Friday, August 5, 2011

Questions for Tech Leaders

Lately I have found myself wondering what Socrates would have done with modern digital technology. Blogging probably wouldn’t be for him, and Twitter doesn’t really allow for sustained, ever deepening dialogue. (Some may disagree, but I’ve never grasped the Twitter culture.) I imagine Socrates as part of a chat room or on-line forum, advancing the discussion with all sorts of pointed questions.

While much of school rolls along as it has for over a century, certainly much has changed with technological innovations. Enough? Probably not. Certainly not if you were to ask most of the leading technology advocates in education. For them, things can’t change enough, and sooner rather than later.

Why haven’t they? Well, there are many reasons, many of which simply deal with the nature of change. Schools seem especially resistant, the reasons for which would take several more posts to examine. But when it comes to technology, I have some questions for educational technology leaders that I hope they take as suggestions. And understand they come from someone who loves his gadgets.

• Why do you claim that you can see the future? We’re told all the time that we need to do certain things because of how the world is going to be when our students become adults. I’ve certainly been guilty of that argument. But we don’t know about a few years from now, let alone a generation. I think claiming too much foresight doesn’t add credibility; instead, it creates skepticism. I think this approach is also what leads to an obsession with the latest, greatest tools rather than helping students developing transferable skills and understandings. It also creates a spiraling black hole when it comes to technology budgets.
• Why do you use such extreme examples to prove your case? We hear all the time about the kid who created a blog that went viral, or about the massively successful business tycoon who was dyslexic and/or dropped out of school yet made it big. Those are incredible exceptions. Possible, yes—but very, very unlikely. Let’s try to focus on what technology can do for every student.
• Why do you tell us that we should use technology because that is “the world kids live in”? Hmmm. Once they reach a certain age, most kids want to keep certain parts of their world clear from adults. But that’s not really my point. And we’re being remiss in our professional responsibilities if we don’t arm them with the tools. But an incident in my class a couple of years ago made me rethink this point. I’ve always tried new ways to approach courses, often using technology. Some students approached me and said, “Mr. Crotty, we think it’s great you try all this stuff, but we live in it all the time. At school we want a more human connection.”
• Why do you resort to denigration of other educators who aren’t on the technology train? Yes, I believe all educators need to keep learning and to use technology to some degree. But I don’t believe a teacher can’t have a great, important impact on a student without using technology. Ask kids who their best teachers were. They point to those who loved and nurtured them and created dynamic learning environments.

Therein lies the real reason for using digital technology—done right, it helps to promote student empowerment that heightens learning. Without becoming bogged down in examples, this occurs in four areas:

• Creative expression—From the now taken-for-granted power of word processing to video production to blogging, technology provides a spectrum of options for students to find their unique voices.
• Connection—Students can connect with peers and area experts in ways never before possible.
• Curiosity—Students can pursue their interest, and they can make discoveries based on both passion and serendipity. They are no longer bound to a superficial textbook.
• Critical Thinking—Maneuvering throughout the digital world necessitates exercising critical thinking skills.

I know those who have done successful work involving technology could add other categories, and that would be awesome. In fact, that really lies at the crux of my argument and advice.

The real key is not advocating technology first. The issue is advocating for students. That’s the bottom line, and it should also be the starting point. Zero in on how technology can help teachers to serve them. After all, once you move past the urgent pleas and the defensiveness, we all want the same things for our students.

One final suggestion. Please stop calling them 21st Century Skills. They are not. Educators for centuries have advocated them. Socrates certainly did. He’d ask you some pretty tough questions.

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