Saturday, July 14, 2012

Technology is NOT Just a Tool!

To tune into what is happening in our world I like to read a lot of books, the newspaper (yes, a “real” one), blogs, web articles, talk to diverse people, etc. to stay informed.  I continue to be puzzled by comments minimizing the importance of technology, especially in education systems.  I attended the SFU Summer Institute last Thursday evening and all day Friday and frequently heard people WP_000215make statements that “technology is just a tool”.  If it was, it would be optional, replaceable by something else.  We should think about that the next time we fly in a plane, ride on a train, visit a hospital, look at a crowd of people communicating on small super powered hand held computers connected by nothing to everything, search the Internet for any topic you can imagine and get a set of tuned options to pursue out of millions, explore a foreign city’s streets on your mobile device, participate in an online video conference, and thousands of other activities.  Without technology, the advances made to improve our lives, would not be possible.  Remember the steam engine?

If we focus on the context of education, there appear to be many who view technology as optional for teaching and learning.  I wonder how education would function without pens, pencils, paper, desks, buildings, etc.  These are all forms of technology.  In my opinion it is these that should be made optional.  However, it’s the digital technologies that are referred to as “optional” but essentially, they are valid next generation tools for education.  These tools are accelerating changes that can’t be ignored.  In Leading Through Extreme Change, I’ve used this quote here before to emphasize the acceleration of change that technology is driving:

“If you make some very logical, and even conservative, assumptions about where technology is likely to lead in the coming years, much of the conventional wisdom about what the future will look like becomes unsupportable”, The Lights in the Tunnel (Kindle 222)

I posed a question to the opening keynote speakers at the SFU event asking them to consider how accelerated changes, perhaps to where we have a Star Trek Holodeck, might affect education.  The speakers weren’t able to really grapple with this.  One argued that he didn’t want to replicate face to face experiences.  I think he was viewing this idea from a place of distance learning and replicating a current practice.  The point is that technology should disrupt current ways, not replicate them.  It should and can be used “to do new things in new ways, not old things in new ways”, to quote a colleague of mine (Dave Sands).  The real question is, “Is Technology an Amplifier or Disruptive Force?

I think there’s a fear sometimes that technology in the form of robots or highly “intelligent” machines, will simply replace teachers.  I don’t align with that view.  I see the role of people, in this case teachers, shifting to take maximum advantage of what it means to be human while leveraging our machines to maximize access and iStock_000016576964XSmallinteraction with information and knowledge, learning experiences, amplify innate ability, and make possible the impossible for students with special needs.  The challenge we’re in now is that people see technology for what it is, they see the costs, the complexity, the frustrations that can come, the unequal access, the limitations, the learning curve, etc. as road blocks and thus treat it as optional.  But just think of where we’ve come from in 10 years.  Technology involved so much more of these challenges before.  My first work laptop was $10,000 back in 1995.  A far more powerful computer is now in millions of people’s hands for a few hundred dollars.  As the price decreases and the power increases, there is an accelerating affect on advancement and possibility.

I wrote last year that Technology is Why Education Must Change.  When I visit classrooms where teachers and students are embracing technology to support writing, research, collaboration, media expression, making learning visible, art, mathematical manipulatives, experience history, explore scientific topics, to name a few, I see why I believe this.  When I visited a grade 3 class last year where all the kids were blogging, every student I asked preferred to write online rather than in their journal because they were writing “for the world to see”, not just for their teacher and not just for a mark. 

For sure there are teachers who can captivate and engage their students with little or no technology.  One of the keynotes at the SFU event, Dr. Gillian Judson, a director of the Imaginative Education Research Group, is a teacher with this ability.  She activated the audience’s imagination and emotions through brilliant story telling woven in amongst the content of her talk.  She suggested that the “greatest challenge in any century is making knowledge meaningful for students” and “at the heart of all learning is Imagination, it is essential”.  But the problem with a dependency on iStock_000011562895XSmallone “expert” is that it imposes a limitation.  I believe the ideal scenario involves teachers who are both masters in their field and experts in facilitating their students to enter into learning through many pathways, enabled by diverse technologies.  A small sample of us enjoying Dr. Judson’s talk were also sharing and discussing live on Twitter.  It enriched our learning because we challenged and learned from each other.  Those who did not participate, missed out on this.  Those unable to physically attend, learned vicariously through our tweets.  A key message at event was that learning is social, participatory, active, driven by self, emotional, and imaginative.  Technology can enhance and transform these attributes of learning in ways people can not.  This is due to scale, speed, and mode.

Education as it’s practice in most classrooms is for the most part still a transmission “technology”, a means of delivering information, knowledge, behaviors, and skills from one expert to many students.  By leveraging modern technologies, the expert becomes the room (I can’t recall who made this statement previously).  Rather than a 1 to classroom-21-greg-limperismany relationship, it is a many to many mesh.  Each person in the class comes with skills, knowledge, abilities, and preferred learning styles, etc.  Technology can turn them loose to go in many directions simultaneously.  I do see this shifting but I suspect if I had access to research in this area, it would tell us that the majority of classrooms function much like they did 50 years ago.  Most other professions and industries have been completely disrupted and transformed in the last 50 years.  At some point this will inevitably occur for education.

