Looking at Technology Through a Learning Lens

Like many of you I’m sure, I enjoy reading Seth Godin. Maybe not as much as I like reading Sarason, Papert, and Frank Smith, but Godin’s thinking is often a sharp left turn from where I often find myself.

I was reading some copy he posted on his AltMBA course site this past week:

Welcome to the age of leverage. A moment in time when each of us has more tools, more reach and more impact than a head of state did a hundred years ago.

Each of us has the skills and insight and power to see what’s happening around us, to create new ideas, and most of all, to change the way others respond and act.

With this power, of course, comes the responsibility to actually do something with it.

How many of us take that responsibility seriously?

It struck me that maybe it’s not a responsibility that many are aware of, and maybe that explains a lot of what we are seeing in our schools today. I’ve just finished a couple of weeks of travel and workshops, and my big observation is that I am stunned by the opportunity that is now before us, as Godin outlines, when there seems so little anyone wants to actually DO about it.

In itself, maybe that is just learning latency or educators who feel they have too much else happening, but what really and truly stuns me is the realization of the consequences of that inaction.

I’ll share a good example with you.

For many years we ‘played around’ with desktop computers in our school labs. Not that we thought it was playing around at the time, but any serious research since has told us that no matter how many billions we invested in rationing access to computers locked away in labs, we were never going to undermine the robustness of our traditional school model and transform anything. School 1 Modern Learning 0.

Then just as we finally started to see the light by providing fully functional laptop computers to our students in serious numbers in the early part of this century, along came a wonderful new distraction, the simple, easy-to-use iPad. Now the iPad was a real winner on many fronts. For teachers it was ‘easy’ to manage, and when you added ‘Apps’ suddenly everything we had learnt about the pedagogical value of software went out the window. Simplicity and the magic word, ‘engagement’ won the day. The fact that the vast majority of Apps were little more than digital worksheets didn’t worry many, and in fact it seemed to make the transition to the ‘digital world’ even easier.  School 2 Modern Learning 0.

Next cab off the rank of course were ‘browser ‘devices, which by 2012-13 were taking many US schools by storm, and despite their need for connectivity, they were of course the perfect answer for…online testing. Now tragic as it may be that the real explosion in providing kids with a ‘device’ was driven by a federal government initiative to drive online testing, the real loser again was, yep you guessed it, any real commitment to modern learning. School 3 Modern Learning 0.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, along comes affordable pen-enablement on a variety of tablets and laptops. Now to be really fair, I think, in the right hands this technology offers enormous options for both teachers and students, but….the big attraction to many…teaching handwriting! School 4 Modern Learning 0.

To top it off, we read the latest research from this year’s EdWeek Technology Counts survey stating that while 50% of teachers reporting comfort with technology, only a minority use it for any interactive or collaborative activities, instead putting tech to use for testing or skill drills. School 5 Modern Learning 0.

You see, with the obvious exceptions of the often isolated amazing teachers across the globe who accepted the responsibility that Godin mentioned and have actually been DOING something that approaches modern learning with their students, we haven’t moved the needle very far, if at all.

We are now seeing an increasingly significant number of academics, journalists, educators, ‘experts’…and parents, who can’t see the point of it all; and frankly, I think they have a case. They are now becoming very vocal, as this actual quote from a parent states:

IT usage is proven in children and adults alike to lead to anti-interpersonal behaviour; Increased screen time reduces IQ levels, attention spans and memory in addition to inhibiting creative and deep level thinking on issues.

That’s what happens when we don’t take our responsibility to do something seriously.

So we’ve been given this Age of Leverage, and we’ve barely leveraged a thing. We’ve been too content transforming the medium our kids work in, rather than transforming their learning. And if we’re not careful we’re going to blow the one in a hundred plus years chance we have been gifted. Forget about SAMR and substitution, this is more about shuffling.

I’m now hearing more and more parents talking about their kids doing trivial apps on iPads; being distracted in class by social media and games, and very few of them talking about their sons or daughter doing things that they could NEVER do before, at levels of complexity that were simply NEVER available to them before. And, who still owns the learning?

When will we start to see the extraordinary become ordinary?

When will kids be using computers to do things in our schools that no parent, critic or academic will question the value of?   As but one simple example, if our students were doing the sorts of mathematics that Conrad Wolfram has been tirelessly promoting; the sort of higher level mathematical thinking that we could once only imagine was possible before our students had this digital leverage, then parents would be asking for more, not less.

So when will we stop looking at the way we should use technology through school-coloured spectacles, and start looking at it through a learning lens?

Seth and Seymour were right. We have a responsibility to do just that.

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Image Credit: Pete Reynolds and Gary Stager

Bruce Dixon

Modern Learners and Change School co-founder Bruce Dixon has spent the bulk of his career developing programs that assist governments to make effective use of technology across their education sector. His strategic work has enabled governments to better manage large scale personal technology deployments, and ensure outcomes that drive both school improvement and ultimately transformation.

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