A Challenge for Proponents of Ed Tech

I am a teacher interested in transforming the learning experience of my students, but I am skeptical of the claims of those who champion educational technology. I am not yet convinced that introducing technology into my classroom (beyond what we already use) is necessary or desirable, or that it will help me achieve my goal of making my classroom a more engaging, student-centered space.

So I propose that anyone who advocates significant technology use in the classroom do me the favor of imagining the following scenario:

Take a history classroom at a small 9-12 independent school. Assume the students to be middle-to-upper middle class, and that they have smart phones, laptops, and ready access to WiFi at home, in school, and when travelling. Assume that they travel frequently, both domestically and internationally and are fairly cosmopolitan and progressive in their worldviews. The school has a high degree of cultural diversity, but also fairly high socioeconomic homogeneity. The students are capable and bright. They want to do well, but tend to focus on grades more than authentic learning experiences, though they value engagement and authenticity when they experience it. With the exception of Advanced Placement classes, teachers have a great deal of autonomy in choosing materials and to design courses.

The school has a photography studio, film program, art studio, boat-building program, outing club, competitive robotics team, and a maker space equipped with a 3-D printer. It has vibrant technical theater, performance, choral and instrumental music programs. There is also an active literary magazine, independent study program, various community service clubs and projects that are ongoing.

Assume that we have the funds to purchase and implement any sort of technology plan, devices, or software that we choose. All classrooms are equipped at minimum with a digital projector, whiteboard and a sound system. The teacher routinely collaborates with students via Google Docs, and the learning management system is adequate. The teacher is very comfortable with technology in general, and is web-savvy in terms of social media and educational applications. The teacher makes extensive use of Facebook and Twitter to collaborate professionally on matters of both pedagogy and research, and has done so since the advent of those applications.

In this scenario, however, you don’t know anything about my teaching methods. Assume that all you know is that I would like my classroom and the learning that takes place there to be more student-centered and engaging, to give more agency over the learning process to my students.

Consider all of the above and please do me the favor of answering this question:

Why do I need technology to accomplish my goals? And if I do, what, specifically, would the learning in my classroom look like over the course of, say, a few months. What sorts of things would the students be doing, and how would those activities or approaches help achieve my goal without compromising the academic integrity of my subject matter or the depth and sophistication of the learning that occurs in my class?

I’m not looking for a list of “cool things” I can do with Twitter. I want to be convinced that I need technology to teach college-preparatory history effectively, and that if I have a low-tech classroom I am doing a disservice to my students. This issue is at the core of my skepticism toward those who breathlessly advocate increasing and pervasive use of technology in the classroom.  I hear often that technology is “merely a tool to transform learning,” and yet the conversation  almost always proceeds to be about technology exclusively, neglecting to engage on a very specific level about exactly what sort of transformation is being advocated. My sense is that the tech tail is still wagging the learning dog, and I want to be convinced that that is not the case. Please convince me that I am wrong to hesitate to bring technology into my classroom.

Thank you for your consideration.

5 thoughts on “A Challenge for Proponents of Ed Tech

  1. It sounds as though you teach at a school where students have a great deal of opportunity. And as the world operates as it does, that already gives your students advantages that “more technology in the classroom” probably really change. “Exposure to technology” and all its affordances sound like something that’s already part of your students’ lives — at home and in the classroom. And more importantly, “more technology” certainly doesn’t mean “more student-centeredness,” which I think you allude to already. Student-centeredness is a pedagogical and political decision — and in many ways too a reflection of the privileged circumstances in which you work and in which your students get to live and learn.

    I think “tech for tech’s sake” is silly. I can’t say “you must use it; the future demands it.” To me, arguments for ed-tech full of buzzwords about tech as facilitating “collaboration” and “creation” ring empty too. Technologies can easily reinforce the rules of a rigid and sterile classroom. Just because a teacher tweets doesn’t mean they’re progressive or on the cutting edge of anything. Just because a student writes an essay in Google Docs doesn’t mean she gets a checkmark for successfully incorporating tech into her learning. Most of ed-tech does hand out a checkmark for tool usage; and I think you’re right to hesitate.

