Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Technological Breakthrough

I have a love-hate relationship with technology, heavy on the hate.

My first day on the job, it was all hate. "All the doors have security codes," I was told during my induction. This filled me with trepidation, but when I aired my fears, my husband laughed. The school he works in has security codes on its doors too. "They won't give you any trouble," he assured me. We've been married for decades and he knows me very well, but he obviously lives in hope.

During my whirlwind tour of the school, I was in awe of how many unfamiliar bits of machinery every classroom had. Uneasy awe, that is. "You'll love the visualizer," my husband told me. "You can stick a sheet of paper or a whole book under it, flick a button, and it's projected onto a screen for the whole class to see."

Actually, this sounded great. No more fiddling with Xerox machines, wasting time, paper and energy on handouts! No more endless scribbling on the whiteboard! But best of all, the visualizers stayed in the classroom permanently. In our school in Cyprus, we had to write everything on the white board as photocopying was discouraged. Also, things got stolen, so every piece of equipment that went into the classroom had to be taken out afterwards and locked away; we teachers were loaded down like pack-camels.

Unfortunately, the visualizer turned out to be a crushing disappointment. As soon as I put my carefully prepared handout in the visualizer and turned it on, the image on the screen began to jump and flicker.

My students blinked and frowned and rubbed their eyes. "We are get headache!" one boy complained.

"Leave it a few minutes and it'll settle," a colleague advised me.

I tried this, but it didn't work. The image continued to skitter and jump about, words perfectly focussed one minute, then blurred the next.

My students grimaced and rubbed their heads. "Please turn off!" they begged.

So I gave up. I scribbled some exercises on the board for them to do in my absence, and hurried out to make Xerox copies. The elevator was broken, so I had to take the stairs. When I got to the Xerox room, I punched in the security code, turned the door handle -- and found that it would not open. A few stress-charged minutes later, I'd already had the equivalent of a full day's work-out on the door, which remained unmoved. If a passing colleague hadn't pity on me and unlocked the door, who knows how long I'd have stayed there? But once I'd finally gained entrance, to my endless frustration, I couldn't get the Xerox machine to work. I almost wondered if it had watched me struggling with the door and decided to toy with me.

By the time I located a machine that did work -- after grappling afresh with the security code on the door -- I almost wept with relief. Clutching my copies, I raced back up the stairs.

The rest of the lesson went well enough until it was time to use the CD player. I had been assured that the CD players were straightforward, but there seemed to be half a dozen apertures, none of which seemed inclined to accept my disc. After five minutes of sweaty misery, I threw in the towel and called one of the students to help; I reasoned this was better than inadvertently teaching them words they had no business knowing. My student strutted up to the machine and inserted the CD player into the correct slot within seconds. He walked away, shaking his head. "I come long way from China to show my mother how use CD player," he commented. I could hardly blame him.

For over a dozen years, I taught at a school in Tokyo that was virtually prehistoric in its habits. We had blackboards in all our classrooms. At the end of every lesson, a respectful lackey would scurry in, remove the erasers, and go beat out the chalk dust. We used ancient tape recorders, almost no audiovisual materials, and textbooks with dated material. During that time, a technological revolution was taking place in the world of education, but we were blissfully unaware of smart boards, CD players, or power point presentations. After a week of fighting Xerox machines, grappling with the flickering visualizer, and trying to figure out how to enter my attendance figures online, I began to long for my old school in Tokyo. What good is technology when you have to fight it every inch of the way? Isn't it easier to scrawl something in chalk on a board if the alternative is a temperamental machine that goes AWOL when you need it most?

Then today, several miracles occurred. First, I punched in the security code, turned the handle -- and the door most obligingly clicked open. Next, I managed to use the CD player without any help. So I was in a good mood when one of my students asked for a copy of the homework I'd given the class earlier this week. Unfortunately, I'd left the material I needed downstairs. "I'm sorry," I had to tell her, "I'll run downstairs and make you a copy."

"No need!" she told me, after a brief conference with another student. She touched a button on her phone and showed me a copy of my laboriously written graph her classmate had photographed with his phone. "I make photo," she said simply.

Like I said, I have a love-hate relationship with technology. Today, it was heavy on the love.


Carole said...

I feel brilliant when I send a text of over 15 words. Of course I don't try and chew gum at the same time.

Travis Erwin said...

It is bliss when all goes well but my patience with tech gadgets is mighty thin.

angryparsnip said...

I have to have my son in Osaka log on to my computer in Tucson Arizona to fix any problems I have...
So by the sound of it you are way ahead of me.

And for a strange question because I have been reading your blog for a long time...
You moved back to Scotland and you are teaching if I read your last post right... Japanese housewives English part time and you are now teaching in a school, English to non-english speaking students ?
Sorry I am so confused.

cheers, parsnip

Charles Gramlich said...

you sound much like me. Tech so often wastes more time in the classroom than it saves.

Jeaux said...

That was so exhausting I skipped MY morning cardio. Norman Mailer suggested that complex machines may have a kind of psychology. That was thirty years ago. I imagine they have a noosphere of their own by now, moodily infiltrating our own.

