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Technology is a Support

In the earlier posts I’ve expanded on the ideas introduced as premises 1 and 3. Now I’d like to dig a bit deeper on premise number 2 – that technology is a support, not a solution. And I’d like to begin with the example of a relatively new technology to schools and classrooms; smart boards. I’ve seen some wonderful applications of smart boards in classrooms. There is no question that this technology can be a huge support to student learning. But I also think that the smart board has undergone an evolutionary cycle typical of most technologies that manage to gain wide scale access to our educational systems, and it goes something like this: 1. A certain technology is invented and deemed, through various forms of research, to hold potential educational merit. 2. The technology is applied by early adapters; people who are inspired by new ideas and eager to try them in their classrooms. 3. The technology gains acceptance and notoriety through continued research and word of mouth. 4. Upgrades and improvements to the technology, combined with cost reductions through economies of scale, make it increasingly desirable and risk free for purchase. 5. Late adapters, now feeling compelled to “join the crowd”, campaign to gain access to the technology, citing opportunities for student achievement as a prime motivation. Question: How many school systems, in measuring the success of an educational campaign to use smart boards for student learning, incorrectly apply the benchmark of smart boards purchased, eg.“our smart board campaign has been a success - we purchased (fill in the number here) smart boards last year”? The topic of application, beyond introductory professional development, is often left to chance. Again, this is not a criticism of smart boards or any other technological advancement; quite the opposite. But we have to accept that our educational systems have a history of assuming that the technology is a solution. It isn’t. The technology supports the solution. I am guessing that most of the earliest adapters of smart boards probably know and apply what our best teachers have known since the dawn of education; that making learning fun gets the best results. So, if the technology can help, they will respond by saying “bring it in to my classroom so I can learn how to use it”. I would also guess that many of the earliest smart board adapters have already moved on to other supporting technological advancements, and that’s fine too. What’s not fine is when we fool ourselves into believing that, by simply introducing or accepting a particular technology into our classrooms, that we are meeting student needs. It’s not about the technology. It’s about how the technology is applied. Technology has to be understood and applied as one component of a larger whole. This may seem obvious, but its not. It is foundational to systems thinking. So, here’s my concern. In the smart board example, like virtually all other advancements accepted by our educational systems, the technology is provided through top down structures. But the new reality of social media and global communications is different. It’s bottom up and cannot be controlled by educational systems in the traditional sense because it begins and ends, outside of our educational systems, with the user.

The iPod, smart phone, or whatever, are simply devices. On a larger scale, what these devises represent is the reality that our children, and society at large, now communicate differently than only five or ten years ago. So, prohibiting personal devises in schools only delays access to a now well established norm of communication. The real concern shouldn’t involve whether or not students should use personal devises in schools. This will happen by default anyway through demand and sheer necessity. No, the danger lies in components of our educational systems continuing to respond, as tradition suggests, to the mantra of technology as a solution. It isn’t. Simply allowing students to bring personal communication devices into their schools and classrooms doesn’t address anything on its own. However, we have an opportunity now to move public education to the next level by applying these new technologies in a useful way to support the solution; student empowerment and engagement in the learning process.

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