technology philosophy

What should come first: the technology, or the need for it?

I have been kicking this question around in my head lately, but I'm not sure that there is a correct answer. Instead, what I'm really searching for is the logical response that I can buy into and support when I propose ideas or help to make decisions about technology purchases in my district. Understand that what I'm really looking for is a space to flesh out my own thinking in order to find a logical response to a question that requires an answer.

The question is simply this: Does the availability of technology in schools encourage the end users to put the technology to use (if you buy it, they will come), or is the purchase-upon-request model more likely to yield the greatest use of educationally focused tech?

Questions like this feel heavily philosophical, and they aren't often taken seriously by people who have the luxury of pondering the question and then flushing it from their minds. However, the moment my philosophical pondering of this question was faced with the reality of a financial purchasing decision that was influenced by the way I answered it, I found out that sometimes philosophy has palpable implications.

At the core of this question is really the issue of human motivation. Are educators, a collectively resourceful group by both nature and training, likely to utilize the technological tools if we provide access and adequate training (the latter of the two is the key, and often the most heavily overlooked element of any technology purchase)? Is access enough to motivate their curiosity or to spark their internal motivation to explore in the hopes of finding a more efficient or engaging way to teach? Can we "buy and train" our way to more engaging classroom instruction? The "buy it and they will come" model of purchasing educational technology is built upon a foundational belief that teachers will gravitate to and adopt the most effective and efficient educational tools if they are given access and exposure to them. It also leans heavily upon the belief that when hurdles, pitfalls, or perceived limitations are removed, people are more likely to explore, learn, and grow.

Alternatively, we can take the road more commonly traveled (well, I guess that depends where you teach). In this model, teachers make requests for some technological marvel that they believe can support learning in their classroom. The district accommodates and often leaves the teacher (or the small pod of teachers who requested the tech) to their own devices to put the technology to work. While the initial purchase may include some professional development dollars, these teachers are often left to fend for themselves, and to promote the "good word" to their colleagues if the grand experiment succeeds. This model subscribes to the belief that people are requesting due to an already present intrinsic motivation. Relevance is key here; the technology they request is somehow more relevant to their role as a classroom teacher, thus they are more likely to put the purchase to use immediately, appropriately, and for a longer duration of time. Of course, there are obvious procedural limitations placed upon staff members in this model. The "exploration" of the tech that exists is forced to take place outside of the school day (for most teachers), and those who are uninterested in participating in the exploration are far less likely to issue requests for technology.

By now, the downfalls to each should be fairly apparent.

In the open access model of tech purchasing, there is no guarantee of any return on investment. The purchases could become the next hot item at the school. It could also become another one of the dust collectors in the technology graveyard at your school. For this reason, visionary leadership and a sensitive pulse on the curriculum, teaching styles, and attitudes of the staff are essential qualities of the lead person making the purchasing decisions. Obviously, those aren't qualities that are easy standard in most people, especially many of the technologically savvy people that tend to head into the computer science field.

The other major issue with the model is the issue of justifying the funding. Many tech purchases are heavy financial decisions that need to be weighed (often by a panel of board members). Advocating for the purchase of expensive laptops or wireless infrastructure or the latest gadget is a tough sell when the proposal is littered with phrases like "we think," "we hope," and "ideally they will." This kind of blind faith in the sanity and vision of a district's technology leader takes time to develop between the board, the staff, the techies, the families, and the community. Without that kind of trusting relationship, this model of equipping our schools becomes a much tougher financial sell.

Even more apparent are the downfalls of the purchase-upon-request model. The statement, "You don't know what you don't know," has been made to me far too many times this year as I lead professional development sessions (I bristle at the statement; we live in a period where our surplus commodity is accessible information). This comment suggests to me that many educators feel victimized by the pace of change that accompanies the advancement of technology. In a time where cash flow is limited in schools, the logic of these teachers may go something like this: "Even if I'd like to try out that tool I heard about at the conference, the reality is that I don't know enough about it. With all that I'm expected to do to perform my job well, I don't have time to learn a whole lot about it, and I would hate to waste funds to buy something I'm really not sure about. I know I could use those funds to buy something for my classroom that I am sure about." The resulting action is inaction. They fail to make the request for new technology. In this model, there are no anecdotal stories and experiences from colleagues they trust to sell them on the value of an element of technology (and let's be honest...those anecdotal pieces are often the impetus for many of the technology purchases made in school districts; look to the interactive whiteboard craze for evidence of this).

