On the horns of a dilemma

Posted by Michael Simkins on November 22, 2010

Even in the Age of Technology, I don’t think we can have it both ways.

Back in the Iron Age, when I was teaching 5th grade, my class found itself stuck on the horns of a difficult dilemma.  We’d had two school-wide assemblies in one week.  The first told us what to do in case of an earthquake: sleep with your bedroom door open; you don’t want it jammed if you have to get out.  A few days later, a fire marshal instructed us in no uncertain terms to sleep with our bedroom doors closed; keep the smoke and fire out as long as possible.

Of course, on returning to the classroom, the immediate question was,  “Mr. Simkins, what should we do?  We can’t sleep with the door open and closed at the same time?”  As good as it was, my teacher preparation program did not prepare me to arbitrate between the civil defense authorities and the fire department.  I was at a loss to know how to respond.

Moving to the realm of educational technology, two recent experiences left me similarly perplexed.  First, I read an advertisement about a wonderful “pen” that records sound.  Among the many benefits of this device, I’m told, is that students no longer need to bother themselves taking notes during a lecture.  Now they can devote their entire attention to what the professor or teacher is saying.  Subsequently, I participated in an online seminar where I was told I should encourage students to backchannel during a lecture—that is,  exchange text messages with other students in the class.


As a student, I’m supposed to use the recording pen to enable me to devote my undivided attention to what’s being presented in class and, at the same time, use my cellphone, smartphone, netbook, laptop—whatever—to engage in a side conversation with my buds, er, I mean,  fellow students.

Is it just me, or do you, too, see a problem here?


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Michael Simkins

Michael Simkins is Consulting Director of TICAL — the Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership. Prior to that he was director of the Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project and also served as COO of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network. He was an elementary schoolteacher for 17 years and an elementary principal for 9 years. He grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, when it was still a “sleepy beach town.”

One thought on “On the horns of a dilemma”

  1. Yep, I see the dilemma. I, personally, have great difficulty multitasking with back channels…I can pay attention to one (the presentation) or the other (the back channel), but not both. I can switch back and forth between the two (this is NOT multitasking as far as I’m concerned) and try to pay enough attention to both to avoid missing the jokes (back channel) and content (presentation) but I am not always successful. it does add some stress to the situation as well….but I do find taking notes during a presentation/lecture demands my full attention and I tend to retain the information better (old Iron age college trick, eh?). So, we agree on the issue, now what’s the solution? 🙂

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