Why Technology

May 8, 2009

Something has been happening lately in education, and the implications are a bit unsettling.  People are beginning to ask a cogent question, but I fear it’s being framed for the wrong reason.  I’m hearing more and more important decision makers asking, “Why are we using technology?”

-Ben Grey

Instructional Technology Coordinator and Technology & Learning Contributor Ben Grey shared a thought provoking column today anchored on the question, Why Technology?”.  The entirety of his post can be found HERE.

This is a great question, and my extended respnse in the comments section prompted me to duplicate my reply below.  How would YOU answer the question?

Schools ARE asking this question, and many times for a good reason. In a well-functioning learning environment, every support resource, including technology, should justify its status on a regular basis. Every resource should help advance the mission and goals of the district, and many school districts need to confess a disconnect in the past 10-20 years between the objectives in the classroom and the objectives in the server room. A self-serving technology program is destructive to learning, and should be held accountable.

A generally good indicator of such dysfunction is when principals, teachers, and students (as a majority interest) don’t view technology as indispensable to learning. As learning technology practitioners and leaders the 80/20 rule should apply, with the lion share of our efforts directed toward helping teachers and students effectively use technology to enhance learning. In every school I’ve visited or worked with, that degree of focus and priority bears the fruit of a pedagogical transformation in which teachers become guides, students become learners, and technology becomes essential (and almost invisible).

Unfortunately this is far too rare, and most districts’ time, energy, and money spent on technology initiatives yield fragmented implementations due to mis-aligned interests pulling in separate directions: Administrators and board members want measurable results on standardized tests, technology staffers want security and ease of management, and teachers want technology to get the hell out of the way so they can do something meaningful. Often, there is no apparent curricular driver for the technology to be found. We get caught up in debate over content filtering, 1:1 programs, SMART Boards versus Promethean, Mac versus PC, and management of student data, but forget to ask what we need to facilitate learning. When decision-makers see millions of dollars spent on the purchase and support of rooms full of equipment that do nothing to catalyze progress, the question, “Why technology?” is quite fair game.

My response to this question would consist of a few reciprocating questions of my own: Is it a core value of our school district to prepare students for the world the are about to enter? What does that world look like? Is it practical to expect students to acquire the skills and competencies they’ll need to succeed (either in college or in the workforce) without also providing them access to the very interface of this flattened world we live in?

The (hopefully) obvious answers should lead us to apologetically borrowed terminology from the current White House Administration. Education technology is “too important to fail” because technology itself has become too integral to the way the rest of the world functions. We just have to make sure the resource needs of learning direct technology, and prioritize effort that leads to meaningful change.

tonywagnerjpg1Last night, Dr. Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap and Change Leadership, and Co-Director of Harvard University’s Change Leadership  Group at the Graduate School of Education, was the featured guest at a community discussion on 21st century skills in education.  The event was hosted by Holland Hall (a private, parochial school) in partnership with Tulsa Public Schools.  Wagner discussed many of the elements in his books, and entertained questions and discussion form the audience.  I apologize in advance for the limited quality of the this recording, but it should be discernible enough after some scrubbing in Garage Band.  I was prepared to use Qik and Cover It Live, but a lack of adequate Internet access changed those plans.  I’ll try to include my thoughts on the event when I get time later.

Click below for the MP3 audio

Tony Wagner Presentation

to-scale-nell-sm_v244132763_jpgAmazon announced this morning a new model of their eBook reader, the Kindle DX.  It’s main differentiating features from the currently shipping model include a larger size screen (9.7 in) and resolution (1200 x 824), as well as a built-in PDF reader, more memory, and an auto-rotating screen.  Amazon also announced agreements with several textbook companies to port books to the device–a clear aim at an education market hungry for innovative ways to deliver learning.  But while this is an intriguing device as an (expensive) eBook, newspaper, and magazine reader, it’s still off-the-mark as a solution for students.

First, let me extol its virtues.  The  interface, large screen, and awesome battery life (4 days) make it a very “user-friendly” device.  Amazon has also done a nice job developing WhisperSync, the service that conveniently and reliably delivers content wirelessly to the Kindle, as long as you have Sprint data coverage. It’s thin profile and slight weight let it slide easily into a purse or backpack.

Okay, I was nice for four sentences.  Let the carnage ensue:

The Kindle is designed to read books, newspapers, and magazines, and do that well at a per unit cost of nearly $500. That’s all fine by me until Amazon and textbook publishers begin to position it as a tool for education. Then, my gloves come off.  It is a closed, proprietary device.  This means you better look at the list of technical specifications and features and be satisfied, because that’s all it will do.  Software developers won’t be allowed to come up with so much as a rudimentary word processor or messaging application.  It has a basic web browser that is less functional than Opera on my Nintendo Wii, so forget any meaningful use of the Internet.  A PDF reader will let you look at your own documents, but getting them on the device is so much more difficult than it needs to be, and predictably, there is no way to edit them.  A gray-scale screen is optimized for reading text, but poorly-suited for any level of graphics or animation.

The education market desperately needs a usable, affordable solution in this vein, but such a device needs to be so much more.  The fundamental problem with the Kindle is that it’s a 2009 model tool designed for an 18th century model of education.  It delivers content  one-way, with almost no ability to create, collaborate, or access information and media beyond what is specifically adapted for the device. For $500, a nice  netbook delivers the capability to do EVERYTHING the Kindle DX does, as well as:

  • Create, edit, and share all manner of content including text, audio, video and graphic art
  • Collaborate and communicate via messaging applications, voice and video chat, e-mail, and shared online workspaces
  • Use modern Internet browsers and tools to effectively research, annotate, and validate information
  • Print
  • Present something in color

We need digital tools that allow for a constructivist approach to learning, not another format for delivery of static information.  So, Amazon, I lend best wishes for the Kindle DX as an eBook reader for affluent consumers of books and news.  Just don’t go touting it as a solution for the classroom.

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This will be dependent on bandwidth availability.  If the CoverItLive/Qik broadcast fails, I’ll be Twittering updates @jsw_edtech