Robert the Skeptic said...

My son-in-law has tried to be helpful to me in this regard, giving me an i-phone to learn to play with. I had considered replacing my flip phone with an i-phone so this toy, without the cellular service, seemed like a good opportunity to learn about.

After a while I found it difficult to type on the microscopic keyboard. If I expanded the text so I could read it I could only see partial sentences and had to continually scroll to read. It was like trying to read a book by looking through an empty toilet paper tube.

I found the games juvenile and uninteresting; texting inefficient when I could convey by voice more information in less time.

The i-phone now sits unused, I'm going to replace my flip phone with another phone.

Eryl said...

Didn't Heidegger say something like: "technology is only useful when it breaks."?

How can kids just tell which of those damn machines takes a CD, or whatever, at a glance? I have struggled under those desks, staring at the piles of almost identical looking machines, disk in hand willing myself to see DVD. And eventually had to ask students to help. So I know exactly how you feel. It's okay, though, professors aren't supposed to know this kind of thing!

Vijaya said...

Oh, Mary, I feel your pain. I also have a love-hate relationship with technology and when it works I lovelovelove it.

I've found that writing on a board or overhead slows me down when I teach, so I still do some things the old-fashioned way.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Those long texts are satisfying, aren't they? I'm always careful to punctuate and spell properly, so I have to forgo the chewing gum too.

Travis -- I'll bet you're a lot better with them than I am. You look very young.

AP -- I love it that your son can do that for you from Osaka! You have to admit, that's a huge technological achievement.

I'm now teaching academic skills to mainly Chinese and Middle Eastern university students in Glasgow. I'm also teaching a British boy Japanese. (And thank you so much for reading my blog!)

Charles -- I agree. Technology saves you loads of time until something breaks down and you find yourself back in the Good Old Days of having to do things the long way. But that mobile phone trick my students used thrilled me to bits.

Jeaux -- That thing I wrote about the Xerox machine watching me having it out with the door? It was only partly in jest: I often feel that machines can be either benevolent or malicious. Heaven help us when they turn nasty.

Robert -- My mobile phone isn't cutting edge technology, but it's still my pal: I can communicate with my kids on it. I see my students messing around, playing games on their fancy phones; they strike me as a colossal waste of time. I really don't get all the trivial pursuits that so thrill the young. Glad to know that you feel the same.

Eryl -- I wonder what Heidegger would have found useful about my jittering visualizer. I felt like chucking it out the window.

I don't know how kids can figure all that stuff out, but I do know when I'm beat. I'd rather summon one of them than stand there, squinting and scowling and trying to figure out which button does what. What intrigues me is the cut off point of tech-know-how. I know a 55-year-old who is up to speed and a 38-year-old who is almost worse than I am.

Vijaya -- My students' mobile phones saved me a long, weary walk down many flights of stairs: that was one thing I liked very much! The smart boards and the complicated DVD/CD/laptop system are a different matter. Still, I've got my fingers crossed that I'll figure it all out one day. I'd love to amaze my students by mastering the whole system.

Kim Ayres said...

I love technology when it works, but when it doesn't I have been known to say, "oh bother", or words to that effect...

Robin said...

Sometimes I feel that we're like those people in those "separated at birth" books. I couldn't verbalize it better. What good is technology if it poops out on you at inopportune times, (which seems to happen to me a lot)?

When I was an intern I asked the head of neurology if my dad could give a lecture on medical imaging. He was trying to change physics fields at the time, and I thought it would beef up his resume. He brought in an overhead from Boston, and scribbled equations during the lecture. I was mortified. "These days they do Power Point presentations, Dad!" I told him. "You need to get with the times!" He looked at me with total seriousness and said, "The times suck." Then he winked at me.

Adrienne said...

It's the self-checkout lines in stores that drive me nuts - they look like they should be so simple, but you ALWAYS end up stranded, waiting for some employee to come rescue you. But the cell phone camera is great (when I can remember I have one).

Pat said...

I swear machines know who is handling them and behave accordingly.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Words can come in handy, can't they? My visualizer has broken down again. I'm afraid I've taught my students a few more words than I aimed to.

Robin -- A high five to your Dad from me! The times DO suck if we've all got to do power point presentations just because they're the done thing. (I can just about remember how to use an overhead projector. I'm WAY behind the times.)

Adrienne -- I hate those automatic cashiers. If you buy reduced stuff (which I frequently do), you never really know if they've given you the discount. I'm in awe of the people who brave them, though. I know they're the way of the future and I do admire the pioneers.

Pat -- How glad I am that others feel this way too! I'm positive the Xerox machines in our teachers' room saw me wrestling with the security coded doors and decided to make sport of me.

Anne -- I suppose the emergency cord is there in case some disabled person needs to summon help, though of course it is subject to misuse. I just wish it came with a warning for logically disabled types like me.

Marcia -- I really hate hearing good jokes ruined by bad telling, but I too have learned to hold my tongue.

I should have known that the divorce story was from The Onion, but it caught me off guard.