Of course, this leads to the other major issue with this model: pockets of excellence and pockets of despair. Educators who are capable of identifying tech that will assist them or their students in the classroom are likely to be more dynamic teachers to begin with. This assertion stems from this group's general awareness of the technology that actually exists in the first place. That may be a result of their ability to research and sift through information, or their ability to network, connect with, and learn from others, but those educators with these skills are likely to be the ones advocating for themselves and their students regarding the request of technology. Any way we slice it, those submitting requests for technology are likely those who are motivated enough to put the technology to use. The other educators (those unwilling to submit requests for new technology) are not. This results in a greater disparity between the teachers who teach effectively with technology the teachers who avoid technology.

My underlying assumption here is that technology provides something to any learning environment that cannot be achieved without that technology. I understand all of the arguments that can be made suggesting that effective teaching and learning can happen without technology. I understand that meaningful education happens with or without technology. What I also understand, though, is that technology offers opportunities that are not present without the technology. Conversing with (and seeing) a group of students across the country during the regularly scheduled school day didn't regularly happen before Skype existed. Collaborating and collectively crafting presentations, articles, and projects without planning a face-to-face meeting time didn't happen before the days of wikis and learning management systems. For this reason, teachers that request and put technology to use in their classroom create opportunities for their students that other students lack as a result of lacking access to that same technology.

Perhaps the higher ground is to take a diversified approach to the technology purchasing strategy at any school. By maintaining a pulse on the wave of widely adopted/accepted technology, we can make reasonable predications about the technologies that have caught on and the technologies that are still kept at arms length by the general public. For instance, A crystal ball isn't necessary to see the trend in wireless technology. The expectation for most tech users is open access to the Internet. Outfitting our buildings and learning environments with the wireless infrastructure (complete with a guest network) is certainly a justifiable cost with most school boards. Providing a laptop/net book/tablet for each teacher is also one of those increasingly obvious purchases, primarily because the public has generally accepted these technologies as an element of workplace productivity. These are wise "infrastructural" investments because they open up possibilities for experimental adoption/trials of other less accepted technologies.

However, more controversial purchases, such as a 1:1 laptop initiative for each student, perhaps should be reserved, at least at first, to a per request purchase process. That kind of significant financial investment needs to see a legitimate return on investment. That means that teachers with the intrinsic motivation to use that technology regularly should be the ones to trial it first. First impressions matter, and when a school outfits its students with hundreds of iPads or net books, only to have many of them vastly under utilized, it becomes a tough pill for parents, taxpayers, and board members to swallow when the question of continued support of the program rears its head.

Non-negotiables exist in this conversation, though. Regardless of the model that any organization adopts, honesty, trust, and open communication must exist between those who purchase and support the technology, and those who put that technology to use. Tech departments that do not listen to and address the needs of classroom teachers and students invalidate the value of either purchasing model. When end users do not feel adequately supported, they are less likely to take risks in using new technologies. When end users don't feel trusted, they are less likely to form a working relationship with their tech department, thus decreasing the likelihood will engage in the meaningful communication that must exist between the two groups. Until both sides feel that they are working toward the same goals, meaningful experimentation cannot take place.

The last non-negotiable element is having a rock solid, consistently reliable technology infrastructure in place from the beginning. It is the foundation on which any technological advancements take place, so there is simply no room for inconsistent or unreliable performance. I equate this to the infrastructure of roads and bridges. Due to the reliability and consistency of this infrastructure, most Americans can focus on the type of vehicle that suits their personality or lifestyle, not on the type of vehicle that will allow them to travel through the terrain of their daily commute. End users should be able to depend on their tech infrastructure in the same way, allowing them to make decisions based upon goals or purpose, not based upon access or reliability.

