Waiting For the Sky to Fall

Most eduactors agree that technology is a powerful agent for amplifying learning and extending the pedagogical impact of a talented teacher. We are quite rightly reminded to critically evaluate what we are achieving when we use tech as part of the learning process. Is it truly extending and deepening learning? Does it help meet the desired learning goals? Is it, as Alan November asks, having a transformational impact by meeting one or more of these criteria?

  • Did it build capacity for critical thinking?
  • Did it develop new lines of inquiry?
  • Are there opportunities for students to make their thinking visible?
  • Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?
  • Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?
  • Do students own their learning?

How often do we hear such caveats about ensuring the quality of other approaches to learning? Laborious lectures and mind-numbing note-taking? Textbook as curriculum with rote exercises at the end of each chapter? Multiple choice tests? Printed worksheets? Making posters? Building models? Are we warned about these to the same extent as we are about the possibility that tech is not impacting learning purposefully?

I was recently advised by an astute colleague to have a word with a student who seemed to be spending too much time on his laptop. The concern was that the technology might be isolating him from his peers. He was demonstrating all the hallmarks of a gaming addict, it was suggested. When I met the student, he smiled, opened his web-store and explained that he had taught himself Java and was developing several program plugins for use with WordPress. I noted that his most recent program had been downloaded 7,000 times. I reminded him to maintain a healthy balance and not to neglect his face-to-face friendships. “This is how I make friends.” he assured me.

Near my office, several times a day, a student sits alone, reading. No one questions this isolation, this apparent withdrawal from peers and outdoor activity. She is, by all accounts, a fiction addict and we are proud of her. Reading a physical book is respectable, noble, trusted, normal. We have been conditioned to accept that reading is not isolating, yet technology, with the potential to connect students globally to all the knowledge available to us today, seems to be a dodgy activity, a concern. How does one account for this disparity? Ironically, it is the potential of technology that appears to be unsettling. Kids reading books on a Kindle reader on their laptops might, after all, be just surfing the net or playing games. And then there’s porn, predators, and the death of the attention span. Or kids might simply be teaching themselves coding, learning about a new passion, or chatting with a friend in their homeland. It’s not isolation that is the core issue, as the book worm scenario confirms. It’s potential. What might they do?

November reminds us why school change that involves technology can be difficult. “Transforming our education system is not so much an intellectual/intelligence problem as it is an emotional one.” Teachers intuitively want what is best for kids. We need to develop deep readers and critical thinkers, not just skimmers and blind followers of the Church of Google. But we can’t adopt a binary position on these issues and the best educators do not. We need to teach learners how to use technology appropriately and, then, just like when we teach a child to ride a bike, we need to let them go, realising that they may fall off at some point. Our primary obligation is to empower learners – to let them go – and this requires us to bring our best faith in them to the equation. Some students will need more guidance than others, but we should not let our fears about what students might do on the internet get in the way of the truly amazing things they will do.

November, Alan. “Crafting a Vision for Empowered Learning and Teaching: Beyond the $1,000 Pencil.” November Learning, January 23, 2017.