Technology is a Game Changer for Learning

I know, it’s not about the technology.  We all say it.  But, I think we may be kidding ourselves.  Look around and you’ll see technology changing and challenging almost everything.  It makes things possible that weren’t necessarily even a thought before.  Think about the iPhone – did the millions upon millions of people “know” they needed it before it was?  Our modern tools, conveniences, and inventions today would not be possible to design, engineer, or produce without sophisticated technology.

For schools and classrooms there is often a debate about technology as a tool, technology as a skill, or even that there is no need for it.  We often suggest that technology is a nice to have but real teaching and learning can continue on without it as it always has.  In light of all the writing and discussion about 21st century learning, personalized learning, etc., is this really still the case?

“Technology can provide new options for assessment and improving learning outcomes.”, BC Premier’s Technology Council (PTC) – A Vision for 21st Century Education, p. 3, December 2010

New options for education are made possible through technology. 

“Today’s technology can provide instant feedback to students on their progress and students can use that feedback to adapt and improve outcomes”, PTC, p. 16

Instant formative assessment supports learning

This student would agree with that statement.

Many of us use the term “Digital Native” to refer to young people that have grown up with technology.  Some people believe that these kids have an innate ability to use technology.  I suggest they have a fearless approach to learning technology to meet their needs, needs that are often more social or entertainment oriented than about learning and work.  Later in the PTC’s paper we find this statement

It is believed that the “confluence of information and technology directly reflects the ‘new illiteracy’ concerns of educators: students quickly adopt new technology, but do not similarly acquire skills for being critical consumers and ethical producers of information.”, PTC, p. 35

This student suggests the same… 

Teachers have very important role to play
More now than ever, educators need to be incorporating and modeling the effective use of technology in their teaching.  They need to guide students in their use for learning and ensure they gain the 21st century skills necessary to be fully literate.

A friend of mine shared the following remarkable video via twitter a few weeks ago. 

I was blown away at the power of this visualization technology.  At our last middle school design group meeting with the architects we were reviewing classroom design characteristics.  We are including a lot of glazing (windows) to create an open and transparent learning space.  I asked about the cost and technical difficulty of replacing the windows with digital multi-touch material once such options were available and affordable – it may not actually be that difficult...  Imagine being able to, on demand, have these windows be transparent (like a window) or a scene from history or some other place on earth to match the current lesson.  Also, the window could be a multi-touch interactive video surface – students could speak and interact with other students around the world, relevant to their current lessons.  I see the above video as being a feature of these windows, perhaps well before 2020…

Google just made available a database of books from 1800 to 2000 and a tool to compare word frequency.  This allows students to study historical uses and frequency of words in ways never possible before technology.  This example compares the use of “peace” with “war” in books from 1800 to 2000.  Try it yourself here.


Or how about this free interactive visual demographics tool from Gapminder.  Students can choose various indicators and countries and “play” out the statistics over time since the 1500’s.  It will also forecast into the future. Check out imagethe prepared lessons and activities Gapminder has for teachers to use.  Note that this is the same tool and dataset that was used to create Hans Rosling’s video that I included earlier.  The power of data visualization is available today for students and teachers.

If we are not making these types of technologies available to our students and teachers, we are missing the boat so to speak.  I believe that we have a moral imperative to change the game for learning using technology.  In Hans Rosling’s video there is a pretty compelling story about financial well being and health.  We know that education directly correlates to financial and healthy well being.  I believe that technology used effectively will provide the fullest and richest educational experience possible.  I believe that 21st century learning requires that effective technologies and robust access be made ubiquitously available to our students and teachers.

I’m sure there are those that will disagree with my perspective and I encourage you to share your perspective here.  Or perhaps you could share other innovative technologies that support learning.


  1. Hi Brian,

    An excellent post. I think many of us, I will speak for myself at least, who believe in the power of technology have de-emphasized it in order to buffer ourselves against the criticism from those who are concerned about the speed of change and the potential societal dangers of the continuing evoution of technology. Sometimes I feel we apologize for believing in the power of technology. I do like the Alan Kay definition of technology: "Technology is anything invented after you were born."

    So, although it isn't about the technology, much of what we are talking about would be impossible without the technology.

