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7 Things You Should Know About…Technology Integration in Education

November 8, 2011

I had a rather serendipitous “Web 2.0” moment the other day when I stumbled across this blog post by Scott McLeod. He’s engaged in some great webinar discussions with Iowa school board members who are exploring ways to integrate technology into the K-12 environment.  Scott was also generous enough to open the floor to a broader audience of educators and tech enthusiasts.  So tonight, I found myself sitting as a guest facilitator for their most recent webinar discussion. I’ll admit to feeling a little “out of my element”, because the K-12 technology integration context is in many ways quite distinct from what I see in higher education. Still, I was excited to listen for the continuities and learn about some of the “big questions” floating around K-12.

I’m guessing we all probably left the webinar with more questions than answers, but I’m glad to be able to connect with such a dedicated group of fellow tech ponderers. (And yes, I’m proud to admit that the experience was brought to us by technology!)  The discussion has inspired me to formulate my thoughts on how technology can and should fit within education. This is intended as a first among many (I hope!) drafts as I continue learning and exploring.  Critiques and comments are always welcome!  So, in the vein of EDUCAUSE’s “7 Things You Should Know about…”, here it goes:

7 Things You Should Know About…Technology Integration in Education:

1) Technology is a support to, not a substitute for, pedagogy.
The corollary: Technology discussions should be embedded in curricular discussions, and not the other way around. Technologies are servants to good learning practices. The advent of certain technologies can inspire new ideas and conversations about what “good learning” is, but the technology itself is not the focal point–it is the learning possibilities at play.

2) We often seem to focus on the “what” questions first: What should we invest in? What is everyone else using? We need to start asking the “how” questions as the same time–or earlier. How can we make sure we support teachers in exploring technology tools? How can we assess and support their ongoing needs and aspirations for technology?
I don’t have exact percentages here, but I’m going throw out a ballpark estimate and say that infrastructure (the What? question) is 10% of the game, while ongoing support and time for professional development (the How? question) is 90% or higher. And the biggest ingredient in the recipe for professional development?: Time, time, and more time. And then a little more time.

3) Watch your language! The word “technology” is often used monolithically and wielded in ways that are wrapped up in deeper power discourses that merely serve to intimidate. We need to break apart this monolith to start more useful discussions.
We can’t speak of “throwing technology” at a problem–primarily because that usually means we have no nuanced understanding of what this “technology” of which we speak actually is. We can’t even extol the virtues of “technology” or emphasize the importance of “technology” without specifying first what we mean by “technology”. Instead, we do better to speak of exploring technologies (note the plural)–or even better, shift the discussion from the tool to the task. Speak of new ways of connecting with people, encouraging collaboration, facilitating administrative tasks, gathering and evaluating information, stimulating discussion, bridging skill development from the classroom to the outside world–and then speak of the exciting ways that technologies can play a part in these.
Similarly, in speaking of technologies, I think specific language is always preferable to blanket language. Blanket language can be expensive–indeed, it is typically what leads up to large-scale investments.  But specific language is more effective. Specific language will start with deeply listening to teachers and their aspirations for the classroom.

4) It doesn’t make a lot of sense to fix a toilet with a computer. So don’t try.
Not all technologies will work for all people in all ways. While we owe it to students to help them grow into their lives as engaged citizens, productive workers, and critical thinkers–and while technologies will play an important role in this–there are many ways of going about this.  Don’t expect that one tech tool should work the same way in every classroom.  Again, I think a shift from the tool to the task is helpful here.  This might be something along the lines of one teacher mentioning to another: “Hey! I discovered this great way of helping my students peer-edit each others’ work”.  If that “way” is Google Docs–and it is, indeed, a good way–then that’s exciting!  If that “way” is passing around red pens and paper, then that’s great, too!

5) The “last inch” makes all the difference.
Instructors can be as pumped about technology as they can possibly be, but if they don’t have a sense that someone is there to back them up in the last few steps–when glitches pop up or last-minute flukes can arise–then they (very rationally, I might add) may decide it’s not worth their time. What business executive is willing to invest hours into preparing a Power Point without a guarantee that she’s got someone there to help troubleshoot if her system crashes? Teachers are no different. Time with students is precious, and technology needs to work well and have someone to help with “just in time” support.  Otherwise, we risk wasting teachers’ and students’ time.
Also, the old adage “once burned, twice shy” is only magnified with technology. Make it more like: “once burned, and someone had better do a damn good job of convincing me this thing is going to work next time around, or I’m going to get out my hammer and smash the the thing to smithereens.” (Note: I think your average teacher is actually way more flexible than that, but it’s not an uncommon or unreasonable reaction for anybody to have.)

