Technology and teaching have been bedfellows from the very beginning. In the 17th Century, the preferred technology was the individual slate board. Highly efficient–it required no power, never needed replacing and could be reused continually. With this technology, the teacher was in control, but the centre of attention was on each and every student.
It wasn’t until 1801 when the blackboard was invented, that technology changed the face of education from small class individualized instruction to large class "mass education". Contrast the role and focus of the teacher in the slate-based class to the class where the blackboard dominates.
Of course, not everyone was happy with this change.
“Students today depend upon paper too much. They don’t know how to write on slate without chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?” Principal’s Association, 1815
With the dominance of the blackboard as the information delivery system, students had to have a system to record notes using the newly emerged technology of paper and pencil.
But there were variations on the technology, with the lead-based pencil losing way to pen and ink.
“Students today depend too much upon ink. They don’t know how to use a pen knife to sharpen a pencil. Pen and ink will never replace the pencil.” National Association of Teachers, 1907Almost have a century later, the debate was not about pencil versus pen, but on the nature of the ink delivery system.
“Ball point pens will be the ruin of education in our country. Students use these devices and then throw them away. The American virtues of thrift and frugality are being discarded. Business and banks will never allow such expensive luxuries.” Federal Teacher, 1950Thornburg, D. (1992). Edutrends 2010: Restructuring, Technology, and the Future of Education. San Carlos, CA: Starsong Publications
Then, after two centuries at the heart of every classroom, the mighty blackboard was threatened by the ‘dry erase board’ — most commonly known as the ‘whiteboard’. The front page headline in the September 29th 2004 edition of the Minnesota Star Tribune was “Blackboard Blues”:
When Prof. Lawrence Gray enters a math classroom at the University of Minnesota, his teaching tools are his brain and a stick of chalk. He stands at a blackboard and chalk flies over the smooth black surface, spreading strings of equations like weeds. He turns and gestures to his class, taps the board with the chalk for emphasis, swipes a spot clean with an eraser and races on.
Replace Gray’s blackboards with whiteboards or, worse, a tablet computer that projects numbers onto a screen, and you might as well tie his arms or gag him. He’s among an army of professors who want to keep their blackboards despite the university’s push to eliminate flying chalk dust that can foil today’s expensive classroom technology.
Despite the nostalgia for the sound of chalk scraping against a board, the days of the blackboard are nearly over. It has taken less than two decades for the “dry erase board” to take its place, but such is the pace of technological change that the reign of the ‘whiteboard’ will be much shorter than its predecessor, with the ‘smart board’ becoming more and more commonplace in classrooms.
And, of course, the computer has also become a feature in the classroom. And, like any new appearance of technology, not without its critics:
‘The computer will take over everywhere from the operation of thinking, leaving the brain to lie fallow, as the mechanistic technologies of the nineteenth century have already done with the body. People are becoming increasingly zombie-like. It looks as if their brains have been removed and they are merely functioning on their spinal cords.’ (Browne, 1996, ‘CALL and the negative view’.)But the place of computers in education today is no longer open to debate. It seems ironic that the ultimate classroom technology may in the near future revert back to the ‘one tablet per student’ that characterized the technology of the classroom in the 17th century…albeit the tablets are personal computers not slabs of stone. But, one wonders if teachers today will be able to effectively blend whatever technology they encounter successfully with teaching and learning in a principled and pedagogically sound approach.
We hope to explore this issue in this blog, mindful that technology throughout the past two hundred years has promised much, but has failed to live up to its true potential. In a 2004 survey of schools in the state of California, Larry Cuban found that there was no significant difference in the actual performance of students in classes that had used computers and advanced technology to the students who were in traditional non-technology classrooms.
However, Cuban did not find fault in the technology, but rather it was the lack of professional development for teachers to effectively blend the technology with teaching that was the root of the problem:
- “less than 5 percent of teachers integrated computer technology into their curriculum and instructional routines”
- “the overwhelming majority of teachers employed the technology to sustain existing patterns of teaching rather than innovate”