  2. I agree Brian, and Chris. It isn't about the technology if you are having a conversation about the purpose of education, the value of a good teacher, or the role of assessment. The tools allow us to to do the things we want, are, and should be doing more effectively powerfully, and easily. Hence, when discussing how to best do our jobs in the ever changing world, the technology becomes a major sticking point for those who fear it. But there is hope, in the form of you two, and the fact that at a staff Xmas gathering I convinced my former VP that he needed to build a PLN on Twitter or risk becoming irrelevant and outdated before he turned 45. He is now on, and has your names in his twitter feed. :) Thanks for what you do for me. Ryan Neufeld @bobneuf

  3. Chris, there is no need to de-emphasize your belief in the power of technology. Yes, technology is a tool but it is a tool that is changing what is possible in education. The traditional boundaries of a classroom/school are changing as students/educators can now connect and collaborate with peers/colleagues globally. The technology is also providing many students with the opportunity to have a voice when they might not ordinarily speak up in the presence of others. Technology is changing the world very very quickly and so it's important that as educators, we get on board in order to prevent ourselves from becoming irrelevant.
    Of course there are people who voice their concerns and hesitate to use technology with their students. As educators who believe in the power of technology I feel it is important that we point out how technology continues to help us learn and most importantly how it can help our students learn.

    Thanks for the post Brian!

  4. Chris: great observation! I've written about the exponential growth of technology from both a positive and a worry perspective. I too am concerned about the speed of change and some of the potential futures. But perhaps those of us who share this concern or fear should be spurred on to help steer technologies purpose and influence... thanks for your insights.

    Ryan: excellent point about the purpose of education. Definitely the purpose isn't to "create" technologists and I've written often about the increased value of teachers that comes with implementing technology. Wow, you actually told your former VP he could become outdated and irrevelent - gutsy move :-)

    Aaron: Excellent points. I would add that teachers have a huge opportunity to help determine the outcome of infusing technology into learning and teaching. Rather than fear irrelevance, embrace leadership! Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  5. Good post Brian and boy would I love to be a student at your middle school where the windows were multi-touch screens. Only a few decades too late for that!

    One observation that came to mind when reading this and Chris' comment, is that we (the grand societal we) need to teach kids for the real world, not the idealized version. The technology horse is out of the proverbial barn, so while I don't think we need to use a tool for every single thing we teach, we do need to recognize that our society will have technology of some kind. It isn't going to go away.

    I think including technology allows a contextual dimension, which is part of internalizing and applying learning inside and outside of the classroom. It is life preparation. It is helping them understand that man has always used tools and innovated them, for better or worse, but that is how we've evolved.


  6. Hi Brian,
    Great post and comments!
    I think the pace at which new technologies are advancing is both exciting and intimidating. This includes smart-phones, laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards and all the related applications. I too, am often apologetic about technology so as not to overwhelm some of my colleagues. For a surprising number of teachers, technology is a big turn off.

    30 months ago, our old CRT TV gave out and I began to research the latest flat screen models. I hadn't been paying much attention until then so there was a lot of information to process! Well it's only been a little over two years and we're again in the market for a new TV (they don't make 'em like they used to!) but once again the technology has changed and I find that I am having to learn new vocabulary and specifications to understand the latest advances in the industry. I actually find it a little overwhelming. Now buying a tv is a choice - something I'm going to do to improve the quality of my leisure time but consider how we do our banking, how we pay our bills, how we record attendance, how we report to parents ... there are many new expectations that are forcing us outside our comfort zones. Which may be at the crux of it - given the choice, who wants to be out of their comfort zone? Remember, it's probably true that the traditional model of school worked for most of us, and change for educators (at least in our corner of the world) is a choice.

    I imagine that most of your readers are the innovators and the early adopters. At our school, Aaron and I, and a few others are encouraging colleagues to take risks through collaboration and modeling the use of technology, in hopes of expanding our cohort of "first followers" (check out Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy, Derek Sivers on YouTube). It's a process that honors where people are at. However, the pace of technological change is far out-racing those implementation models that "plant the seed" and nurture growth over time. I think about whether we are doing enough and worry that there is a huge gap developing between those who are tech rich and those who are tech poor.

    Ps I'm writing this on my smartphone from the waiting area at the local garage while I'm having a tire repaired. The attendant is complaining about the new computer software that is making his job more difficult.

  7. Holly: I think what I was trying to get at is that technology is moving beyond a tool (a choice) and becoming a key piece to life and learning. I think we in education treat it like a special tool, something ideal, but used effectively and purposefully, it just is a key piece of the process and it amplifies learning in ways not possible without it. I like what you said with "helping them understand that man has always used tools and innovated them" - I think that is a key message, it is natural. Thanks for sharing!

    Terry: You point out a huge problem with technology: it becomes obselete so quickly - we need to improve our abilty to reuse! I love the First Followers video - wow, it's intuitive after you see it but not obvious otherwise. Thanks for sharing that. I'm impressed you could write such a well written comment on a smart phone, nice.


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