My friend James is going back to school to learn more about learning, as it were, and he’s decided to blog his way through what he’s learning and just share general anxieties and thoughts about the experience. Earlier this week he wrote a post discussing general trends in education with regard to technology use in the classroom. My general opinion of James is that he’s a remarkably thoughtful person, and when he takes the time to write things down they’re worth reading.
James’s observations about educational technology revolve primarily around the problem of poor imagination about application of educational tech. He describes the uniformity of technology use across multiple classrooms that he’s had access to (James has worked in education in three states across the East Coast); tools like laptops and Chromebooks are used to access traditional forms of educational activity (things like worksheets and such). I’m not above valuing a good worksheet, but it is sort of an underwhelming application for tools that cost school districts thousands of dollars. You want to imagine that the monetary investment should be giving teachers the ability to help their students learn in new, more student-centered ways (this phrase, “student-centered,” is a buzzword that I’ve seen on a few evaluations that were looking to recommend better practices for the school where I’ve been working this year), and the realization that most of the application of educational technology still centers on traditional teaching methods just dressed up with a slightly flashier interface, you begin to wonder about the return on investment. I suppose that it’s fair to acknowledge that student engagement is a valuable ingredient in effective learning, and a little bit of flash can be useful in improving engagement; there are other net positives like improved convenience for the teacher (through indirect benefits like needing to make fewer copies overall and a more centralized system for evaluation that doesn’t require keeping up with tons of paperwork; these benefits are highly situational though), but it still seems like a disappointing return on investment.
The kicker for me is the fact that educational technology is constantly spun as an investment of sorts. This is an old hat observation, but the thing about technology is that even though it is pretty expensive, it’s a cheaper investment than other avenues to improved educational outcomes like (evidence-based) professional development and just hiring more staff. You throw a few hundred thousand dollars at buying new computers and then tout them as the route to more immersive learning without being thoughtful in how the resource is deployed, and you get a lot of wasted time, effort, and money. I suspect that part of this failure to connect the tool with an effective use comes from general technophobia in education. It’s not universal; I have met and worked with educators who are extremely comfortable integrating technology into their classrooms; however, so many teachers are intimidated by the application of relatively simple tools (by today’s standards) like interactive white boards and document cameras. These are not magic bullets by any stretch; they’re just the most recent iteration on tools that teachers have been using for decades (I harbor a secret desire to just once make use of an old transparency projector in my classroom even though I know that a document camera could achieve the same effect). Considering this reality of iterative tools that so many people expect to operate in some miraculous new way, I tend to come down on the educational technology issue with the opinion that it’s all a fig leaf meant to cover for the fact that educators don’t like to consider how they might implement substantial change in their teaching models when they can slap a proverbial coat of paint on the old methods and come off as innovative.
That last bit probably came off as a bit cynical, so it needs a caveat; in the realm of education I am not generally the sort of teacher who looks to do new things in the classroom just because I think that novelty equates with quality; if a strategy is backed up by solid evidence then I don’t see a reason to discard it. If new technology allows me to implement those strategies in a more streamlined way, then I’m all for it. I think this is the way that a lot of teachers actually approach technology in their classrooms with greater or lesser animosity towards the tech depending on the individual’s comfort level with learning how to use new tools.
Given all this, I’m inclined to view educational technology as a weird feature of the educator culture. There’s a real tension between people who badly want it to be that silver bullet (typically administrators who are working with a limited budget and want to be able to point towards something that they’re doing to improve the educational experience) and people who think it’s just a mess that complicates the business of getting students to learn. Existing between these groups is sort of complicated, because conversations about technology use often end up going nowhere; you can’t convince the technophiles that the benefits have a limited scope without additional supports and reflection on system-level implementation, and you can’t persuade technophobes that the tools really can offer concrete improvements to the classroom if you’re willing to work through the learning curve. Usually it’s easier to just say, “Hey, white boards are technology. Let’s talk about something else.”