Technology: Silver Bullet or Amazing Race?

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technology not a silver bulletI am a connected educator and I love technology. I love to use it, learn with it, play with it, and teach with it, but I am frustrated by the focus of many educators who chase the latest tool or gadget. It doesn’t matter if you are an Ipad classroom or a tablet classroom or a BYOD classroom. Maybe you still only have access to a few desktops in the corner of your classroom. Doesn’t matter. It isn’t about the tool. It isn’t about the technology. It is about the pedagogy. It is about the learning. Cutting edge tech does not make your students smarter (or dumber) and it does not make your teaching better. It is only a tool and like all tools it can be used for good or for evil.

If we simply use technology to recreate the same boring lectures (podcasts, anyone?) or evaluation strategies (clickers?) then what have we gained? Simply retiring the mimeograph machine and using a document camera or Ipad does not make your lesson good. The use of technology to support student learning, exploration, and creation is limited only by the imagination of the instructor, but too often we place limitations and put up barriers by focusing instead on a very specific tool or strategy. I hate to hear teachers ask about how to teach with Prezi (for example). Prezi is a great tool, but it is one of many presentation tools. Perhaps it is the best tool for that teacher and that assignment, but how do we know if we start the planning with that tool in mind? What are the goals for that assignment or class activity? What are the student learning outcomes? What is the context? Better to ask – what tool is the easiest to support that learning goal? It is about learning first. That is what matters. Not the magical tool because, guess what, there are no magical tools – no silver bullets to cure student apathy or create the next Bill Gates.

pedagogy before technology Technology can be used to help students discover, create, and share. Technology can help students learn by engaging with the content, making connections with their ideas and experiences and their new knowledge, and making something meaningful with that new information and those new ideas. It doesn’t always look pretty and neat. Deep learning rarely does, but that is where the excitement and engagement can be found. Which would you rather see – a pretty presentation or a breakthrough idea? Technology can also be used to replicate stultifying worksheets and textbooks – better to spend that money on a new copy machine than an Ipad cart if that is how you are going to use your nifty new tech.

All too often the idea is that one magical piece of technology or this snazzy new tool will solve our pedagogical problems. MOOCS will save education. Ipads will cure ignorance. Technology is never the answer to the problem. It can be part of the solution but not THE solution.

flowchart templateMy senior year in high school, Williamson Senior High School purchased its first computer lab. We had access to a small number of TRS-80 machines and we learned to program using BASIC. When I went to college I moved on to learn Pascal, FORTRAN, and COBOL. I still count those lessons among the most meaningful experiences of my life even though I never use any of those languages and my flowchart template is nothing more than a quirky memento. We were given a task and some tools or tips then given the freedom to find our own way. We experimented, we repeatedly crashed the system, and we failed – repeatedly. There was not one right answer, not one correct path to success, and no guarantee that we would all succeed. We struck out on our own, we studied successful models, and we collaborated to brainstorm solutions. It was frustrating, time consuming, and an amazing learning opportunity.

How much do you allow your students to engage in this type of learning – with or without technology? Do you give your students a trip ticket or do you let them find their own way in a classroom version of the Amazing Race? You can use technology as the vehicle to transport your students on their own educational amazing race and watch them create their own awesome learning experiences or you can treat technology as the silver bullet it will never be.