Tech Continues to Confound Us

Nov 21, 2014

My professional journey brought me to technology relatively early in my career. First, as a public school teacher in a rural area of Canada, I realized the potential of IT to transform the teaching and learning environment in the early 90s. Subsequently, I was successful in gaining federal funding and a partnership with Apple to bring the Internet to a school and community that had never seen this sort of opportunity before, and founded a non-profit enterprise to bring connectivity and meaningful work for students around the burgeoning Internet world. Then I became a technology director in Switzerland for about 9 years.

I’ve been around for a while in this field and have always carried the lessons I learned into my later roles as a Curriculum Director, strategic planner, author and consultant. Throughout these past 20 years, I’ve tried to balance the promise of technology with the sense that, on its own, it means very little.

I’ve always seen technology as both a catalyst and an enabler for 21st century learning. It is not, and will never be, a magic bullet. I have seen too many schools fail when they try to make technology the “savior”.

I’ve come to think of IT and education on three fronts:

Access Technology: Technology allows us to connect with information, content and ideas . . . This is a constant premise within our connected world. Never before have we had access to an almost unlimited amount of “stuff”. Some of it’s good, some of it’s not so good, but it should be leveraged for maximum benefit.

Access technologies shift control of learning from the teacher and the textbook publisher to the learner. At its best, access to information can liberate students, teachers and schools from the traditional premise that you went to school to absorb knowledge imparted to you, or, in some cases, AT you.

If access technologies liberate us from the older transmission model of education, what does it free us up to do instead? How does having access to a huge breadth and array of information for our students (and ourselves) help us to become self-determined learners?

Access technologies are often used to help with academic achievement, content attainment and research tasks.

Facilitative Technology: Other types of technologies help us to work and learn, individually and together. They can facilitate many of the larger outcomes we that I claim are central to the aims of schooling: collaboration, communication, critical and creative thinking, global thinking, metacognition and problem solving. It’s hard to imagine any of these processes being undertaken without the facilitative use of technology.

Technology is often described as an extension of our selves and our abilities. At its best, it can be. Tools to support our interactions and learning abound. Our challenge is to prepare our students to harness these tools and platforms to become powerfully self-guided learners.

Facilitative technologies can support our students as they become the types of engaged, self-initiated learners that a progressive learning environment should both requires and seek to develop.

How do we support students as they choose the best tools for the purpose at hand? How do we model the use of facilitative technologies so that our students can discover their power as learning tools across multiple contexts and interactions?

Facilitative technologies help us to work and to develop our larger learning outcomes and goals for schooling.

Adaptive Technology: A relatively new field of technological development has been in the area of adaptive technologies. These technologies ”learn” about us as we use them and react accordingly. We see this clearly in the way that Web sites will position advertisements based on what it can learn about us – our location, our browsing history, past activity on that Web site and so on.

However, in the context of self-directed learning, adaptive technologies tailor learning opportunities for us based on our on-going performance. It might present appropriately challenging texts for us based on the level of comprehension demonstrated in previous tasks.   A software program may present a student with a problem-solving scenario chosen to nudge her/him forward based on previous performance. Another program may use complex heuristics to assess a student’s writing ability and present them with tasks to support development in areas of weakness and strength.

Adaptive technologies are most often seen in blended learning environments, but this shouldn’t be their only use. As with other forms of technology mentioned above, they should free teachers and students from the kinds of structures that have guided traditional schooling.   Ideally, they should connect students with their learning and assist them in a thoughtful process of on-going improvement and reflection.

At this stage, most adaptive technologies are geared towards supporting the development of foundational skills. However, in the not-so-distant future, they will place complex scenarios and engaging real-world tasks in front of our students based on their trajectory as learners. They will help them to develop critical and creative capabilities important to their success as learners and as people.

How do we embed adaptive technologies into the learning landscape to support every student?   How do we leverage technology-aided experiences so that every student can find their place within meaningful tasks?

Adaptive technologies usually focus on academic growth, but do so in an individualized way.


These types of technology all have their place, but I believe it is important to be conscious of these different uses of IT when deciding what to use, when and how.

As XX has said, technology is an extension of ourselves and our minds. It should be “additive” in the sense that it creates new opportunities and adds to our native capabilities. It should be “expansive” in that it allows us to grow the learning environment into a greater stratosphere.

On their own, none of these will make much of an impact. But, when they are used together and judiciously, and as part of an overall blueprint for learning, they can extend the reach of both teachers and learners greatly.

Technology is not the answer to everything, but a vehicle that, when well balanced within a larger Vision, can help us to extend teaching and learning. And, it can connect us with how innovation, learning and work occur in the world outside of school.

I would suggest a few simple questions to help you inquiry into the purposeful use of technology within your environment:

  • What do we learn from or through technology?
  • What does it allow us to do that we couldn’t do without it?
  • Where are those high-Impact uses that, when carefully planned and implemented, help us to get where we want to go?
  • How do we know if technology is really helping us to achieve these aims?

We’ve been down the IT road for a long time . . . often with minimal results. It’s time we figured out how to use it properly and not as if using technology alone was the end game.


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