A few days ago, I had the opportunity to check out the newest exhibit “One Day at Pompeii” at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Aside from how well the Franklin treats educators on these “educator’s night out”, it was easy to be blown away by the technological advances the Romans had developed. Perhaps it’s just my lens, but I’ve always appreciated just how inventive the Romans were. From using terra cotta pots under floor boards to amplify sound in theaters to developing medical devices that are eerily similar in shape and function today. From utilizing radiant heat to heat floors and walls to designing hydraulic metal gauges to alter water pressure through city pipes, the Romans were adept at evolving and changing technologically, to make their lives better and easier. These advances also led to economic collapse and caste systems, and an ever expanding empire that could not sustain itself. When the Roman Empire disappeared, so did many of these advances (at least for a few hundred years).
I also spent part of this past week reading an article in the New Yorker about the elusive self driving car. I found myself reflecting on the role that technology plays in our lives today. The idea of the self-driving car has essentially existed since the dawn of cars themselves. And in the age of technology driven distracted driving, it’s an idea whose time may have come. The irony is that the more that cell phone technology and mobile computing penetrates our lives, the more likely it is that we as humanity, will use it inappropriately. Our vehicles are becoming so technology rich that the basic function of driving has at times, taken a back seat (pun intended) to the navigation, entertainment, and communication options that are present. I don’t mean to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, because if I’m being honest, the technology options are what draws me to certain vehicles. The point I am trying to make is that the technology itself is not bad or evil, it’s how we use the technology that determines its effectiveness.
So what does this have to do with teaching and learning?
Technology in classrooms is not a magic bullet.
We are beginning to see entire city school districts jump on the iPad and tablet craze. We are seeing more and more schools go 1:1 with laptop initiatives. We are seeing a proliferation of BYOD policies pop up. And unto themselves, these are hugely popular for students and are steps in the right direction. But as Lee Corso would say, “not so fast my friend”. Professional development for administrators and educators often focuses on the “how does it work” as opposed to how should we use this to help students make meaning, communicate, collaborate, and create? Many unfairly assume that educators are chomping at the bit to design instructional learning experiences using technology. This is true in some cases. In other cases, laptops are used as paperweights at worst, and for word processing at best. Tablets are used for games and low level practice skill and drill. A teacher who focuses on memorization and low level thinking skills will not all of a sudden change their stripes when handed a new device.
At its core, those who see the transformative potential of technology rich environments understand that it is not the technology itself we need to begin with. It is the hearts and minds of our colleagues whom we need to help envision what their classrooms and schools could be like. It’s about having many deep and personal conversations with colleagues around the kinds of learning experiences they wish for their students to be engaging in. It is about us nudging them and their students towards an even greater potential. It’s about coming alongside those educators and modeling and teaching and re-teaching and revising and reworking. It’s about designing units backwards together. It’s about debating the essential questions and enduring understandings. It’s about unpacking the standards and the skills. It’s about designing assessments that matter and making it all relevant to each individual student.
I will admit that I am as much at fault here as anyone. When I speak about technology to my peers, it is often through the lens of efficiency (If you use this tool, it will grade all 500 of your essays FOR you!!!) . It is also often through the lens of a “cool factor” (Check out this amazing new tool that allows you to share this youtube video in 100 million different ways and solve world peace at the same time). And it’s not that those things don’t matter or shouldn’t be shared. They are entry points. But the truth is, like all things in life worth doing, there is no secret to making technology transform a classroom or school. Nothing will replace conversation after conversation. Connection after Connection. Nothing will replace the relationships built over time. And ultimately, building a technology rich learning environment takes sustained effort.
It is not a magic bullet.
(Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison knew it too)