The truth about instructional tech

One time I went to visit an early elementary school. I had been asked to show them tools for formative assessment. So I did. I showed them a couple actually. They are really good tools. I’d still recommend them.

When I went back to follow-up with the grade levels regarding the tools that I had presented, they were very forthcoming with their experiences. They hadn’t used them. At all. Not a one of them. And in fact, they weren’t even considering it.

They apologized. I think they felt bad. Perhaps they were concerned that my time had been wasted. Perhaps they felt like they were being rude to me. (They weren’t. They were being very nice about it.)

While I accepted their apologies, they were completely unnecessary. On the contrary, this has become one of my favorite moments. The moment when I went out to a group of educators, showed them some tools, and they were given the freedom and autonomy to ask themselves whether or not this is something that will be useful to them. It wasn’t. It still isn’t.

Instructional tech is about fit. It’s about support. A tool could be a great tool, just unnecessary. A tool could be a pretty pedestrian tool and be exactly what we need. (Kahoot! feels like this to me. It’s pretty much a one-trick pony, but it does that one thing better than anything else.) I stopped looking at tools and trying to assign value in isolation. The value is actualized only once the tool is integrated into a well-designed sequence of experiences meant to create student learning.

My role is a strange one. I’ve often described my role as the ultimate support role. Because I’m beginning to suspect that instructional tech isn’t a thing. Classroom management is a thing. Community relations is a thing. Visible learning, formative assessment, data analysis… these are things. You can study and practice and get better at these things. Technology exists to support those things. We’d be wise not to allow it to become a thing unto itself. Computers are valueless without an application, a designer, and a user.

Correctly placing our focus helps drive the conversation when technology gets involved. Start with the problem (and a lack of technology is so rarely the problem). As we design a solution to the problem, we craft our solution with the appropriate vision for the tech that might support that solution. Only then do we start doing things for the sake of the tech. Adding technology to a classroom brings with it additional considerations. And we begin asking all of those important questions: Who needs access? When? Do any tools they currently have do that? How do we manage security? Who’s covering the expenses?

But we don’t want to start with the tech. Likely the problem isn’t “we don’t have enough Chromebooks.” The problem might be “we are trying to create these types of learning experiences for our students and we are struggling to do that.” Let’s talk about the issues we are trying to solve, the realities around those issues and the best solution to fit. A tech solution might not be your best bet. In fact, some processes and problems would be better solved WITHOUT technology. The last thing we need is to spend more money that doesn’t solve a problem.

I recently read a blog post from Michigan educator Ben Rimes who asked if stoicism was appropriate in Ed Tech. “I’m supposed to network with individuals that have an insatiable curiosity and enthusiasm for educational technology in all of its many forms. And yet, the older I become (or perhaps the farther I get from the classroom), the more restrained I find myself when it comes to pursuing new technology,” Rimes reflected. I recognize this “supposed to” that he describes. Instructional tech is often met with tons and tons of energy. Lots of enthusiasm. 3-D printers, Makerspaces, Dot and Dash, lots of good things.

But amidst the enthusiasm, I find myself asking “What type of learning will it support? What types of problems are these tools trying to solve? and how are we going to make sure they are effective?”

Regarding what Mr. Rimes recognizes in himself, he adds, “…it makes me wonder if a healthy dose of stoicism is appropriate for those managing and driving the use of instructional technology. I’ve found myself drifting towards celebrating and uplifting transformative teaching and learning practice, regardless of whether it utilizes technology or not. At the same time, I don’t see many educators that have become “edu-famous” for their contributions to the realm of instructional technology transitioning to a more openly thoughtful reflection on instruction and learning in general.”

Perhaps the main way to create the appropriate amount of attention and energy around instructional tech is to continue to recognize that it flexes it’s muscles best when it is a means. Not an end.

And that doesn’t make it not really, really cool. There are some really outstanding tools out there. Seriously. Some very cool stuff. But they aren’t cool in a vacuum. It’s cool because of the types of experiences it enables students and teachers to have.

Stuff like ClassCraft and ClassDojo are cool. But they are cool because of how they can support effective classroom management.

Stuff like Google Forms, Formative, and Socrative are cool. But they are cool because of their ability to improve the role of formative assessment in a classroom.

Things like EdPuzzle are cool. But they are cool because they have the potential to add high-level engagement to previously passive instructional activities.

Popplet, Padlet, and Dotstorming are cool. But they are cool because they allow for deeper, richer collaborative activities that were difficult without them.

And those cool things all start losing their value if the folks who are implementing them aren’t implementing them well. The poor classroom manager isn’t going to become a better classroom manager simply because they use Class Dojo. A person with a shallow understanding of assessment is probably going to have a shallow understanding of how to use Google Forms for assessment.

And this is the truth about instructional technology. It’s not transformative. It can be fuel that drives a transformation. (Or, as Reggie Jackson might say, it could be the straw that stirs the drink.) But the transformation itself? Now, we have to get back to trusting people for that. And in reality, it’s never been any different. We need to stop looking for the next amazing tech tool, the next big technological game-changer and just support each other getting better at support our students every day.

4 thoughts on “The truth about instructional tech

  1. And CBE, where the computer does the whole job. To me it looks like a disaster in the making. But the effects may not be seen for some years, when CBEducated(!) kids reach the workforce. Maybe it’s only designed for the less well off. Anyway, it’s going to be the death of math.

  2. Heh-heh, twenty years ago I was on the short-list for a computer position at a tony prep school and in the final group interview said, “Do not use computers for computers’ sake. Avoid them unless there is a compelling reason to use them.”

    They were appalled, one calling out, “Don’t say that!”. No, I did not hear back. I guess they figured over-exuberance for tech would make tech valuable somehow, but even Steve Jobs agreed that the hardware was there for schools but not the “sophisticated courseware”:

    My definition of a killer app is something that does what we already do and makes it so much better we would not want to do that thing without the app again. VisiCalc (the first e-spreadsheet, for the Apple II) was the first, and if one is old enough to have watched someone do a spreadsheet with pencil and slide rule one understands what a killer app does..

    There is a lot of hype for ed tech, but where is the learning correlate of VisiCalc? And I am an ed tech vendor!

  3. Andrew,
    Can I get an Amen?! I thoroughly enjoyed the post.
    Speaking of edtech, are you still coming out to Denver for ISTE this summer? If so, I’d love to take you out for a beer and finally meet you in person.

    Keep on writing and reflecting,

    • I am still planning on being in Denver in June! I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never been to Colorado before. So, I would appreciate a local showing me around. 🙂

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