Getting Real About Educational Technology
Educational-technology enthusiasts are regularly making a case against teachers who refuse to get on the tech bandwagon. They quickly dismiss anyone who does not wholeheartedly embrace every element of this new educational frontier. They raise questions regarding the professional flexibility of these "resisters." I actually have a different complaint: I am beginning to lose patience with the simplicity of the conversation around classroom technology.
When it comes to discussing the potential of technology in the classroom, I am neither cheerleader nor denier, yet I am wary of being labeled a technophobe when I occasionally express skepticism about the educational value of a computer game or an app. To think critically about technology is not an automatic dismissal of its potential value. Why are we looking at educational technology as a monolithsomething that teachers have to absolutely embrace or reject?
I can't be the only teacher encountering dilemmas related to the uses of iPads in the classroom. For example, the other day, my class was sprawled across the room writing essays on their iPads during Writer’s Workshop. I was conferencing with individual writers while trying to keep an eye on the others. With a small class of generally independent and invested 5th graders, this is not typically too much of a problem. However, something about the way a group of boys had gathered on beanbags in the class library exuded odd energy, so I moved in to investigate. As I approached, it was clear that they were nervously scrambling to close out of something on their devices. One student, less nimble than the others, could not move quickly enough to hide what had been distracting this group for the past 25 minutes: Minecraft. After questioning, I found out that they had been lured down the rabbit hole of an engaging session of dopamine-rich computer play, all of them so wired and distracted that they had pretty much forgotten they were even at school. And this was not the first time: We had been through this game of cat and mouse just the day before.
First let me explain. These kids are not troublemakers. They are not bored. And they are not lazy. They are all highly intelligent, curious, earnest, hard-working students. They were devastated to be caught ... again. They were worried about the consequences, but they were also horribly ashamed. Two cried. One boy said, "Take the iPad away from me. I can't handle it." A few others blamed Minecraft, complaining that it was so addictive they couldn't resist it, even knowing that playing it would get them in trouble.
As frustrated as I was, I knew that we teachers had our fingerprints on this problem as well. Why did I expect 10- and 11-year-olds to resist the Siren song of the iPad's distractions when my adult colleagues and I are struggling with the same compulsions?
It is time to end illusory thinking connected to educational technology. I do not have anything against Minecraft. I acknowledge its potential for inspiring creativity, engagement, and collaboration. But I also want to talk about real trade-offs. My students need to learn how to write and, as their teacher, I need to stop suspending disbelief about the distracting allure of games on their learning devices. Is it fair to put dessert on their lunch trays and then tell them that they can only look at it and smell it, but they cannot eat it until they get home (assuming their parents permit dessert)? By having these apps on their iPads, I am concerned that I am setting them up for unnecessary failure and shame.
Accuse me of being a tech resister, a slow adopter, or an "old school" educator for raising these questions. But I am not afraid of technology. In fact, I am a big fan of educational technology's potential to help my students explore ideas or express themselves more creatively, efficiently, or effectively. Several of my dyslexic students have recently mastered speech-to-text software, and it has transformed their ability to demonstrate their understanding and align their oral and written expression. They are now passionate "readers" because of the accessibility of audiobooks and they connect with their favorite children's authors through Twitter. As a professional, I am grateful to social media for making educational conversations, resources, and professional development opportunities more accessible.
Critical Thinking, Without Fear
But we need to stop oversimplifying the role tech plays in our students' lives. A deeper, more thorough, look at tech's benefits and trade-offs is needed. What are we potentially sacrificing when we do not carefully guide our children's use of their devices? Student engagement is an empty notion if we are not asking how they are being engaged. Are outcomes enhanced because of the addition of a specific technology, or hindered? We should be filtering our use of technology through this kind of inquiry. As a teacher of 26 years, my central question has always been: "What is the most effective way to teach this material?"
Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist from the University of Virginia, recently did a survey of the research looking at the learning benefits of gaming. Considering this is relatively new territory, it is not surprising that the conclusions raised more questions than they answered. I am not arguing that we have to wait until we know all the answers to explore the benefits of gaming in the classroom. But we owe it to our students to have more honest conversations about the accompanying untidiness.
Technology in the classroom is here to stay. Consequently, it is time for educators to begin to have more sophisticated conversations about best practices and to explore the inherent challenges. The learning potential of educational technology is infinite, but as with every learning tool, platform, or approach, educators need to sift through the tensions and talk about the challenges and trade-offs. It's time to give educators encouragement to apply critical thinking to technology without the fear of being labeled a Luddite.