Saturday, May 5, 2012

Is your school's technology just more litter on the same battlefield?

I'll try to keep this short and succinct. Suppose you were the commander of an early 20th century military unit mounted on horseback and a major war came along. Somebody, somewhere sees the utility of combining automotive technology with materials that protect you from enemy fire. So you trade your horses for these new-fangled vehicles but you line them all up in a row and advance on the enemy's positions just as the British did during the America Revolution. But alas, the other side rapidly discovered a new missile technology that pierces your armor protection and unleashes it on your advancing throng of vehicles. Nevertheless, you are a stubborn commander and don't change what you are doing because that's the way mounted troops have fought battles for centuries. When the shooting stops, the battlefield is littered with smoking hulks and dead soldiers all because you refused to see the new technology as a way to change your tactics and get more desired outcomes. You just replaced your horses with "faster horses."

Ok, that's a bit morbid so here's another analogy. What if when cell phones first came on the mass commercial market, all we did was purchase one simply to use in our homes or offices. We didn't take it anywhere with us and in fact, out of a sense of nostalgia or just fear of losing the small device (actually, they weren't that small back then), we chained it to a desk or wall. In this hypothetical example, despite the fact the cell phone was designed to provide mobile anytime-anywhere communications, we couldn't shake the tradition that talking on the telephone was only done in the sanctity of the home or office. If we had thought that way, personal and business communications would still be the same today.

My point in both of these analogies is that unless we use technology as a lever to significantly change what we do to get at a desired outcome, what good is it? If we merely use netbooks or other computer devices so that students can sit in rows of desks independently typing on word documents, is that using technology to change the learning process? If we drop iPads or other devices on our students so they can access e-texts instead of printed texts, but those texts are nothing more than digitized print is that really leveraging technology for change? If we're still chained to desktops in labs or media centers that are open only during school hours or restricting students to only use devices that schools provide in a designated location for computer use, is that adapting the learning process to the power and mobility of technology tools? I'd say the answer to all of these is a big fat NO.

Right now I would guess that most schools -- even those that claim to be 1:1 or BYOD schools (or a combination of both) -- are still nothing more than industrial-era models of learning. Instead of textbooks or paper on their desks, students have shiny toys that merely serve as replacements for yesteryear's tools but the structures (calendars, schedules, bells, teacher-student-ratios, assessments, classroom walls and furnishings, etc) haven't changed a bit. In the end, classrooms are littered with underutilized devices but the learning outcomes are the same because we didn't change our tactics.

We need to build a new education system that fully considers the learning needs of 21st century students and capitalizes on the power of technology to serve as a learning tool. Until then, we've just replaced horses with "faster horses."