This year, I have the opportunity to be part of an online professional learning community. While I will be taking on the role of facilitator, I believe this will be as much a learning experience for me as well as for the other participants. And, the opportunity has already gotten me thinking about where I fit into the sometimes confusing but always intriguing world of “educational technology.”
Here’s what I know:
Educational technology is about much more than just technology. In a way, technology is the easy part. It’s easy for me to show you how to use a flip camera to capture video or a digital microscope to find Abraham Lincoln on a penny. It’s easy for me to post a link to a wonderful interactive website. And while all these things may be cool, most teachers want more than just cool. They want to know that the time and energy it is going to take them to set up microscopes or plug in projectors or to have them or their students create videos will have some positive influence on their students and their learning. That’s the hard part: helping teachers figure out how to use these technologies in powerful ways in their classrooms. So, while I may like to explore new technologies myself, my focus with others is on the educational part. How/why/when to use those computers and gadgets and websites to improve teaching and learning. This might seem like an elementary idea, but I still go to lots of “educational technology” presentations at conferences where the heavy emphasis is on the technology rather than the education.
Here’s what else I know:
I have a deeply held bias. I believe that technology offers ways to improve teaching and learning. Even if it’s only because it engages the kids in ways that textbooks and lectures and worksheets do not. And, most of the educators I talk to seem to share this two-part belief with me. Part one: technology engages kids. Part two: engaged kids are better learners. But they also share a concern about doing it the right way. They don’t want to just use technology for technology’s sake. And, I find myself working with them in very practical ways. Have you thought about using a smartboard to let your kids interact with a sentence? Do you know that you can put a video in a powerpoint presentation to show to your kids? Have you accessed the data from the student response system to better differentiate instruction? Have you considered having your students create a digital video or multimedia presentation as an alternative assessment?
I also use this practical approach when I work with technology coaches and school administrators in helping them to encourage technology use. I’ve created a presentation called Strategies for the Non-Choir. It draws from Rogers’ work in diffusions of innovations as well as Mishra and Koehler’s Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) model to provide coaches with ideas for how to approach the early and late majority adopters who, according to Rogers, make up some 68% of the population. I talk to the coaches about the need to consider the relative advantage of a technology as well as how compatible it is with what the strategies already used by a teacher. In addition, as part of the workshop, we play the TPACK game where we match technologies, pedagogies, and content areas to come up with ideas for using technology in the classroom.
So, I am very much a pragmatist, trying to work with teachers where I find them, helping them use technologies in ways that support what they are doing in their classrooms. This is a viewpoint that is often in direct opposition to the visionaries in the educational technology blogosphere. They tend to be progressives who are looking past the current times to a different world where powerful technologies support student-centered, constructivist learning. One of my favorites, Tim over at Assorted Stuff, summarizes the viewpoint quite nicely, I think:
The powerful tools we now have available make it possible to go way beyond simple reinforcing what we’re already doing. They provide communications links that enable teachers and students to connect with and learn from the world.
If all we do with the computers and networks put in our schools over the past decade is multiply the status quo, then we’ve wasted a lot of money, time and effort.
I know much of the crap I write is very idealistic, maybe even unrealistic. But while we are making small incremental changes, it would be nice to keep a vision of what education could and should be in the viewfinders.
I don’t disagree with Tim. And I admire his idealism. I am also always inspired by Sheryl Nussbaum Beach. One of Sheryl’s most recent posts over at 21st Century Learning gives some great examples of how are kids are learning to learn on their own, and she calls to us to roll up our sleeves and get to work on creating a learning environment for them. I try to keep her vision in my mind and for awhile I move into that progressive world.
But then I go to a school or talk to a teacher and hear about the sorts of barriers–time, access, not to mention high-stakes testing–that they face and how excited they get when someone gives them an interactive whiteboard or even just a projector and the pragmatist returns. To borrow a phrase from Tyack and Cuban, we are “tinkering toward utopia.” I think I’m more the tinkerer, standing with a wrench in my hand, rather than the utopian, envisioning the future.