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 make 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 interaction 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 one “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 many 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?