I hope this rant has helped you think through the question I posed at the beginning. While a correct answer doesn't exist, a logical rationale in a district's tech purchasing model is an essential starting point.

Evidence of Moore's Law Right Under My Tree

If you don't know what Moore's Law is, it's time to figure it out.  I'll save you the extra steps of going to Wikipedia yourself to learn about it is:

Understanding that Moore's Law relates to exponential growth of technology as time advances is one thing.  Seeing your own children open Christmas gifts that truly display the effect of Moore's Law on our lives shifts it to a whole different level of importance for me.

I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old.  Admittedly, these kids are both already playing with the iPad and both are getting more screen time than I did as a child at their age.  They are not going to be technological misfits -- of that I am fairly certain!  However, this Christmas I saw them open gifts that seem to be absolute game changers in the way of personal learning.  And then to think about the gifts they received last year and to compare them completely demonstrated for me the true impact of exponential change in our lifetime.

Last year my older daughter received a Leap Frog device that had a keyboard and a mouse and software cartridges that plugged in.  When it worked properly she learned some basic skills, such as the hand/eye coordination needed to maneuver the mouse, along with participating in some basic shape and color learning activities.  It was impressive to see her work and adapt to the technology, but the technology wasn't mind blowing or even surprising.  It was what I would have expected it to be.

This year, my younger daughter (only one) got an age-appropriate stuffed toy from Leap Frog, and it is completely knocking my socks off with possibilities.  This little pooch plugs in to the computer via USB cable and customizes itself to say her name, play some music of our choosing, and do some other basic customizations.  However, it is tied to her name and an email account.  Every month, with a reconnect of the USB cable, the dog will upload information to the Leap Frog website, and  I (and the grandma that was responsible for the purchase) will be getting an email that tracks what she is doing and learning in her interactions with the plush canine friend.  Just think of the possibility of that kind of personalized learning and tracking.  Just imagine what next year's toy for two and three-year-old children may be able to do.

My older daughter, now three, received Kinectimals, an interactive game for the Xbox Kinect platform where she interacts with her tiger cub, Atro (don't ask me where that name came from...when your three any sound that comes out of your mouth seems to be a perfectly suitable name for a pet, doll, or digital tiger cub...although I question why her dolly is named panther and her tiger cub is the one named Atro, but again, the logic will fail me every time).  What amazed me was that she adapted to the onscreen interactions so quickly and so easily that I felt a bit embarrassed that my own onscreen interaction is so jumpy and unnatural.  Only a year before she struggled for some time with the concepts of mouse and keyboard.  This year she naturally saw the connection between the movement of her hand (without any additional sensor) to the movement of the onscreen hands that allowed her to interact with a digital creature.  I know that developmentally this makes sense (she is far more ready for this kind of interaction at this age), but think about the impact of that kind of exposure at such a young age.  I recently watched (with an audience full of adults) a video from Microsoft that demonstrated their vision of how we would work and interact with technology in the future.  I know I was moved but questioned the possibility of some of the technologies displayed in the video.  However, the reality is that my daughter (and all the other little ones exposed to this kind of technology during their lives) will expect the technology to be seamless and ever-present.  My three-year-old is already reaching for my laptop screen and the television screen from time to time and trying to swipe icons or change channels by pressing the screen.  Her exposure is minimal, but it is developing an expectation of the way we interact with these devices.  It seems that the paradigm paralysis that so many of the adults struggle with in adopting the new technologies (the paralysis that has kept some of the technology at bay due to lack of serious adoption by a large percentage of the population) is also shifting to a period of exponential change as young people not only accept but expect this technology to be a part of their working and educational worlds.

I have long argued that the failure of our educational system to adapt and change to a model that holds relevance to our customers (the students that attend our schools and the parents that expect the best from our schools) places us in a position where one innovation may entirely invalidate the need for a public educational system.  For several nights now I've laid in bed and marveled at the concept that my children received gifts that may be one or two generations away from being the tools that make public education entirely irrelevant, primarily because these tools are entirely customizable to the individual and because they can be accessed at any time or any place.  These are the things we know our public schools need to do to advance, but it is the paradigm paralysis of the adults that forces us closer and closer to the edge of extinction, while young, innocent children are introduced to the tools that will educate them in the future.  It is almost eerie to consider!

