When I began an inquiry last fall into excellence in iPad and technology use in the classroom, I had no idea the depth and breadth of possibilities I would uncover. Assigned this daunting and promising task by my curriculum review group focused on pedagogy, I convinced myself I was the perfect veteran educator with an insider/outsider perspective to bring to the query. I lacked extensive technology training, yet had embraced digital video editing tools, was an extreme user of Facebook, and had engaged in numerous chats with my students about their online practices over the years. I brought a broad understanding of learning and curriculum design to my curiosity about the surge in educational technology. Terms like app, MOOC, BYOD, digital literacy, digital footprint, social media, and the cloud actually excited me.
I even loved the idea that we now had a term for it all: Edtech.
Six months passed. And now it’s time to spell out my findings — to make curricular and pedagogical recommendations to my committee and school. All along, I had hoped to come up with a precise 5–10 point playbook titled something like “Best Ways to Use Technology in Your Classroom” or “Top Guiding Principles for Edtech.” My summation is actually quite different.
The most important thing a school can do at this amazing moment in the history — with the world of information at our fingertips, more places for information storage than ever before, more ways to create content, network, collaborate, observe, and share each other’s work — is promote thinking.
What has become clear to me in the past six months is a simple truth. The more you look into the role of technology in education, the more complex the topic becomes. Partly because the Internet and tech tools are relatively new and evolving (with little longitudinal research available) and partly because educational technology is embraced in such an individualized way throughout the country, a reductive assessment of best practices is challenging. At the same time, market forces — the pressures and enticements fed by venture capital and driven by advertising — are pushing schools to keep bounding forward with technology, even when the long-term purposes and goals are unclear. As a result, most schools that can afford new technology are embracing it.
The Edtech allure is strong. As I prepared to teach a senior project seminar, did it feel amazing to open a document from Google docs in Pages, edit it, save it in Word, and rename it and store it in Dropbox, all on my iPad? It really did. The beautifully designed simplicity of the iPad and the cool factor of showing up to work with only a tablet had momentarily brainwashed me into believing that this convoluted process was efficiency. Transporting an important part of the curriculum across four companies’ products, after our tech team troubleshot the process on the back end, conjured up a feeling of success — of technical triumph — rather than doubt. True to form in this tech era, I thought about it only briefly, and then hurried on to the next tech challenge, submitting grades on our relatively new learning management system (LMS).
If it’s not one new tool, it’s another. And on it goes. Until now, I hadn’t thought to challenge this tech momentum at our school or others. I’ve never considered being adversarial. Such is the power of Edtech. This is my proof, from a teacher’s perspective, that the allure is here to stay. It all feels… well, inevitable.
My deep-dive inquiry produced numerous examples of excellent Edtech use. Teachers were using it for higher-order thinking skills (student-centered multimedia story created on various apps) and to showcase student work in the most up-to-date networked ways. Teachers were often asking why before they integrated tech into the curriculum, ensuring that the technology was not introduced without adding value and increasing student engagement. Teachers were using apps and the Web to provide a classroom pulse (Polleverywhere) or to help with students’ organizational issues (homework tracking on an LMS). I found examples of excellent scaffolding in which teachers introduced students to rudimentary tech tools before attempting to use more sophisticated ones (iMovie before Final Cut Pro, etc.). I met teachers who were certain to teach the importance of narrative structure before introducing the bells and whistles of digital apps. Overall, individualized learning and MOOCs and the satisfying feeling of hearing a student question the validity of an online source make it clear that wired classrooms are here to stay — and with good reason.
Even so, there was something missing. I didn’t see it at first, excited as I was by all the technological wizardry. But then it hit me. What is often missing is deep reflection and meaningful opportunities for students to develop and express their own points of view.
Thus my recommendation: promote deep thinking across the curriculum.
Why is it important to build in time to reflect? Because in this unprecedented time of change, simply engaging in Edtech — as exciting as it is — lacks the metacognitive piece that will ground us, that will assure that all technology use in school will connect directly to our missions and desired outcomes. School leaders will not be able to state with a straight face that the pedagogical choices around technology promote deep reflection and coherent thinking unless students and teachers take the time for the deep reflection that leads to coherent thinking.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. It’s exhilarating to jump head first into a world as vast as today’s Internet and Edtech offerings — and nothing I propose should quell that hunger for adventure. Teachers are bringing both fun and rigor to the process — and even new ways to interact (try “back channeling” for an introvert, or collaborative editing for team writing). But the essential point is this: with the Edtech territory so vast, and with so many of us learning as we go, we need to help students shift from being enticed users to being self-aware interpreters of their digital lives. And, of course, there is only one app for that: the mind encouraged by meaningful opportunities to think deeply.
In the land of dizzying Edtech dazzle, building a culture of reflective thinking — a culture, in fact, urged by educational visionaries across time — is a must. I’m referring to reflective thinking about all aspects of life and school, of course, but I’m particularly referring to reflective thinking about students’ digital lives.
Here are a few Edtech questions to consider:
• On the device: What does your device (smartphone, iPad, ereader, laptop, school computer) mean to you? What is the difference among a tool, a medium, and an instrument? Which conception best meets your needs or defines your practices?
• On connectivity: If Internet connectivity is like oxygen now, what would happen if the Internet crashed for a week? A month? A year? How do you balance your on and offline lives? Could you still learn?
• On social media: Do you think of yourself as having a single identity online? What are some of the ways you censor or compartmentalize or experience creative freedom online? How and in what ways do you include or exclude others in your online presence? What is meant by “collapsed contexts,” “replicability,” or “invisible audiences” in spaces like Facebook and the blogosphere?
• On gaming: In what ways have you benefited from digital gaming? Have there been any detriments? How do you feel about the violence in many games?
• On the digital divide: How is online access a privilege? How can Edtech tools be used for social justice?
• On apps and software: If you could create an app, what purpose would it serve?
• On the cloud: Explain the “cloud.” Where exactly is all the information being stored and who has access to it?
• On the environment: It is said that digital readers are better for the environment because trees are saved when you read on the devices. How would you go about proving this to be true or false? How do you weigh in the impact of all the digital devices’ electrical use and the recycling of discarded equipment?
• On big data: How do you feel about the fact that data sets are being collected on you, every time you go online? Why is it hard to see biodiversity through satellite imagery? How can “citizen science” help build better data sets?
• On having a point of view: Discuss how technology helps you or hinders you from developing your own viewpoint on any given subject.
My findings are simple: because we tech, we must think.
The Edtech surge is exciting and holds great potential, but there are problems and dangers, too — gratuitous use, compulsive behavior, high expense, power outages, mental exhaustion, and so forth. Ultimately, teaching our students to think and to use their minds for deep reflection is the best “tech” we can offer them.
Dedicating time to reflect on tech, in particular, should give each of us and our students a chance to ensure that the time and money and enthusiasm we are investing in Edtech is being directed toward our understanding of what it means to be an educated person today — and in the future.
Lisa Bostwick teaches art and design at Drew School (California).