    That being said, I do think there are interesting projects that can be done with computers in a high school history class. And I don’t mean typing up essays or looking up sources on the Web. I mean a more in-depth pursuit of how a digital world might reshape how we “know” and how we represent the past — through things like computation, algorithmic analysis of resources, mapping and GIS, digital archiving, metadata, historical preservation of “born digital” items, changing access to primary sources, “original copies,” ownership and IP, oral history (“what counts” as oral now?), “memory” (computer vs human), storytelling (does hyperlinking change linearity, for example?), museum work and aesthetics, identity, privacy, institutional history and information security, changes to scholarship (is the essay still relevant?) and to knowledge generation, history-according-to-wikipedia, and so on. These involve (I think) sophisticated thinking with and about history and tech.

    I think the field of history will surely change because of new technologies that change the “work” that historians do. History as a field and a discipline has, of course, always been in flux (and not simply because the College Board decided what was on the AP exam.) Are most history professor at college “digital historians”? LOL. No. But hey… Maybe your students can take their jobs 🙂

    For what it’s worth, unlike Tom, I do not believe that technology is speeding things up or making what we do traditionally as scholars or teachers de facto irrelevant. I don’t think we know what the future will hold. We don’t know what technologies our students will use — we aren’t responsible to train them in the usage of tools (maybe a graduate degree in history does more of this. maybe.) What a depressing idea to suggest that’s what ed-tech is: training in how to tweet.

    History gives us an opportunity to understand our past and understand how our storytelling frames the present and the future. It’s worth helping students think about how their own individual, personal pasts might be different — their own memories — because of the persistence of certain artifacts and because of the fragility of others. That’s not a “college-prep history” thing per se. But it is, I’d argue, one of the enduring values of studying history: so we can understand ourselves now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for your thoughtful reply. I think your points about the nature of digital history are excellent and important; I appreciate your taking the conversation there. (Fwiw, I think the essay is still relevant. It’s a way of thinking that’s valuable intellectual training. I mean, we don’t need to be talking about “five-paragraph essays” and that kind of pointless, artificial constraint. But crafting a well-supported argument that provides depth of analysis trains you to think in a way that is transferrable to any other media, and to other subjects. And as a teacher, it really shows me where a student is with the material in a way that helps me tailor my focus on their learning.)

      I struggle with my skepticism; I don’t want to be a knee-jerk contrarian. But there is discourse coming from the ed-tech industry that is often dangerous, dishonest, and mercenary, and I think it’s crucial that there be voices speaking out from the classroom against what is essentially self-interested demagoguery. But I worry that in doing so I’ll close myself off to genuinely important innovations or ways of positively transforming what I do. To that end, I admire your work at Hack Education; it’s taught me an enormous amount about the history of technology in education. And it’s a reliable space for reasoned discourse on learning; Thank you for taking the time to consider my question.

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  2. I do not know what your methods or goals are in your low-tech environment of today, so I am not sure what improvements in learning will be obtained with tech. Your description of all the tech available, as well as your comfort with tech is heartening. The question I always ask is what are we preparing kids for? The world in which they will live, compete and hopefully thrive will have more tech, not less. Communicating, collaborating, curating, and creating will be even more tech-dependent than it is today. A good teacher can be effective while scribbling with a stick in the dirt, but that is not the world our kids will live in. Collaboration communication, curation, and creation have always been what we have taught, but the tools we used to accomplish that have changed over thousands of years. We can’t claim to be responsibly preparing kid for their world using the tools of our world. Tech forces everything to move forward too quickly. Relevance becomes fleeting too fast in a tech-driven world.
    That may not answer your question, but it should be a further consideration in your reflection.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your reply. Whenever I’m asked “what are you preparing students for?” I essentially want to say: “Being human; finding meaning in their daily lives, having an understanding of human history that shapes their worldviews, but also teaches them that their experiences are not universal. Having empathy, understanding the institutions and systems within which they live and work, knowing what they value and why they value it.”

      Insofar as I care about the tools they use to get there, I really only care that they have a critical approach to the sources of their information and the ability to parse logical fallacies and consider authorial point of view and the nature and provenance of the information they’re encountering.

      I’m a history teacher. I don’t see my work as vocational training. No matter what you do for a living and what technology you use to do it, you need an understanding of history and a sharp and critical intellect.

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