The International Educator recently published an article I wrote, One-to-One Computing and Teacher Growth.

Feel free to read, share and enjoy the PDF here.

I first published the blog post below in June of 2007. In that post, I shared my concerns about how commercial interests were being given priority over powerful ideas or professional dialogue at the NECC (now ISTE) annual conference.

Such concerns have only grown during the intervening five years. Keynote speakers have been selected based on popularity contests and a greater emphasis is being placed on fads than reflection.

I love ISTE and want the annual conference to realize its potential as a place where serious issues and policies are debated – where minds are blown. The June 2012 ISTE Conference will be my 25th NECC/ISTE as a presenter. I go at my own expense because I think it is critical to be part of the largest gathering of colleagues in my chosen field.

However, how is it possible that such an enormous educational event has failed to announce its keynote speakers two months before we all travel to San Diego?

Does this demonstrate organizational chaos? Insecurity about the selection? Or, does ISTE just take for granted that we will schlepp to the annual conference regardless of the program quality? If the latter is the case, then the ISTE Conference is indeed a boat show.

NECC: Educational Conference or Boat Show? (thanks to the Wayback Machine)
June 24, 2007

I have a long history of queasiness about the National Educational Computing Conference. I go because it’s the largest event in my field and to catch-up with old friends who too are attracted to NECC like a moth to a flame. NECC and its sponsoring organization, the International Society for Technology in Education, suffers from an epic struggle to serve two masters – it’s members and the companies from which it receives large sums of money. The members want ISTE to represent their needs for inspiration, advocacy and promotion of best classroom practices. The corporate sponsors want to sell products to the ISTE members.

Educational technology “conferences” are unique in education due to the size and dominance of the exhibit hall. Ed Tech success seems to be based more on what you buy than what kids do. The technology director with the most toys wins and gets to go to all the best parties at NECC. Everyone loves to see the latest and greatest gizmos at a conference, but I fear that the balance between the educational mission of a conference and the crass commercialism of a boat show.

For the youngsters out there in cyberspace, it was not many years ago that you could not appear on the NECC program without writing a peer-reviewed paper. The NECC program rules used to explicitly ban corporate speakers, even if that prohibition was often ignored. In 1992 I leafletted NECC when all three keynote addresses were by the corporate vice presidents of sponsoring companies. I’m so glad I invested an hour in listening to Tandy’s vision for the future. Apparently that future didn’t include the company’s own demise.

Has NECC sold it’s soul?
To its credit, ISTE labels its commercial NECC sessions. However, each program slot set aside for a corporate spokesperson denies one or more practicing educators the opportunity to share their ideas with colleagues in a professional setting. Some sessions are difficult to categorize. Take this one for example…

ISTE President’s Panel at Educational Computing Conference to Discuss Technology Use in Classrooms

WHAT: ISTE will sponsor a one-hour roundtable discussion between top business and education leaders on technology in schools.
Among topics to be discussed: How can we lead local and national dialogue toward tools that positively change the K-12 learning environment, encouraging innovation, creativity, and critical thinking skills? What is the best way to engage governors, state legislators and higher education officials to alter the course of teacher education?

WHO: Kurt Steinhaus, outgoing president, ISTE
Don Knezek, chief executive office, ISTE
Gary Bitter, Cheryl Williams, Jan Van Dam, Cathie Norris,
and Paul Resta – ISTE past presidents

Cheryl Hewett – Education Marketing Manager, Hewlett Packard
Megan Stewart – Director of Worldwide K-12 Education, Adobe
Karen Cator – Director, Education Leadership and Advocacy, Apple
Dan Meyer – CEO, Atomic Learning
Helen Soulé – Executive Director, Cable in the Classroom
Paige Kuni – Worldwide K-12 Education Manager, Intel

WHEN: Wednesday, June 27
1:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.

WHERE: National Educational Computing Conference Georgia World Congress Center, Conference room B203

This session could be great. Whether I agree with the past ISTE Presidents or not, assembling six of them in one room for an hour could make for fascinating conversation. History is important.

The only question is why would ISTE choose to add six corporate representatives to a panel already comprised of seven educators? Thirteen-member panel discussions do not allow for much conversational depth. Why are marketing executives being asked to address the “course of teacher education?”


Read a similar blog by Sylvia Martinez, NECC – Buyer Beware.

Read Gary’s interview with ISTE CEO, Don Knezek and commentary about the new ISTE NETS, Refreshing the ISTE Technology Standards in District Administration Magazine.

