School would be a lot easier for administrators and teachers if technology were left outside of the classroom walls. Technology brings significant and frustrating obstacles to student learning. The range includes infrastructure issues like wireless connectivity, printing difficulties, projector failures, student behavioral challenges, and helping parents navigate the home environment with mobile technology. Teacher training and ongoing support are at the core of instilling a successful digital transformation. And high-quality master teachers are essential to ensure that technology is used to deepen student learning.
However, the adoption curve can be slow, uneven, and filled with ups and downs.
Susan Pinker, in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, asks, "Can Students Have Too Much Tech?" She questions the need for widespread technology adoption and cautions us to look carefully at the evidence about whether technology adoption transforms learning. She invokes the phrase, "drive-by education" to describe programs where "adults distribute the laptops and then walk away."
And if that is the approach taken by schools, then she's right to question the validity of making more of a push for technology in schools, to fall in line with President Obama's call to prepare students for an "increasingly competitive world," through "a free and open internet" that "extend[s] its reach to every classroom and community."
Opening New Routes to Learning
If we change the question to why must schools adopt technology, adding a sense of urgency, we gain greater insight into why schools should develop thoughtful, intentional, meaningful approaches for using technology to make learning more efficient, organized, and ultimately transformational.
In the MIT Sloan Management Review, Michael Fitzgerald cites "a study by MIT Sloan Management Review and Capgemini Consulting" that "finds that companies now face a digital imperative: adopt new technologies effectively or face competitive obsolescence."
In the study's executive summary, the authors note: "Technology's promise is not simply to automate processes, but to open routes to new ways of doing business." This first step, "to automate processes," should not be underestimated.
As schools continue the work to integrate technology into learning, they address several key issues and structures:
1. Clean up the wires.
This is critical to future success. If the wires behind the walls are tangled and messy, then the classroom experience for teachers and students will be the same. Putting time and resources toward ensuring smoothly-functioning systems is essential. This part of the work should be invisible to users, but it's the backbone upon which all future success rests. Teachers and students will fast lose confidence if they face daily frustration with connectivity or printing issues.
2. Find the right LMS (Learning Management System).
Again, this is not trivial. The LMS should be intuitive, easy to use, and offer opportunities to make learning more organized and efficient -- at its first stage of adoption. Schoology is one system that's appealing to students and teachers because the user interface (UI) looks similar to Facebook. Teachers can post assignments, create learning calendars, and post grades and feedback for students to review in real time. Schoology also has an easy-to-use online forum for each class where students can post questions to their peers and get answers, creating a peer-to-peer learning environment. It can be the main gateway for information if that's how students and teachers choose to use it -- which illustrates why schools need to spend the time and resources to make sure that all stakeholders know how to use the LMS.
3. Teamwork is key.
Teachers who work collaboratively in different teaming structures can speed up adoption, as learning spreads across the team instead of residing in one individual or department. When teachers model collaboration, students see teachers working together to create solutions.
4. Ask the students.
When in doubt, ask the students. If something isn't working in the classroom, or if an LMS feature isn't clear, the students are likely to have experimented or played with the tool to make it work better.
5. Transform your skills.
Teaching computer programming, computational thinking, and coding are a must for schools. Students are tackling these skills on their own outside of school. Schools must bring those courses and skills to fruition for students.
6. Create a makerspace.
Students need a place at school to tinker, explore, dismantle, and reassemble the hardware of technology. And teachers working in these spaces need a network of other educators to help create opportunities for students. MIT's Fab Labs provide a blueprint. The key here is that exploration is not done in isolation, but is most successful through networking and sharing.
7. Enable online learning.
Students need the experience of taking an online course to let them connect beyond the school walls, engage with other thinkers in different communities, and then bring that learning back to their own communities. Online courses can open up pathways for students and teachers, and increase the opportunity for connection. It's critical to deepen learning by accessing and leveraging online spaces.
8. Teach digital ethics and citizenship.
Culture is critical to develop and preserve around digital technologies. Schools need to make time and space for conversations with students and parents and promote positive peer pressure with the use of technology. Common Sense Media has developed some terrific, practical materials for schools to use with its Connecting Families Module, which includes how to set up and run a teen panel and how to use case studies to talk with parents.
Amplifying Our Mental Power
So why go through all of this trouble?
Because we must have the courage to enter digital arenas with students to prepare them for a future we don't yet know or understand. We are building platforms for learning, where students are able to see and make connections across different content and discipline areas, with technology serving as a bridge across these areas.
Lori Hough, writing in Harvard's Ed Magazine, discusses the work of David Perkins, the author of Future Wise:
Instead, we should be moving away from an understanding of something -- the information on the test, the list of state capitals -- to an understanding with something. With the latter, he says, students are able to then make connections to other things. For example, rather than just learning facts about the French Revolution, students should learn about the French Revolution as a way to understand issues like world conflict or poverty or the struggle between church and state. Without those connections, Perkins says he's not surprised that so many people have trouble naming things they learned early on that still have meaning today, or that disengaged students are raising their hands, asking why they need to know something.
Technology enables students to "make connections to other things." That is an essential skill for the future. There are many layers for schools to put in place to connect the synapses with technology. And in the hands of capable, passionate, and supported teachers, these synapses will be connected.
Erik Brynjolfss and Andrew McAfee write in The Second Machine Age:
Computers and other digital advances are doing for mental power -- the ability to use our brains to understand and shape our environments -- what the steam engine and its descendants did for muscle power. They're allowing us to blow past previous limitations and taking us into new territory. How exactly this transition will play out remains unknown. (p. 25)
So the question for schools becomes: "How can we not engage with technology?"