6) Teaching and learning are sacred practices. Technology can enhance that or detract from that. Engaging with technology is ultimately a subjective, personal experience for teachers and students, and it is something we must respect.
We need to respect that teachers are the ones who have the best understanding of classroom specifics. The best, most nuanced discussions on technologies’ potential to promote learning will start and end with them. Technologies will fit into various places of the learning equation, but the second it becomes forced or stops feeling genuine to teachers’ and students’ classroom dynamic, it will become alienating. Bottom-up excitement is a million times more transformative than top-down pressure. Give some tools, give lots of hands-on supports and time, give avenues for transformative discussions between teachers (and even engage students in these discussions!), and let the magic unfold. Incorporating technologies into teaching can be rewarding, but also harder for teachers, so we need to respect the enormous demands on time and expertise that this involves, and compensate teachers accordingly.

7) Play, play, and more play! (Less theory, more “hands on”.)
Ask any tech geek how they learned their trade, and I’m willing to bet they’ll say they “played around with it, Googled a few things, then played around with it some more”. (For the record: I am actually willing to bet serious money on this.)
Teachers and students exploring technologies are no different. Teachers need time to be in playful community with each other, trying out new tools in a low-stakes environment before they’ll want to try it in the classroom. This is a good instinct–it makes them good pedagogues, because it means they want to co-create and explore with colleagues to make sure that they’re as effective as they can be when they get in a classroom with students. Give teachers the tools, give them space and time and wide creative berth, and let them use each other as “guinea pigs” to explore new ideas.
From the student end, they’ll also need some scaffolded “play time” with a new tool before they’re ready to produce their best work (i.e. work that can fairly be graded or assessed).

And one future-oriented addendum:  We owe it to students to help them explore technologies that will enhance their engagement, productivity, creativity, and critical judgement. These are life skills, and job skills.
This does now, however, imply that we owe it to students to “teach them Word, Excel, and Power Point” and send them on their way. We’re at the point where we need to think more creatively, platform-independently, and sustainably. Word today may be gone tomorrow. We can start with specific tools to help students navigate basic skills, but eventually we need to get around to teaching them how to build their own technology landscapes with the tools that excite and inspire them.  That’s a skill, for example, that comes into play in a big way during the undergraduate years.  So I guess I’ve just spelled out my own challenge for myself…

Sorry for getting so verbose on this one.  Thanks again to everyone in the webinar for such great food for thought!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark Neblung permalink
    November 9, 2011 9:04 am

    Hi Alison,

    Your posting bring a question to mind. You felt a disconnect with K-12 education since you are exposed on the post secondary level primarily. A goal we have is to graduate all students ready for college.

    So what do you see, from the view your more comfortable with in college, as the current level of freshman students readiness in using technology as productive tools in their education?

    What particular skills are the missing?


    • November 14, 2011 9:47 am

      Hi Mark! Wow–that’s a huge question. One report that you might find interesting is a study put out every few years by EDUCAUSE, a professional organization for technologists in higher ed. They try to survey the “lay of the land” to figure out how undergraduates actually use technology on a day-to-day basis:

      I was surprised to see how many students report that they’ve contributed video content and worked on blogs and wikis online. I’d be curious to know if they’ve gotten any guidance for creating and analyzing this content–my suspicion is that they haven’t received much in school, but I may be wrong.

      Also, it looks like there’s some concern that students are underprepared for using spreadsheets/Excel for data analysis once they get to college.

      And one other subplot that I liked: it looks like undergraduates express a lot of confidence in their abilities to find information online and analyze its credibility. I seriously doubt, though, that they’re as savvy as they think they are. I personally have a lot of trouble navigating the quality of information online, and I can’t imagine undergraduate students are that much better at it. To add my two cents, I think we need to focus on critical habits of mind and media literacy skills as early as elementary school so we end up with more circumspect undergrads down the road.

      And the main disconnect I was feeling with K-12 is the presence of accountability structures that we don’t see in the same way in higher ed. I’m curious: with the “high stakes” talk on testing and teacher accountability, does that constrain K-12 teachers’ ability to be creative with technology in the classroom?

      Thanks, Mark, for making me ponder this!

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