Read the February 2003 column, The ISTE Problem by Gary Stager in District Administration Magazine.

Although I’m only 48, I have been working in educational computing for thirty years. When I started, we taught children to program. We also taught tens of thousands of teachers to teach computer science to learners of all ages. In many cases, this experience represented the most complex thinking about thinking that teachers ever experienced and their students gained benefit from observing teachers learning to think symbolically, solve problems and debug. There was once a time in the not so distant path when educators were on the frontiers of scientific reasoning and technological progress. Curriculum was transformed by computing. School computers were used less often to “do school” and more often to do the impossible.

Don’t believe me? My mentor, Dan Watt, sold over 100,000 copies of a book entitled, Learning with Logo in the 1980s when much fewer teachers and children had access to a personal computer.

Things sped downhill when we removed “computing” from our lexicon and replaced it with “technology” (like a Pez dispenser or Thermos). We quickly degraded that meaningless term, technology, further by modifying it with IT and ICT. Once computing was officially erased from the education of young people, teachers could focus on keyboarding, chatting, looking stuff up, labeling the parts of the computer and making PowerPoint presentations about topics you don’t care about for an audience you will never meet. The over-reliance on the Internet and the unreliability of school networks ensures that you can spend half of each class period just logging-in.

Teachers with post-graduate degrees are being compelled to receive iPad training. My 95 year-old grandmother figured it out all by herself. No tax dollars were harmed in the process. Apparently, we also need to provide teachers with interactive white board training so they may hung unused in their classroom, just like all of their peers.

We have National Educational Technology Standards published by the International Society for TECHNOLOGY in Education that are so vague pedestrian that no computing is needed to meet them. In fact, it’s likely one can satisfy the NETs without the actual use of a computer. Despite standards and district tech plans that are a cross between a shopping list and a desperate plea for teachers to consider modernity, most school kids are powerless over the technology so central to their lives. Nobody even bothers to ask the question Seymour Papert first posed 45 years ago, “Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?” This is a tragedy.

What kids do get to do with computers tends to be trivial and inservice of the educational status quo. Gone are the days when educational computing conference programs were home to the most progressive thinkers and revolutionary ideas in education. Teachers were considered thought leaders and scholars who were required to write peer-reviewed papers in order to present at such events.  Today one merely has to promise 75 quick and easy things to do in 37 minutes with the hottest product being peddled to schools. Another popular topic is incessantly about how your colleagues won’t or can’t use the latest fad.

I am sorry, but social media is not a school subject. There are conference workshops on using Twitter and masters degrees in educational technology that culminate in a rap about hashtags.  If social media is any damned good, it needs to be as complex and reliable as a dial-tone.  PLN, PLC, PLP, etc… are just fancy alphabet soup for having someone to talk with. We should not need an National Science Foundation grant to make friends.

I had an educator approach me at a conference recently to volunteer that “Our school is not ready for Google Docs.” Set aside whatever you happen to think about Google Docs; it’s a word processor in a Web browser, right? I told the tech director, “Congratulations, your school district has apparently managed to employ the last breathing mammals in the solar system incapable of using a word processor.” Isn’t it odd that technology directors are not held accountable for such failure over three decades? Could they possibly be enabling co-dependent behavior and helplessness in the teachers they are meant to lead?

If the percentage of teachers using computers remains constant over time, regardless of how we lower expectations, shouldn’t we ask a great deal more of them and set our sights higher?

I’m so old that I knew the guy responsible for “Guide on the side, sage on the stage” (Chris Held) and “Ask three before me,” (Leslie Thyberg) I even knew the gentleman responsible for “computer literacy.” (originally called computing literacy) His name was Arthur Luehrmann. I often find myself mumbling, “I knew Arthur Luehrmann. Arthur Luehrmann was a friend of mine. You sir are no Arhur Luehrmann.”

When Luerhmann coined the term, “computer literacy,” he intended it to mean computer programming the intellectual pursuit of agency over the computer and a means for solving problems.

Don’t believe me? Read this 1980 paper transcribed  from a 1972 talk.

I know what some of you are thinking. Not every kid needs to learn programming. You don’t have to be able to fix a transmission to drive a car, blah blah blah…

First of all, the educational technology community and schools seem to have decided that no kids should learn to program. I’d be happy with the same nine-week programming class I was required to take in 1975.

