As the reliability of such devices improved and their obvious benefits made them part of everyday life, subsequent generations stopped thinking of them as technologies and simply saw them as tools to make life and work easier and more effective.
In contrast, when these devices were considered “technology,” they represented the unknown. They were complex and unreliable. There is a burden and a cost to using them that is not always offset by their benefits.
Even the best connotations of the ‘T word’ are problematic. Technophiles greet it with a sense of faith that borders on the religious. Often the sense that data was produced by a computer using an algorithm gives us a sense that it is free from careless human mistakes. We sometimes neglect to apply standard rules of skepticism to the algorithm itself, and we view the technology like some sort of magical black box.
Neither one of these connotations of the ‘T word’ are particularly helpful for teaching and learning. We can’t expect teachers to embrace things where complexity outweighs benefits. But we also can’t develop critical thinking skills if the tools we use look like magic to the unquestioning eye.
I am encouraged, however, by two trends that seem incredibly positive.
Schools replacing technology with appliances
About 10 years ago, my school began putting a Windows Tablet PC into the hands of every student. Some teachers embraced this change, but many others were frustrated by slow boot up time, virus infections, student tinkering, and short battery life. Despite our best efforts and well-thought-out support plans, these powerful computers with their limitless features and capabilities were complicated. Kids could (and did) screw them up, and this technical complexity cost teachers precious class time.
This year, we made the move to iPads in our sixth grade. By moving to a device with a more limited feature set, we saw student and teacher productivity soar. We hardly ever deal with iPad technical problems. A simplified device also means a more intuitive one with a lower learning curve. I don’t think this is unique to iPads. I suspect that Android tablets or Chromebooks would yield similar results. These devices aren’t technology, they are tools. They are appliances.
The Maker Movement
Paradoxically, the idea that we simplify devices to improve their reliability seems to cut directly against the idea that we should approach technology with a more critical eye. I want my students to question anything that comes out of a computer. They should have a high level of understanding of how a computer collects data and exactly what it does with it before they accept or interpret meaning from that data.
Fortunately, the consumer availability of tools like microcontrollers and 3D printers are helping a burgeoning community of teachers and tinkerers pry the cases off their toys and electronics.
This community draws support from publications such as Make Magazine and its affiliated businesses Maker Shed and events such as Maker Faire. Schools across the country have begun to develop robotics teams and to build fab labs and maker spaces. They are putting tools in the hands of students and designing opportunities for authentic, student-centric learning experiences.
This separation of the technological from the tools of productivity seems like a good thing to me.
It allows for experimentation and tinkering where appropriate without getting in the way of efficiency and productivity.
Part of me thinks that as classroom tools become simpler and more reliable, jobs designed to help teachers make sense of classroom technology (jobs like mine) will become less and less relevant. While being labeled irrelevant seems a little threatening, I think that this will probably be the best indication that we are finally on the right track.
Trevor Shaw has worked as an ed-tech leader, speaker, writer, consultant, and classroom teacher for over 20 years. He is currently the director of technology at the Dwight-Englewood School and can be reached at @shawt, +TrevorShaw, and firstname.lastname@example.org.