Hopefully some key players in education also had a similar experience this holiday season and are starting to see the writing on the wall.  Perhaps we'll come back to 2011 invigorated and motivated to actually do something about making our educational system once again relevant.

Adopting educational technology: The journey to full integration

What I love most about my professional learning network (PLN) is the continuous opportunities it has provided me for reflection on my professional practice.  It never fails to inspire me when I'm in a funk, teach me something new when I least expect it, or provide insight that I would not have come to on my own.  My PLN has been particularly helpful lately as I've experienced incredible frustration with the sluggish pace of educational reform.

Recently while fumbling between an Ed Tech Talk podcast, reviewing some of the recent Tweets I missed, and I was thinking about comments I heard a recent tech committee meeting at our school.  I was specifically stuck on a comment made by one person that suggested that the district needed to provide both quality educational experiences and experiences utilizing technology. The suggestion that the two could not work in tandem reminded me that everyone at the table was at a very different place regarding their conceptual understanding of the role technology could play in changing the way we teach students.

Through the combination of it all I was reminded of just how much I've grown in my understanding of the ways that technology can transform and enhance educational delivery and instructional practice for educators willing to embrace it.  It wasn't really so long ago when I was the one scoffing at some of the very same ideas I now promote in these meetings.  I, too, probably wondered how we could find enough time in the day to teach all of the regular curriculum and then add new "technology specific skills" to the list.  The epiphany that technology can alter what education looks like probably never struck me when I was just beginning to grasp the concepts I fully accept now.  That is a realization one has to come to as we allow these concepts to roll around for a while.

This strikes me as an important revelation to hold on to when I experience the frustration that comes with trying to move the juggernaut of education at anything faster than a snail's pace.

While seeing can be believing within the world of educational technology (and thus doing is adopting???), there is no substitute for the time needed to allow the innovative ideas of this movement/pedagogy/practice to really take hold and transform the thoughts/beliefs/practices of those on the journey to adoption and integration of instructional technology principles.  Those of us that have made a habit of drinking the koolaid have to remember that.  Most of us needed that time to adjust as well.  It just happened that so many of us, as early adopters, were so far ahead of the wave that there was no pressure to adopt these ideas overnight.  Too often I find myself wanting to push the masses of educators just arriving to these concepts in a direction that they are not mentally prepared to accept.  I feel like that little kid who has been in the cave hundreds of times; now I just need my friends to trust me enough to follow me blindly into the darkness.  Fortunately, these professionals value their students and their profession enough to step cautiously when entering the darkness.  They are not going to follow blindly.  The result: I'm left to search for new and better ways to urge these educators along on the path to adoption and integration of educational technology more quickly than I came to the same full acceptance I want them to achieve.

One of the best ways that I can think of to help them achieve this growth and adoption more quickly is to take full advantage of something I was skeptical of during my journey: developing a high quality PLN.  For me my Twitter, Teachers 2.0, podcast, and personal networks serve as an ongoing source of ideas that help me to uncover new ideas, explore new terrain, and reflect on my practice.(you see, of course, the circular reasoning of this post...I end in the same place that I started).  My PLN serves as the ongoing backdrop of professional conversations that keep me focused on the areas of interest to me.  If I had the benefit of these conversations earlier in my educational technology adoption journey, perhaps I would have started to accept these ideas/practices more quickly.

Therefore, I'm going to begin suggesting to those that I would like to see move along more quickly in their instructional technology adoption that they form a network of influential thinkers that may help keep them focused on the task at hand: using technology to transform education.  Of course, this suggesting will best be served with a side of mentoring as to how to actually achieve this(do you remember how hard it was to start developing a high quality PLN?).  By the way, this is a heck of a way to start gaining even more followers and growing my virtual ego to an even greater extent.

