee"(1). It may be preferred, but is it a healthy preference? Is it an educationally, academically sound preference? These are huge assumptions that should not be made.

Change is coming, without a doubt, and both schools and teachers must adapt. But to adapt, must they inevitably adopt what may not be in the students' educational best interests? For better or worse, some parents working in high tech companies such as Apple and Google disagree with this inevitability, sending their children to school without computers (2). Again, I'm not saying the technology should not be used, but fatalism is the enemy of best practice.

#2 Overemphasis on entertainment
Granted, the teacher says nothing about students playing games or using Skype in school, but by juxtaposing the social networking and gaming aspects alongside the school aspects, the advertisement tries to tap into the prevailing societal idea that people should be continuously entertained, even at school. It feeds the currently popular notion that people shouldn't have to do things that aren't fun, so if school is not entertaining, school is bad. That whole idea is absolutely absurd.

I'm not anti-fun, though I admit that  my achiever orientation does sometimes lead to anti-entertainment ideas. I try to make my lessons interesting, engaging and, yes, fun. Nevertheless education and learning take work, and work is not usually fun in and of itself, though the final sense of satisfaction may be. Almost anything truly valuable takes effort or persistence or both, neither of which are inherently fun. This advertisement makes me uncomfortable because it continues to blur the lines of reality by giving the impression that good education and deep learning can and should come easily and that students should be entertained.

#3 Bandwagon thinking
The teacher in the advertisement prefaces his comments with "Honestly, I'm a little old fashioned," immediately putting to rest the idea teachers with less technological aptitude could have equal or greater wisdom than those well versed in the latest tech fads. The worldview of the advertisement is revealed immediately: Youth and excitement rule; age and wisdom mean nothing.

Perhaps the most significant reason I am uncomfortable with this advertisement is that it continues to perpetuate the notion that computer and internet technology will and does improve education, a notion that has yet to be realized. There is a rampant belief that any tech is good tech. Since the dawn of television, technology advocates have assigned messiah-like promises to the potential of technology to transform education and facilitate learning. Education is continuing to be transformed; this is true. But is learning being facilitated? For all the spending that schools have done and are doing to upgrade computers and integrate technology, the sad fact is that achievement has not risen, and in some cases has fallen (3). Yet schools, parents, and obviously the tech companies continue to jump on the bandwagon, without evidence to support what everyone assumes (4): technology makes for better learning and better preparation.

That is not to say that the promises are empty. Online learning, mobile devices, and the like do have great potential to transform learning for the better, but at the moment it is merely that: potential. While there has been success with blended learning (also called hybrid learning)(5), these are mostly in areas such as math that have definite answers that lend themselves to adaptive learning. Perhaps as teachers become more skilled at using this technology, as Koller suggests, the true benefits of computer-assisted learning will truly be revealed. In areas such as reading skills development, however, the evidence is overwhelming on the anti-technology side (6). For now it behooves teachers, parents, students and all other stakeholders to reject the bandwagon and adopt a research-based, thoughtful, open-minded but cautious attitude toward the use of technology in the classroom.

  1. See William B. Bowen's book Higher Education in the Digital Age.
  2. There are many articles about this. Here is one from The New York Times and another from Daily Mail.
  3. For discussions and references to research about technology usage and student achievement see the Nicholas Carr and Mark Bauerlein.
  4. Stephen Krashen agrees.
  5. Here's an interesting article from Smithsonian.
  6. Again see the discussion and references from Nicolas Carr.


  1. As a former educator, I appreciate your thoughts, Matthew. Thank you. JoAn Brown

    1. Thank you for your kind note, JoAn. I hope my posts continue to pique your interest.