Working the Web for Education
“Are We There Yet?”
A Parable on the Educational Effectiveness of Technology
by Tom March
Web-based Educator and Director of Pty Ltd. • Southern Highlands, Australia
MultiMedia Schools • May/June 2000

You can’t work in educational technology without regularly getting smacked by the skeptic’s gauntlet: “Does technology improve student performance?” After years of pointing to isolated bits of research (which is how research works), it seemed time for another approach. Like others, I’ve employed the analogy that learning with computers should be like driving an automobile: Fire it up, shift into gear, get where you want to go. Still, as effortless as motoring has become over the years, we don’t entertain unreasonable expectations. For instance, we’d never dream of asking, “Does driving an automobile guarantee successful family vacations?” Huh? And yet very intelligent people continue to pose the similarly ridiculous “effectiveness-of-technology” question. The following vignette was written to see where extending the car/technology metaphor might lead.
Once upon a Time…
As the school year drew to a close, families everywhere turned their thoughts to where they might go for summer vacation. Some didn’t want to take any trips at all. Exhaustion struck at the thought of all that could go wrong: breakdowns, crazy drivers, bored kids, road food. “Yuck, why bother?” Other reluctant travelers in the neighborhood would venture forth “because it was good for the children.” Across town some seemed forever flipping through catalogues, picking out the latest equipment hyped to “take you places you’ve never gone before.” For them, getting the coolest bits appeared more important than even pulling out of the driveway. Gotta have the CB radio, the Geo-Orbital Tracking System, individually moderated air-conditioning, etc.

Tekla and Moe Lernin were no different, really. Maybe they’d been at it longer than most folks in town, but what really distinguished them was that they saw both the mishaps and miracles as part of the trip. Today, as they sat gently swinging on the front porch, a scrapbook balanced in their laps, they’d smile and occasionally wince, recalling what can happen when you pile kids into the family vehicle and head for parts unknown.

“Life in the Break-Down Lane”
They recalled the early years after first coming to this new world. The family had hit the road in an old VW bus designed for short Bavarian jaunts, not Route 66 marathons. No one wants to break down in the middle of the desert, but looking at a photo of such an incident reminded Tekla and Moe that the family had made the best of it. A spirit of adventure infused the experience because they were all doing something new and learning together. Reminiscing, they could picture the children sweltering in the backseat of the slow and noisy machine as it bumped along the rough two-lane highways. Tekla and Moe wondered if the kids had learned more about enduring frustration than the landmarks along the way. Because their goal was to help their children discover this new “Wide World,” not develop coping skills or suffer overwhelming anxiety, they had decided to invest in a better vehicle before taking any more long trips. They’d get what they needed to really cruise the Superhighway. Turning the page of the scrapbook, Tekla said, “When we bought that new station wagon, we could forget about the mechanics and focus on where we wanted to go.”

“Yes,” Moe added, “and when we hit a good stretch of interstate, we made even better progress.”

Moral #1: Learning achievement that comes while using substandard equipment is more the result of heroic educators and patient students than the technology itself.

“Join the Club?”
Moe began laughing as he gingerly fingered a brochure from between the next pages. Its glossy text blared out all that a family could do and see in a particular theme park.

“What’s so funny?” Tekla asked.

“Don’t you remember that misguided trip?”

“You mean where we got lost so many times on the freeway?”

“That was only part of it,” Moe said as he continued his recollection. As good, modern parents, Tekla and Moe felt pressured to let their children share in common cultural experiences. Without giving it too much thought, they headed off for a week of Theme Park Fun. Since their destination catered to families from around the world, they didn’t worry much about maps—and spent hours getting off and on freeways that felt more like a funland labyrinth. But worse than that, once the kids finally got into the park, they spent most of their time waiting in lines, eating bad food, and pursuing superficial thrills.

Turning to the next page, Moe said, “It was so great going to the mountains on our next trip. Remember how much more the kids enjoyed it? Discovering antelope bones, drinking ice water from a glacial lake, learning how to camp in bear country.”