Second, computer programming is not like fixing a car. It’s much more like designing the car, making sure all of its systems work in an integrated fashion, mitigating the environmental impact of cars and imagining their impact on society. Computer science is a legitimate science that has profound implications for learning all sorts of other powerful ideas, working in diverse fields and making sense of the world. You just would not know this if you go to school.

Why would it even occur to educators to deprive children of such rich learning opportunities?

If you have the audacity to speak of digital literacy or technology literacy and do not teach computer science, then this is the first time in the history of education when the functional definition of “literacy” has been so devalued, diminished and degraded. All other expectations for literacy increase over time.

There you go Stager, you radical crank. How dare you ask teachers to develop new knowledge and empower students? You’re just some stupid utopian who happened to have a great 7th grade computer programming teacher 35 years ago. Well, I’m not alone.

In January, I was in London to keynote at BETT. At the same event, the Secretary of State Michael Gove announced that the UK government was scrapping the “harmful and dull” national ICT curriculum and replacing it with computer science at all grade levels. He called the current curriculum a mess and wondered aloud why schools bother to teach Excel or PowerPoint to bored students? Coincidentally, I wondered in 1996 why we were investing so heavenly in ensuring that we create a generation of fifth graders with terrific secretarial skills?

When a conservative politician and I agree on education policy, who could possibly be on the other side?


Related reading:

What’s a Computer For? Part 2

Computer science is the new basic skill

Originally published in the July 2008 issue of District Administration Magazine – Read part 1 of this article

In an educational setting, granting agency to the learner represents the wisest allocation of resources with the greatest potential return on investment. When used as material, the computer can help a student learn what we have always valued with greater efficacy, efficiency or comprehension. Yet the real power emerges when a student is able to learn new things that were previously not learnable, and in new ways. The power of the computer lies in its ability to be used to create a wider, deeper range of personally meaningful projects.

A teacher’s technological fluency and awareness of computers’ potential predicts what students can do. Despite popular myths and a few exceptions, children rarely know more about computers and their applications than adults.

If mathematics is a way of making sense of the world, computing is a way of making mathematics.

Teachers who lack technological fluency may still value the computer as an instrument for project-based learning. In their classrooms, kids can make a five-slide PowerPoint presentation about frogs, write a five-paragraph essay on a blog, publish a book report via a wiki, or use iMovie to report on a summer vacation. These are hardly transformational activities, but they grant some agency to the learner.

Bad Standards

According to renowned computer scientist Alan Kay, the computer revolution hasn’t happened yet. Look at the average American student’s twelve-year course of study and you will be hard-pressed to find any study of computer science. MIT mathematician Seymour Papert suggests that an impartial observer might conclude that we have enacted a conscious policy of depriving children of understanding the very technologies central to their lives, which seems antithetical to education.

Don’t believe me? ISTE’s National Educational Technology Standards and groups such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills don’t mention programming or computer science once in their educational visions for the future. One of the AP computer science tests has just been dropped, and few students have any meaningful computer science experiences during their K12 careers.

Computer science matters for several reasons: (1) mastering the machine, (2) addressing economic imperatives, and (3) understanding the world.

Mastery of the computer leads students to understand the strengths, weaknesses and appropriate use of technology. It places them in a position where they are empowered to make informed decisions, explore powerful ideas, and express themselves in ways we have yet to imagine.

It is undeniable that knowledge of computer science has great implications for personal career prospects and our nation’s economic development. Curiously absent from the hyperbolic discussions of flat worlds and global competitiveness are concerns over statistics such as those from the Computing Research Association that show that the number of college freshmen who list computer science as a probable major has fallen by 70 percent since 2000, or that computer science remains a rarity in the K12 curriculum.

The Power of Computer Science

I disagree with those who protest that not every child needs to be a programmer. We expect students to have all sorts of learning experiences. Why not explore the most powerful new science of the past century? In 1975, my junior high expected every student to learn programming in a nineweek course between baking a souffl? and making a wooden tie rack. Nobody ever questioned the value of souffl? baking, yet anti-intellectualism or fear of computers makes us question the value of programming. More than three decades later that school’s computer curriculum consists of keyboard instruction. The “Algebra II with Computer Programming” course I took is now part of the fossil record.

If mathematics is a way of making sense of the world, computing is a way of making mathematics. The power of computer science is evident in all of the natural and social sciences, not to mention the arts, commerce and politics. Agency over the computer not only has vocational benefi ts but also is required for understanding the world. The computer should be used transparently across grades and disciplines, but students also need the formal understanding necessary for solving problems unforeseen by the traditional curriculum. Computer science should be taught as a basic skill.