I am not advocating exclusive use of technology – many learning activities are hands on with our physical world – this is important to being human.  But, there are ways that technology can efficiently connect students to content and experiences through 3D immersive learning environments, 3D manipulative models, simulations, games designed for learning, mathematical manipulatives, etc.  Teachers as curriculum experts can become orchestrators of learning, monitors of learning, directly and efficiently teach 1-1 as needed, and just in time.  Without the use of technology, there are hard limits on how much a teacher can do to enable and support their students learning.  I can imagine looking back 10 years from now and see that a successful transformation to a technology enabled immersive learning system where teachers and students alike, thrive and learn together.  What do you see when you look back from the year 2022?

6 comments:

  1. I don't disagree with your point, but I have to treat technology as a tool to make headway in my district.

    When I refer to it as a tool it's because I don't want it getting the focus in the big picture. I want everyone to know the goal is teaching students the skills they need to succeed. If it starts to look like technology is the focus I still encounter teachers and community members who think I'm teaching technology at the expense of content.

    Instead, I present technology as the tool that will allow us to teach content and other vital skills in ways nothing else can. If calling it a tool implies there are other options, that's fine with me. I can't imagine which other options can accomplish it as well as the most advanced technology of the time can.

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    1. Hi Mike - I agree with your approach. It can't be about the tool - the tool is not the purpose for education. My thoughts are though that too often the tool is diminished in importance to accomplishing the primary purposes of education. I also believe that the primary purpose will not be possible long term without fully embracing modern technological options. Students will be disadvantaged. It's like suggesting we can just hook up a horse to a buggy and off we go to California. Sure it's possible but it's not the most effective means of travel today although it was "hi-tech" in its day! Of any system / profession, one should be able to expect staying current, in education. But, that's not been the case. I do understand the reasons - I live them in my job all the time - but I think it's important to keep on pushing on this so that the best is always available to our students from teachers AND modern technology.

      thanks for adding your thoughts here - appreciate it!

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  2. Your mentioning of the horse and buggy example reminds me of Marshall McLuhan's description of new technologies and his 'rear-view mirror' idea. We tend to see new technologies as little more than extensions or improvements on the previous - thinking embodied in the names of the first cars ("the horseless carriage") and the first telephones ("the talking telegraph"). The transition into the realization of the new technology being drastically different often takes a great deal of time, and I think we're seeing that right now as people are slowly realizing that computers, smartphones, tablets, and the like are much more than just replacements for pens and paper, calculators, and books.

    McLuhan has said that "Every technology contrived and outered by man has the power to numb human awareness during the period of its first interiorization."

    This could not be a more apt description of our collective state in terms of educational technology. On the whole (and of course with a few exceptions), we seem to be entirely unaware of the changes going on. It will take time and new generations of educators to reimagine the traditional classroom, but it will slowly happen.

    Thanks for this post, Brian. I came across your blog on Twitter and was pleasantly surprised to see a BC-based educator writing and posting about the Singularity, by the way! Kurzweil's so ahead of his time...

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    1. Hi Devin, ya Marshall McLuhan's work has come up a few times from others. I haven't read any of it, probably should hey. You shared some perfect examples of the point I was trying to make :-)

      I find that most people aren't able to stretch their minds to consider how different the future will / may be. I guess we are trapped in time and most of us don't like to peer too far out...

      Kurzweil... I saw him keynote a couple of years ago at the World Future Society conference. I read the Singularity is Near. To be honest I found it drifted into a fantasy land after 2050... I found myself disagreeing with his views of the distant future. Partly because I don't see the merge of humanity with machine being practical or possible as that would contradict my personal beliefs. But I do like to refer to his pre-2050 thinking as I think there's quite a bit of merit to it.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and share some great insites!

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  3. Hi Brian,

    The discussion brings back memories of a post I made last year about this subject. Surrey picked up on it and ran with it. Below is an excerpt from a blog by Elisa Carlson (Director of Education in Surrey)


    Recently we presented an in-service to the Board of Education on The Digital Foundations of Teaching and Learning: Preparing for a Future that is Here Today. The presentation was anchored in a metaphor and image of fire.

    “Technology IS just a tool, like a stick. Many new technological developments made sticks more effective as a weapon (barbs, bows, attachments, etc. but as long as the stick was still being used to harm other people, I would argue that there was nothing truly transformational about the technology. But when sticks became a way to create fire, THAT was innovative and progressive. I would argue that the same could be said of modern technology.” Gord Holden

    This is of course an abridged version of my observations. (Since when have I ever been that succinct eh Brian?) A more complete treatment of this can be found at http://innovativelearningdesigns.ca/wordpress/?p=205

    This was part of a bigger discussion on http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/2629

    Hope others find the metaphor useful. It is the difference in my mind of pushing education where profound personal learning is incidental vs. where it is intentional.

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    1. Hey Gord, always appreciate it when you drop by and comment - yes this is one of your shorter efforts :-)

      "Technology IS just a tool" still doesn't work for me though. I think by saying that it suggests it is optional. I think that might be the case when a new technology is introduced but once we become attached to its use, it is less or not optional at all. Ask a person with an artificial limb whether they think it's optional. Ask a mathematician whether they could model real events or populations using non-linear equations without using sophisticated computers. Ask a doctor whether they could operate on someone's brain without sophisticated technology for scanning, mapping, and guiding the whole process. Ask a teacher who has embraced digital technologies for learning whether they could justify turning back. I think you get my point hey... :-)

      Thanks again for adding to the conversation.

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