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Two 'Technologies,' One Destiny

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I write this using what we once rather quaintly called a word processing program. I never got to use one of the old dedicated word processing machines that were around in in the late 70s and early 80s, but even the clunky, symbol-ridden software available on my first personal computer in 1983 (who remembers Wordstar?) liberated me to resume writerly habits I had lost after college.

Word-processing technology, like the spreadsheet and the flat-file database, changed the way teachers and schools worked as part of changing the way the whole world works. It made the onerous task of writing and rewriting infinitely easier (and less wasteful of trees), gradually leading to more work; my student comments and letters of recommendation are vastly longer than those I laboriously banged out on a typewriter decades ago. With better tools I could ask more of myself, and soon enough I came to ask more of my students.

As educational tools, word processors and spreadsheets are now scarcely regarded as anything other than basic necessities, hammers and nails in a maker world where 3-D printing and sophisticated video production are all around us. When we talk about technology in schools, it's a vast topic.

Sometimes, I think, we confuse ourselves about what this means and about where the techno trends in education are taking us.

There is a useful distinction to be made at present--a distinction that is already blurring and may become invisible in a decade or so--between two general classes of "educational technology" and their role in schools.

The first class consists of tools that are the descendants of the word processor: applications that facilitate the gathering, organizing, adapting, remixing, and creation of content that is useful in the learning process. These are the tools that allow students to explore, analyze, and interpret information and that provide ways of presenting or representing their understandings, of demonstrating their learning. Ranging from Prezi to Chrome to DropBox to Animoto to Wikipedia to iMovie to SketchUp--and ten thousand more--these are the tools of curriculum and assessment. (There is also, of course, the related family of tools on the hardware side: smartphones, laptops, printers, 3-D printers, SmartBoards, Google Glass--soon!--and the gadgets that enable the recording and display of sound and video.)

The second class involves the actual delivery of educational experiences--the mediums, or media if you prefer, of curriculum and assessment. We often lump this class into the general discussions of technology in education, but for the moment I think the world of "online learning," blended learning, MOOCs, virtual schools, and even flipped classrooms is a different thing than the tools of the first class. I will stipulate, however, that such tools are what enable the media of the second class to exist as channels for effective instruction.

This presents schools and teachers with two challenges. One is to attain knowledge and mastery of sufficient tools to enable thoughtful and effective planning and execution of curriculum. In 2013 it's safe to say that we can all word-process, and most of us have a handle on a group of other tools that we like and that we can safely expect our students to know and learn--if nothing else, the clich├ęd and sometimes dreaded PowerPoint. But we need to keep on our game by exploring and coming to terms with new apps and new ways we can use them to strengthen our students' learning. Like any professional learning challenge, this is daunting for some teachers and exhilarating for others--but it must be addressed.

The second challenge is primarily for schools as institutions. This is simply getting a grip on what online learning is going to mean for their structure and their future--to what degree is each school going to embrace and adapt this technological behemoth, and how will this change the nature of the school? The secondary question here, of course, is how can the school maintain its essence as it evolves in a more virtual or at least more blended kind of world? Teachers, of course, will have to be brought along in this process, institution by institution; some will find this exciting, others enormously difficult.

I seem to keep coming back to technology here, love it or not, and my general point is that schools and teachers have to approach head-on the changes that technology has brought. Haphazard or piecemeal approaches don't serve students very well, nor does pretending that it's all just a fad that will end at some point. By now, of course, this is old news, as old as WordStar, and there isn't really much more to say on the subject.

In the end we will do ourselves as an industry a really big favor by working out how technology-based learning tools and technology-based media of delivering learning experiences fit into the present, the immediate future, and the destiny of our schools and classrooms.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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