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Innovative Technology Doesn't Mean Instructionally Innovative

Note: This is a guest post by Frank LaBanca, EdD, Director of the Center for 21st Century Skills at EDUCATION CONNECTION.

Have you seen the latest mini tablet computer? It can shoot video, take photos, play music, send and receive email, and browse the web. Therefore, we must immediately buy one for every student and figure out how to use it in the classroom later.

Isn't this too often the paradigm in education? We jump on to what's trendy without stopping to consider how the tool can effectively be used in the classroom to promote high-quality learning. Moreover, the quick-to-adapt device bandwagon often neglects evidence-based best practices.

I often suggest to educators that before they adopt a new technology tool, they should determine what they want students to learn. I often guide the discussion by referencing 21st century skills including:

• information literacy

• collaboration
• communication
• innovation/creativity
• problem solving
• responsible citizenship

These skills, coupled with high-quality, standards-based content are the foundation for learning. Once foundational decisions are made, then efforts can shift to determine what digital tools work best to promote that learning.

Just because the technology is innovative doesn't mean the instructional approach to using it is. As my colleague Jonathan Costa argues, when we retrofit with technology, we rarely change the paradigm. Take, for instance, the high school teacher who converts from a "chalk and talk" to a PowerPoint or interactive whiteboard presentation. There's no real difference in pedagogy--it's still direct instruction. Watching a video on YouTube may not be very different from a VHS or DVD, or for that matter, a filmstrip with cassette. If we replace the inferior textbook with the just-as-expensive online digital version, we still have the same lousy product that may not harness the power of authentic primary-source resources or evidence-based practice. Device-agnostic technology that provides access to the Internet and appropriate Learning Management Systems, coupled with a committed teacher, is often all that is needed to help students become powerful consumers and producers of knowledge.

Instructional technology must be transformative to be innovative. If we are utilizing technology in a meaningful way, its instructional value must offer options that couldn't exist without the tool. Online collaboration tools are such an example. A forum allows a written conversation between students that can take place asynchronously. Internet telephony (VoIP) services, such as Skype, allow students to communicate synchronously with experts in faraway cities, states, or abroad. And certainly the creation of digital media products including animations, videos, and podcasts provide a voice for students to communicate, tell their story, and share their novel ideas and learning. When their peers can provide online comments and feedback, the power of the technology becomes even more apparent. The recent boom in smartphones and tablets has lead to the development of millions of apps. Many apps have great educational value, but perhaps there is even more learning potential when students develop, market, and showcase their own.

The real question, ultimately, is, "Does technology help our students become better independent, self-directed learners?" That's the game-changer. It's not about the latest fancy device, hot off the shelf. That device is just a tool-- it's not knowledge and it's not a skill. Just because we haphazardly give students technology tools doesn't mean they are going to learn better--the evidence definitely supports that. Learners purposefully interacting with the tool and using it for production, facilitated by thoughtful, forward-thinking educators, is the way to get to a student-centered learning environment that improves engagement and achievement.

Center for 21st Century Skills at EDUCATION CONNECTION provides students and teachers with innovative, quality, timely, and evidence-based programs and services that increase learning achievement and engagement. EDUCATION CONNECION is a non-profit regional educational resource center in Connecticut dedicated to promoting the success of school districts and their communities.

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