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How important is technology in education?

Steve Zimmerman
Posted by Steve Zimmerman on April 1, 2015
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If you’re lucky enough to attend this year’s ISTE Conference & Expo or any of the other great edtech venues, you might easily walk away feeling that we are living in a digital educational utopia. But once you leave the convention floor and take a long tour of our schools, I don’t believe that you will find substantive data showing that the advancement in hardware and software has yet had any appreciable affect on the advancement of student learning. If this is really Utopia, why is the rate of remediation in our community colleges so high? If our approach to all things educational is via data-driven accountability, I seriously doubt we will find the rationale to justify the growing slice of the budget that’s going into all things tech.

Reexamine our definition of tech

I think we do technology a disservice by conflating it with information technology. Technology has defined human culture since the hand axe and wheel. So when we talk about tech, it shouldn’t just be about cloud servers and nifty apps. The combined roles of technology in medicine, materials science, energy, space exploration and transportation outstrip its oversized role in IT many times. We may think we are being serious technophiles, but the truth is we need a broader conversation on technology among ourselves and with our students.

Reexamine our love of tech

Don’t count me in with the Luddites, but I think we need to reexamine our love of tech in light of a mounting pile of anecdotal evidence that our children, boys especially, are suffering from media saturation and lack of interaction with the nonvirtual world – you know, the real one with flora and sentient beings. Those parents who aren’t alarmed at the accelerating amount of time our kids spend on screens are likely those who aren’t really counting those hours.

Furthermore, from my perspective as someone who has spent the better part of his life promoting what we like to call progressive education, educational technology has some serious downsides. Specifically, the edtech that enables us to track student progress in attaining standards, coupled with the mandate that instruction must be “driven” by such data has led to a narrowing of the curriculum and a squelching of teachers’ creativity. It may be preferable to be data-driven rather than belief-driven, but it is also possible that anything that is driven can be driven off a cliff!

How important is technology in education, really?

Technology is a tool, and tools are amoral. A hammer and saw can build a house or tear one down. I’ve already talked about tearing the house down, so now I want to put in some good words for the builders.

Technology informs modern life. Technology isn’t just important in education – it is absolutely vital.

  1. Information technology is the great democratizer and the great equalizer. A poor kid in Honduras 100 miles from the nearest library but with a $100 tablet and a connection has as much information at her disposal as a child attending one of our best private schools. One could only imagine where John Dewey would go with that!
  2. Technology has opened the doors to radically different and innovative ways to teach and learn: from blended learning and flipped classrooms to digital portfolios, MOOCs and gamification. You don’t have to use or believe in any of these systems, but if you’re not using technology you are not in this critical conversation.
  3. Communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity are the four Cs of 21st-century skills and the key to educating a generation whom we expect will address the intractable problems in the world. The great collaborative and communication tools of the age are cloud-based. Digital platforms have unleashed a burst of creative energy and opened up sharing of the cultural heritage of the entire world.

The great challenge for education

Again, as a tool, technology is amoral. We can read and create thought-provoking blogs or we can spew venom in a Yahoo comment thread. We can be the masters of technology, or we can be its slave. And therein lies the great challenge for education. It’s easy to learn how to use tech tools – far easier for kids than for teachers. But unless we cultivate the wisdom to use these tools well, it will be to no avail. We have to do more than provide technology for our students as a means. We have to teach and study technology as its own proper field of inquiry, just as we do math, ELA, history or science. It’s that important.

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Topics: Technology in Education