Don’t plan for technology; plan for learning

You never know how someone will react when you suggest that they junk their title and replace it with a new one that leads to a different focus of work—not to mention the confusion this could cause across the faculty, or the possible political tension it might generate.

I was about to suggest that the title “Director of Educational Technology” was too narrow for the scope of the work that needed to be accomplished to improve learning for students at this highly successful International School in Asia where I was consulting.   The traditional title, which focused on the tools themselves, did not convey the complexity of the problem to be solved.

Even if all teachers learned how to use all of the available tools—a nearly impossible and hugely time-consuming task—this might not lead to improved learning. I have watched students in laptop schools sitting in rows, taking notes on their machines from a teacher who is giving a decade-old lecture on an interactive whiteboard. While this kind of implementation might be deemed a success in terms of the technical adoption, it’s nothing more than the same script with new tools—and we shouldn’t expect any different results. There has to be more to this massive investment than introducing new tools, only to end up with same work.

(Next page: Learning Design, explained)

Don’t get me wrong—tools are certainly essential. Let’s agree that every student needs a digital device, just as every student once needed a pencil and a notebook. But, just as a better pencil will not lead to improved learning, “better technology” might not, either. If we don’t redesign the culture of teaching and learning and ask some fundamental questions about the design of learning environments, our investment in technology will be wasted. Shouldn’t we define the problem as a learning design problem, rather than a technology problem?

My client in Asia remained calm and even smiled when I suggested a complete reorganization of his department. His response was, “That makes sense. We should do it.” I suggested that he create a new direction for his work, to be reflected in a change to his title—from “Director of Technology” to “Learning Design Facilitator.”

“Learning design” is a much more comprehensive approach than “technology.” It immediately implies that we need to make more changes than putting tools into the hands of our students and teachers. We need to reconsider the entire learning ecology. We need deep conversations about assignment design, assessment, locus of control, ethics, relationships, the definition of leadership, and even family involvement. Even the design of the furniture, the schedule of the school day, and the role of the library have to be reconsidered. Most important of all, we need to reconsider pedagogy and weigh such options as flipped learning, self-directed learning, online learning, and peer instruction.   For states adopting the Common Core standards, there should be an entire initiative of aligning technology resources to the new standards.

One of the most fundamental changes in a Learning Design approach is to shift the questions from “What technology do we need?” to “What information do we need?” and “What relationships do we need?” For example, one of the most important ideas in the research on learning is to make student thinking visible. (See the work of John Hattie, professor of education at the University of Melbourne in Australia.)

Do teachers have all of the information they need at their fingertips to understand how their students think? This is a really important question that can drive a critical strategy for implementing technology. From reading apps such as Subtext, where teachers have access to students’ highlights in real time, to collaborative note taking with Google Docs, to students who design screencast tutorials for their classmates, there is a huge opportunity to provide teachers with new sources of information about students’ ideas, misconceptions, questions, and links to learning resources. “Making thinking visible” can be a subcommittee of the Learning Design team.

New pedagogies such as flipped learning can free secondary education teachers to work with every student every day, creating new relationships based on support and advocacy while cutting down on punishment for not doing the homework. Peer instruction, pioneered by Harvard Professor Eric Mazur, has proven how much influence students have on each other’s academic success. These processes are more important than the technology itself. So, another subcommittee of the Learning Design team could be the pedagogy committee.

While we must ensure that every learner’s device is working in a seamless way across a robust network, the really important issues are about learning design, and not the tools. Just shifting our perspective to look at the quality of the information flowing through the wires and the boxes can lead to an improvement in how we invest in technologies. Ensuring that our teachers and students have the right information at the right time is more important than the device itself.

Finally, I have written extensively about the ownership of learning. I remain convinced that this is one of the most important learning design issues. Too much technology is invested in maintaining the locus of control in the organization we call “school.” The research shows that unlearning is much more difficult than adding something new.

One of the most important learning design questions is, “What do teachers need to unlearn in order to shift ownership of the learning process to their students?” For example, I believe that in many cases, we should teach students to research their own answers to problems, rather than depend on a teacher to answer the question for them.   I also believe we can empower students to co-create assessments. Whoever “owns” the learning will take more responsibility for its quality.

Alan November is the founder of ed-tech consulting firm November Learning. Join Alan in Boston for the 2013 Building Learning Communities Conference, where pre-conference sessions and keynotes with Dr. Yong Zhao and Dr. David Weinberger will lead into three days containing more than 100 sessions focusing on Common Core, critical thinking, global communication, creativity, and other ways to achieve more meaningful teaching and learning enhanced by technology.

Learn more and register at

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