“Technology in Education” is definitely the hot buzz in K12 lately, but the challenge for districts trying to make solid decisions is ensuring that they are seeing a full picture and weighing all of the various factors affected by their choices. It’s easy to get trapped in the buzz word rut, but at the end of the day, everyone involved is really trying to make choices that support student learning and overall excellence in the education we provide our students.
Melvin Kranzberg, a former professor at Case Western Reserve and Georgia Tech is famous for coining what he called “The Six Laws of Technology”. The first of these was that “Technology is neither good, nor bad, nor neutral.” I like this quote because it expresses a big picture sentiment that I think is often missing from technology implementation discussions: that technology is just a tool and it is what we do with it and the consequences -- good, bad and neutral -- that occur are a result of our use and choices. Kranzberg’s 6th Law, that “technology is a very human activity - and so is the history of technology”, reaffirms the sentiment that it is about our involvement, our use, and sometimes, our misuse. It’s critical that any technology initiative maintain a perspective for both long and short term goals, a solid understanding of functionality needs of end users, and a critical eye toward both intended and unintended consequences.
My personal perspective on technology in our K12 schools stems from my experience as a librarian who has served as a substitute teacher in more than 10 districts throughout the Philadelphia region, accumulated more than 20 years of experience in desktop publishing and communications, parented my own children through the implementation of a school 1 to 1 device program, and a personal passion for technology and the power it has to interconnect our world. The EdTech discussion is a vibrant and exciting. As we continue pushing that discussion and it’s evolution, there are several recurring issues that I’d like to see technology committees exploring.
- Access to information isn’t guaranteed by access to technology. While there are definitely pluses to 1-to-1 device plans in ensuring that all students have access to devices of some sort and increased mobility during times of peak use, there are some issues. Many districts implement 1-to-1 programs and eliminate libraries and library resources under the mistaken belief that technology alone means “access” to information. The reality is that providing access to digital resources currently costs substantially more than equivalent paper resources. In addition, not everything desirable for meeting student and staff needs is available in a digital format. Information literacy skills as also tend to suffer substantially if libraries with adequate staffing are not boosted along with the technology implementation. Plagiarism outside of the K12 environment is rising exponentially and the research skills the college freshman are frequently not adequate for academic work prompting many universities to add a required research/information literacy course for incoming students (see the Rutgers study published in Spring of 2014).
- Does one device really meet everyone’s needs? There is a significant difference in functionality and purpose for various devices which is often overlooked. iPads are awesome, and my preferred device, for digital textbooks, ebooks, and basic browsing/curation of sources. Heavy writing, however, is difficult on a tablet. Laptops are great for mobility and allow more comfortable writing than tablets, but they are terrible ereaders and don’t have enough power for heavy duty creative software like the Adobe Creative Suite. Labs configured for teacher instruction from a computer linked to a SMART Board or other large screen and which allow the teacher to control student computers via the teacher computer or an iPad are every bit as important in schools with 1to1 programs. Giving students more technology actually increases the need for instruction in information literacies. Students still need scaffolded instruction in researching, evaluating information, and behaving ethically and that instruction is best done as a collaborative effort between classroom teachers and teacher librarians while students are creating individual and group projects. There is a time for each device in instruction and a time for varying degrees of freedom in using those devices dependent upon instructional goals.
- Some subjects don’t seem to be ready to embrace technology for everything they do. For example, my son is doing algebra using iPads. They are great for instructional lecture review, but they are using adobe PDFs as digital problem sheets. Adobe just doesn’t have good functionality yet as a digital math worksheet. It’s quirky and awkward when writing and has visibility problems (zooms in and out so that only part of the problem shows). Inadvertent marks constantly occur and the writing feature is messy. As a result, technology can become a distraction to the problem solving process. We would be better meeting student needs if we would dig deeper into whether or not overuse -- or impractical use -- of technology is becoming a hindrance to learning.
- Are there better solutions than 1 to 1 programs? An alternative to 1 to 1 programs is to have laptop and iPad carts that are shared among students in each area of the school and increasing the number and quality of labs in both the library and other appropriate areas of the school. Designing labs specifically to meet collaborative teacher instructional needs and solid tech support staff to ensure that technology is always working, updated, and functional is also key. The number of needed per student software licenses is not as high with this route and allows more flexibility for additional high quality software in the lab environments (ex. Adobe Creative Suite, CAD, and other very pricy software). In addition, the most cost effective plan that allows districts to keep up with the inevitable and rapid aging of current technology within schools may be to lease a variety of devices -- laptops, iPads, and desktops -- from an outside provider who will keep all devices current and upgraded.
- Firewalls and restrictions… Schools have frequently been overly restrictive with access. In order to implement a top notch tech program, the mindset has to shift from being overly restrictive to teaching proper use and using those moments of improper use as teachable moments. Better for a student to mess up where the consequences are not as severe than to go out into the world after leaving our schools to make bigger mistakes with bigger consequences. There is definitely a certain amount of data that needs to be restricted and protected, but it isn’t necessary to go overboard.
- And most important, solid contingency plans are essential. Contingency planning is often left out of K12 technology plans. We expend a lot of time and energy planning for medical emergencies, fires, and intruders, but not much for the failure of technological tools. A backup plan needs to be available for students to complete assignments if they forget their device at school or home, if their is a network or wifi failure, if there is a major power failure, or if a student (or teacher) device fails. Businesses have instituted contingency planning since they began relying upon technology. When businesses prepared for Y2K, most of them refined their plans with multiple redundancies in the event of a catastrophic technology failure. Schools need to be similarly prepared.
Technology decisions are always challenging. Technology is expensive and changes rapidly, but it's a necessary component of any quality educational program that truly prepares students for life outside of our educational institutions. Finding the best way to use limited dollars is a huge task. But at the end of the day, we want to be certain that we are not just teaching students to play with cool techy gadgets, but that we are teaching them to use technology as a tool. Our primary goal is to teach them to think critically as they explore our interconnected world and seek balanced decisions and choices that have a positive impact on the future.