Education Opinion

Is Technology the “Elephant in the Room”?

By Beth Holland — February 08, 2018 4 min read
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Recently, a professor provided feedback on one of the chapters in my dissertation. He commented that I had “missed the mark” in my description of the potential for technology in education. Where he wanted me to discuss its impact on the classroom, I had focused on how it affected the system of school as a whole. However, as I stared at his notes, I came to a new revelation: I have a dissertation about technology and education that has nothing to do with technology. At the moment, I started thinking that technology had essentially become the proverbial elephant in the room.

After receiving that feedback, I traveled to the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando. Thousands of educators converged to talk about technology. Some referred to it as apps and extensions, devices and platforms, robots, 3D printers, and learning management systems. Instead of describing the technological features of this 21st-century pachyderm, others spoke about what it could do: promote inquiry, differentiate, increase accessibility, and spark creativity. And yet, I had this nagging feeling that the elephant was just flapping its ears in the corner of the room and staring at me as if to say, “that’s not really me.”

At the very end of the conference, I attended a session with Caitlin Krause called Virtual Real-IT-y. Part-way through, she shared a quote from Seymour Papert, “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.” At that moment, I realized that the elephant has nothing to do with technology.

Teaching and learning can no longer be extricated from conversations about apps and devices; and yet, the issue in education has never been about the medium - whether iPad, pencil, or quill and ink. Instead of thinking about technology as a thing, we need to consider it as a system. Digital tools and the Internet have made it possible to create, connect, analyze, and synthesize. Learning can now happen anywhere, at any time, and from anyone. We have access to a vast collection of data and information from our pockets, and the power to share our thoughts and feelings with the world. So while technology lies at the heart of everything that happens in and around schools, we need to shift the conversation away from talking about technology as just a tangible object and towards discussions of its impact on the systems of community and culture.

I had been sitting with this revelation for a few days when Tim Hebda, Dean of Professional Growth at Waynflete school in Portland, ME, tweeted out this question:

What cultural norms, curriculum, structures, and/or supports do you wish were in place before beginning your #edtech integration journey?"

First, I thought about culture. In their 2010 report, Mourshed, Chijioke, and Barber explained that excellent education systems exist as communities that embrace transparency as well as a willingness to learn. Within excellent systems, leaders at all levels work to build human connections across the system of the school or district in support of change. They make time to build cohesion and internal systems of support for their colleagues. The norms of the community are realized through a shared language of pedagogy that addresses the why and how of learning instead of isolated tips, tricks, or strategies.

Second, before talking about technology, there needs to be a shared understanding and mental model to define learning - both within the school as well as with parents and the broader school community. Beyond developing a common framework for skills, competencies, goals, and objectives, all stakeholders need to recognize what it looks like to be an active learner in a technology-enabled context. Only after the establishment of an agreed-upon vision of learning can there be a meaningful dialog about how digital technologies may - or may not - support it.

Finally, we need to move away from the word “integrates” when talking about technology. The word “integrate” implies combination or putting something into an existing structure. Instead, we should deeply examine the structures themselves. Technology challenges the tenets on which we base our understanding about schools. Students no longer need classrooms or teachers to acquire basic information or learn discrete skills. Instead of “integrating” technology into our schools, we need to take the opportunity to reconsider what school could truly become.

The elephant in the room has everything to do with technology but is not really about technology at all. As Caitlin eloquently said, it is about the mindfulness of our cultures, our norms, and our beliefs about developing students as learners. Imagine the potential if instead of having technology conversations about apps and devices teachers, leaders, and parents collaboratively addressed this larger, deeper challenge.


Mourshed, M., Chijioke, C., & Barber, M. (2010). How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better. Retrieved from McKinsey & Company //www.mckinsey.com/industries/social-sector/our-insights/how-the-worlds-most-improved-school-systems-keep-getting-better

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