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Review of Breaking Down the Digital Walls

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue October, October 1 - October 31, 2001 | BY James F. Doyle 


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Two teachers chronicle their personal odyssey in finding a fitting role for technology in education.

Two teachers chronicle their personal odyssey in finding a fitting role for technology in education.

Learning to Teach in a Post-Modem World
by R.W. Burniske and Lowell Monke
(State University of New York Press, 284 pages, $19.95.)

Millions are now being spent to bring American education into the Information Age. Schools at every level are being wired to the Internet; faculty and student bodies are fast becoming computer literate, many -- especially at the college level -- acquiring laptops as well as PCs for use at home or in their dormitory room. All of which brings us to the question: what changes is this technology bringing to the world of education? Breaking Down the Digital Walls, a recent book published by the SUNY press, casts a challenging light on some important considerations affecting answers to this question.

The authors, R.W. Burniske and Lowell Monke, take the serious view that all this expensive technology will be a tragic waste unless it results in more than vocational training to improve a student's future job prospects. They passionately believe that this technology can and should at the very least hone a student's critical thinking skills, molding him or her into a person possessed of intelligent insight and sound judgment. They have written this book in the hope that they can get this message across to teachers, administrators, legislators and all others concerned and responsible in one way or another with the quality of American education.

Their book is a recounting of their own personal odyssey in this quest to find a fitting role for the new technology in an education that prepares students for life in today's multicultural, global society. The authors became good friends when they were teachers working at an international school in Ecuador. Burniske taught English and history, and Monke was a math and computer science instructor. Later, in 1993 when Burniske went to teach in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Monke returned to a high school in Des Moines, Iowa, they decided a good way to keep in touch personally and professionally would be to launch an Internet project linking their far off classrooms. Linking their respective classrooms over the Internet, they set up their first project, called "Project Utopia," because the students were asked to study fictional and historical utopias and then design their own ideas of what a utopian community should be. The project produced a shared learning experience for students from very different cultures, half way around the world from each other.

The project also produced a host of learning experiences for the two teachers. Frustrating technical obstacles in using the Internet, aggravated by time zone differences, slow and balky modems, and a less-than-adequate e-mail system constantly besieged them. Then there were the human problems associated with sustaining student motivation, recovering from unavoidable participant dropout, and encouraging student dialogue in a virtual environment without the assistance of face-to-face classroom interactions. As subsequent projects are described, each was found to elicit new problems not previously encountered. One of the more interesting was "The Media Matter" project that aimed at helping students read the news critically, comparing their perceptions with students in other parts of the world.

For each of what they called their "Telecollaboration" projects the authors describe the lessons they learned, giving a fair-minded report of what worked and what didn't. The authors did not always agree on their appraisals, and make no pretense of hiding their differences behind a veil of vague doublespeak. To make their book a forthright and honest recounting of events as they experienced them, the authors hit on the device of writing separate alternating chapters. While both authors remain optimistic about the promise of using the Internet to design and implement educationally sound learning experiences (otherwise why the book?), Burniske comes off sounding more optimistic than Monke about the ease and rapidity with which this will happen.

Readers of this book should come away informed of the difficulties involved in creating successful Internet learning projects, yet at the same time inspired to accept the challenge of attempting them. This is so in no small part because the book exudes a low-key sense of daring-do that committed teachers find exciting. For the timid, the book also contains tips on dealing with interfering administrators, and others with bookkeeping mentalities. Although the authors worked at the high school level, the lessons learned should easily transfer to other school levels. In fact, college instructors will find the ideas behind the book probably even better suited for use with their more seasoned students.

In Breaking Down the Digital Walls, Mr. Burniske, now a researcher in the computer-writing laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, and Mr. Monke, now an assistant professor of education at Wittenberg University have given us a book that is no run-of-the-mill "how to do it" manual, but a book that should motivate the creative teacher to get busy integrating Internet technology into his classroom without denying him the challenge of deciding how best to do it. As an additional bonus, we are introduced to two very interesting personalities, thanks to the book's memoir style.

James F. Doyle is a member of the Clark Atlanta University faculty.


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