Education and Technology

July 2, 2012 – 3:52 pm

I’ve been in the position of being a geek talking with teachers for a while, and I’ve found it best to approach the whole area of education with humility. In education, as in business, you can’t just thrust technology into a situation and magically get the best possible result. So the answer to “how to do I use technology to help kids achieve?” is not a laundry list of technologies that the successful schools are using.

Every school is a unique and beautiful flower, thanks to the Tomorrow’s Schools structure. The NZ Curriculum, a marvelously broad document which encourages a focus beyond “the three Rs”, is remarkably unprescriptive about how the teaching happens. Each school has its own set of strengths, its own priorities: some personalise education, some focus on inquiry, some are closely integrated with their local community.

I’ve seen schools who use technology powerfully. They’re the ones who know what teaching and learning looks like at their school (personalised, inquiry, family-involved, whatever) and then use technology to support that. They do things like:

  • 1:1 or BYOD so that the devices and learning experiences can be personalised
  • web tools so the learning can happen at home and not just at school
  • a SMS (student management system–holds student data), LMS (learning management system–holds classroom materials), or e-portfolio (digital collection of students work) with web portal for parents and students to connect, at home, with what’s going on at school
  • mobile devices so the kids can work in small groups, reconfiguring according to the task

But you can’t just drop 1:1 or BYOD or an LMS into a class that doesn’t know what good teaching and learning look like, and then expect that the devices or software will transform broken teaching/learning into functioning teaching/learning. An analogy is Wikipedia: a toilet wall is a page that anyone can write on, but toilet walls rarely achieve the usefulness of Wikipedia. Wikipedia succeeds because of the invisible walls that guide people to being productive: the naming conventions, tagging conventions, editorial hierarchy, content standards, processes for flagging and deleting, etc. Users don’t see the invisible supports, but they’re what make it succeed. It’s the same with technology and education: you can see the Google Docs and iPads, but it’s how and why they’re used that are the invisible supports making the difference between crappy education with technology and great education with technology.

I’m on the board of our local primary school, and we have had reasonable amounts of technology in our senior class for five years now with great effects: kids more engaged, greater variety of things that kids produce to show what they’ve learned, new opportunities for group work, and more. Now we’re figuring out this philosophical stuff. Rather than have educational successes with technology be unconscious or accidental, we’re figuring out what we need to do to make it deliberate and repeatable and scale it out around the school. I’ve spoken with other schools to see how they approach it.

I found that the key to great use of technology is teachers: they have to know what success looks like (tech supporting the school’s educational vision), they have to know what’s possible (what tools exist and how they might support that educational vision), and then how to do things (how to use the tools). We often train teachers by leaping straight to the third point (“here’s how you use Google Docs!”) but unless they’ve thought about the first two points (What are we trying to do? How might we do it?) then the mechanical skills are moot. And, to be honest, the mechanical skills are the least part of it: a teacher who sees the benefits of Google Docs isn’t going to wait for a training class, they’ll reach out independently and learn how to use the damn thing, or they’ll work with the kids and treat it as an inquiry opportunity.

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