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Teaching with Technology

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Educational Messaging
by Jim Lengel, Dean of Faculty, Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, Boston (http://www.bu.edu/jlengel and http://www.lengel.net)

On a visit to a wealthy school district in suburban Boston last week, I had connected my laptop to the school's network to demonstrate some online education examples to the educational leaders. During a break, I attempted to check my email -- but could not connect. Then I tried contacting a colleague through instant messenger -- again, no connection was possible. I asked my hosts about my inability to send or receive messages over their network. "Oh, we block all those ports," explained the technology coordinator. "Yes, we don't want students checking email in class, or sending instant messages when they should be listening to the teacher."

Blocking ports

This school district could restrict students' and teachers' access to email and instant messenger (and to any other network services such as the world wide web) by blocking certain ports in its network. A port is like a channel on television or radio -- the network has 65,535 ports, and different network services go through different ports. Email, for instance, normally uses port 25, AOL Instant Messenger uses port 5190, and web sites use port 80. If a network administrator programs his routers to block ports 25 and 5190, then neither email nor instant messages can pass through. Blocking ports is an easy way to restrict what kind of traffic can flow on the network, and thus to limit what people can do with their computers.

So in this school district, email and instant messaging were prohibited to students and teachers. Is this a good idea?

Blocking books

Let's go back to 1505, about five decades after Gutenberg introduced movable type to Europe, as mass-produced books began to find their way into the hands of the people. Imagine the discussion among some professors at a faculty meeting at one of the universities:

"I saw three of them in my lecture hall today."

"Three what?"

"Books. Three books. The students were reading them in class!"

"And they weren't listening to you?"

"I'm afraid not. Then they had the nerve to ask me a question -- apparently their book contained some falsehoods that differed from what I presented in my lecture."

"I move we vote to ban books from the university, except for use by the professors. This will prevent the spreading of falsehoods and inattention in class. All those in favor..."

New information technologies are often seen as disruptive, distracting, and dangerous. They often threaten to change the order of things and to adjust the lines of authority that have been established over centuries. Like books in the sixteenth century, email and instant messaging open up avenues of communication and information that at first tend to distract and disrupt the educational process.


Indeed, email and IM have disrupted the way we do business in the world outside of school. Here's a passage from Thomas Friedman's new book, The World is Flat, based on an interview with former secretary of state Colin Powell.

Powell...regularly used email to contact other foreign ministers and, according to one of his aides, kept up a constant instant-messaging relationship with Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, at summit meetings, as if they were a couple of college students. Thanks to the cell phone and wireless technology, said Powell, no foreign minister can run and hide from him. (pp. 212-213)

Email and instant messaging have changed the face of diplomacy, of business dealings, and of interpersonal communication outside the school. They have disrupted the old ways of doing things, for good reason. They are more effective. They get the job done better and faster.


Business and government leaders have found a way to put these new technologies to good use. We need to do the same in school. We need to channel the energies and possibilities of these new tools toward positive educational goals. Rather than block and ban their use in school, we should search out new ways to take advantage of what they offer. Here are some examples:

Market Trader

To help them understand the way that a market worked, the seventh-grade teacher set up a stock-trading simulation. Three groups of students were assigned the role of buyers of Acme Lollipop Company stock; three groups became sellers; and one group was the trader. The buyers received instructions to acquire the stock for as low a price as possible, such as 54 dollars a share; the sellers were told to get as much as possible for their shares -- perhaps 56 dollars. The traders were told to arrange as many transactions as possible between buyers and sellers. All communication was by instant messenger --each group sat around a computer, discussed their plan of action, and sent their requests and responses to the trader.

Periodically, the teacher sent out news bulletins via instant messenger to both buyers and sellers. The first bulletin announced a study that showed rats fed only lollipops developed ulcers after six weeks. The second announced a licensing agreement by Acme to the leading candy vendor in China. She watched the discussion, bids, and offers unfold as the news found its way through the market...

Agile Ambassador

To help them understand the international aspects of the American Revolution, the 11th-grade teacher set up a diplomacy simulation. One group of students was assigned to represent rebels in America; another loyalists in America; a third peace-loving Quakers in Philadelphia. A fourth group took the role of Benjamin Franklin, the American representative in France in the years leading up to the revolution. A fifth group represented John Adams, another American representative in Europe (who most often disagreed with Franklin). A sixth group played the role of friends of America in England, and a seventh represented the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Students spent three days researching the points of view of their personae, and then began the simulation with each group at a computer. Communication was restricted to instant messaging. Ben found himself in the middle of quite a set of disputes. Grades were based on the quality of arguments presented by each group in the course of the conversation, so the teacher made sure that all messages were saved to disk.

In these two examples, the power of instant messaging is harnessed to positive educational outcomes. Because the arguments were all made in writing, they were more thoughtful than arguments made in an oral simulation, and they could be recorded for later analysis and evaluation. And Colin Powell might agree that they provide the students with the flavor of real-world communication and decision-making.

More examples

Email and instant messaging can form the basis of many educational activities. Here are a few more samples:

  • Students can participate in collaborative projects with their peers across the room or across the country, using email and instant messaging as their chief means of communication.

  • Regional, national, and global school-to-school exchanges can take place through the channels of email and instant messaging.

  • Communication between student, teacher, and parents can be enhanced through judicious use of email and IM.

  • Students working in the library can relay questions and findings back and forth to the classroom using instant messaging -- it's quiet and quick.

So before we prohibit these new technologies in our schools, we should consider how to channel their power into worthwhile educational directions.

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