Sidenotes: Getting tech into ed by owning the changes

The 21st Century is here.  In fact, it has been here for a while.  Yet, as is typical with anything in education, change toward embracing 21st century teaching/learning environments in public schools is comparable to the progress of a moving glacier.

And there are reasons for this overwhelmingly slow response to change in a rapidly changing world.  Lots of reasons. Lack of budgetary support.  Lack of time.  Lack of knowledge.  Lack of support.  Lack of professional development.  Lack of interest.  On the surface, these all seem like legitimate points.  How can we bring in new technology and utilize it properly if schools don’t have the money to afford the equipment?  How can we be expected to fit this expectation into an already jam packed year filled with mandatory curriculum?  How can we be expected to utilize technology properly in an educational environment if we don’t have the professional development training to instruct us on how do so?  As you can imagine (and probably can add to), the list of valid questions continues on.

But what if educators choose to look at this movement differently than we’ve looked at so many others?   (More on this in a minute.)

Over the course of my teaching career (which I’ll admit has not been that long), I have been impressed with the continuous incoming flow of “eduspeak” that has been thrown my way.  Professional learning communities.  Six traits of writing.  Six plus one traits of writing.  Differentiation.  All kinds of talk about assessment.  Classroom management strategies and professional development strategies and planning strategies and… well, you get the picture.  And what I’ve consistently noticed is that not one of these has been something I have had to seek out.  They have found me.

In fact, it seems that the channels and gateways by which these educational movements and catch phrases move about our community of educators always seem to be wide open, yet I don’t know of any teachers who have the ability to influence which of those catch phrases and movements we will grasp onto and hold true to.  Somehow, whether through administrative leadership or the suggestions of members of Boards of Education, these initiatives become district initiatives.  As initiatives, they are repeated as elements within district mottos, are painted on walls and plastered on handouts at staff meetings, and they become a part of the “language” used by Curriculum Directors in the district.

Have you ever wondered when you, as the educator who actually stands in front of that classroom of students each day, would have an opportunity to choose an initiative that you believed in?  Perhaps the time (or the opportunity) has come.

We know that technology is the future for our students.  We know that a solid foundation in 21st century skills is the essential literacy of generations of students today and well into the future. And, as educators, providing students with those essential skills is an initiative that most of us can support.

So, what if educators chose to look at movement of integrating technology with solid educational practices differently?  What if educators made the choice to embrace 21st century skills as a step in the right direction for education?  What if educators began to take the lead on finding ways to overcome budget and time constraints, to seek out and provide our own forms of professional development, and to take an initiative we whole-heartedly believed in to our administrators and boards as the direction we would like to see our schools go in?

The blending of quality instruction with seamless utilization of technology is a movement that educators can and should support.  By recognizing this sooner rather than later, we have the unique opportunity to encourage our districts to move in a direction that we believe in and that we know will make a positive difference in the lives of our students (not only while they are in our classrooms, but while they work and live in a world unlike one we have ever witnessed before).  When teachers begin to “own” the movement that embraces the integration of technology, we also begin to fully commit ourselves to the initiatives of our districts and to the overall direction of education.

And that’s not all we stand to gain (although that seems like an awful lot). Fully embracing  this type of initiative earns us the respect of our students and their parents, our administrators, and possibly even our communities (a respect that, as is proven with each referendum that is shot down and each contract negotiation that falls short of its initial goals, is not what it perhaps once was).   Additionally, educators gain the power that accompanies visionary leadership (the power we give up each time we allow some other party to choose an initiative that we feel uncommitted to and often choose not to support).  These are elements that should not be the focus in choosing to acknowledge the power of Instructional Technology in education, but they are certainly excellent perks!

So, what stands in our way?  Why don’t educators embrace this opportunity to finally push forward and “own” an initiative within their schools?  Well, status quo is one likelihood.  Lack of knowledge is another. Piles of excuses aren’t far behind, I’m sure.

But when we get down to what really matters — doing what is right for students– it seems like grasping this initiative is a worthwhile and meaningful venture.  And when we can focus on that…and begin to organize…educators can begin to “own” this truly progressive change in education.

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