“We learned to think twice about our motives, didn’t we?”

Moral #2: Just because everyone’s going there, doesn’t mean it will be easy to get to or worth the trip.

“The Journey Is the Reward”
“But wasn’t that a long trip to the Rockies?” Tekla said. “I thought the kids would drive us crazy.” Together Tekla and Moe’s thoughts turned back to the hours they’d spent cooped up in the same confined space. After the kids had gotten tired of easy reading, playing crosswords, and doodling themselves to death, they began to fidget and fight. At that point Tekla and Moe’s fancy had drifted to dreams of minivans with optional VCRs, oblivion-inducing Gameboys, personal CD players complete with an infinite stack of the trendiest chart toppers. If the kids couldn’t behave, perhaps gizmos could distract them into submission.

“You really saved the day,” Moe recalled. Tekla had let out a huge sigh, turned to face the children in the backseat and said, “This isn’t a lot of fun, is it? Traveling like this is hard and I can see you’re doing your best. What do you say we stop for a while and talk about it?” Something in the tenor of the car immediately shifted.

“The kids knew you were on their side and wanted what was best for everyone.”

Moral #3: Kids like technology, and it can be used to keep the assembly line running, but to really make learning work, students need a little kindness more than Megahertz.

“Because It’s There”
Just then Tekla and Moe Lernin’s eldest child, Ima, bounded up the porch steps. She’d come home from college for a week at the beginning of summer vacation. “You’ve got the travel album out,” she noticed. “Thinking of another trip?”

“In a way, sweetheart,” Moe said.

“Didn’t you ever get sick of lugging us kids around the country?”

Moe and Tekla shared an expression of pride at this young woman before them. Tekla began: “We saw it as a chance for us to experience this new world together. It never occurred to deprive you of it. Sure, we made mistakes, wasted time and money on some deadends, but it’s all about choices, and ours were guided by what we thought was best for you children.”

“By the way,” Moe asked, “a fax came from the Year Abroad program.”

Moral #4: We use technology with students because it’s now part of being alive. For each step we take with our children, they may take two on their own.

And They Lived Happily Ever After?
So as you sit in the driver’s seat of a car, or the hot seat at a school board meeting, what are you supposed to say when overwhelmed by repeated refrains of, “Are we there yet?” One response is to counter with an equally tiresome chorus of “Almost,” “Pretty Soon,” and “Just About.” But I’ve found that this reply only invites near-immediate follow-up: “Okay, how about now? Are we there yet now?” Perhaps a better solution is to do what we do best: Use it as a teachable moment.

Although not guaranteed to work with 3-year-olds, try to initiate a discussion with your colleagues. As a response to, “Are we there yet?,” why not start with a question of your own: “Where exactly is ‘there?’” If “there” is, “All students will be able to insert a diskette and launch a program,” we need to help folks fast-forward 20 years. If “there” is, “All students will be able to use software to create multimedia projects,” then we should ask what cognitive or affective goals accompany mastering these procedural tasks. Maybe “there” is something like, “All students will be able to choose a topic, formulate essential questions, and set the course for a research process that eventually yields a fresh hypothesis to be tested against real-world feedback.” Phew! Are we there yet? Hardly, but the trip promises to be interesting and enriched. Can technology help this process? Absolutely! So let’s finish off by invoking one of the great last lines in American literature (that happened to be uttered while driving in a taxicab). “Does driving a car guarantee a successful family vacation?” As Hemingway said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Tom March develops Web-based activities, tools and strategies for teachers integrating the Net into classroom learning. Pty Ltd ( designs Web sites for clients in the U.S. and Australia. To contact the author, call, fax or e-mail  him; phone: 612 4872 321; fax: 612 4872 321; e-mail:

[Information Today Inc.]
Information Today Home Page
[MultiMedia Schools]
Home Page
Current Issue
[Current Issue]

Copyright © 2000, Information Today Inc. All rights reserved.