At the Intersection of New and Old

Can Education Technology from the 21st Century Coexist With Education Technology from the 19th Century? 

I am fortunate enough to be a part of a great school that is, at its very core, embracing truly innovative and cutting edge instructional technology.  While it’s easy to take for granted what I see on a daily basis, I am reminded often, especially when we have visitors from other educational institutions, that not everyone works in an educational utopia like I do.

Every proponent of 21st Century Education Technology, either those proponents within or those outside but who longingly peer into a progressive institution, has no doubt read, and possibly even memorized much of the content of a very compelling 2006 Time Magazine cover story, “How To Build a Student For the 21st Century”.  That article suggested Rip Van Winkle could awake from a 100-year slumber and be totally disoriented by and unfamiliar with every aspect of American society…except within the narrow halls of our schools where he would exclaim, “This is a school…we used to have these back in 1906.” 

Why is that?

While I have been in the education arena now for some seven years, the preponderance of my career has been in the corporate world…a world where implementing yesterday’s technology opens doors for your competitors and results in declining market share…a world where shunning technology entirely equates to certain business death.  Not the case in schools.  Teachers have survived for decades using the same “technology”, i.e. blackboard & chalk, as their teachers used to instruct them a generation before. 

And why is that?

I think there are probably a number of answers to my two why’s.  The one that comes to mind first is the fact that the fundamentals, the 3 R’s if you will, of elementary education have not changed much in the last, oh let’s say, century.  The alphabet still goes from A to Z, 2 + 2 still equals 4 and we still need to learn how to read about Jane and Spot running around.  Secondly, because the underlying fundamentals have not changed, there is really no perceived need to change the methodology employed to teach those basics.  After all, our schools have consistently been churning out scientists, corporate executives and even world leaders…so if it isn’t broke? 

The “If It Isn’t Broke” thing works for many situations, I’ll give you that.  But sometimes it may be more a need for improvement rather than repair.  The retail marketplace wasn’t broken before Mr. Walton jumped in with both feet.  But he knew he could do it better.  Likewise, Henry Ford didn’t necessarily see the auto industry as broken; he just knew what the consumer needed in an automobile and felt he had a better way to meet those needs. 

But neither of these men ignored industry standards of the day.  Mr. Walton’s first venture into retail was through the purchase of a “dime store” franchise.  While he operated within the confines of that franchise, he made sweeping changes which ultimate led to his store becoming far more successful than any other in that chain.  Likewise, Mr. Ford did not abandon all traditional auto manufacturing methodologies.  Instead, he used a combination of existing technologies and newer technologies of the day.    

And here-in lies what I think is the current state-of-the-union in education.  So many new technologies are available to enhance and bring relevance to the classroom.  The web has literally exploded with applications for educators over the last year or two.  Web 2.0, Interactivity, Collaboration…buzz words of this new edtech world.   But hold on, no real need to abandon books or your whiteboard (or chalkboard if the dust fits) all together. 

There is a great disparity among school across the country today with respect to technology implementation.  Some schools/districts are totally immersed in technology.  Others are actually shunning technology completely.  And oddly enough, these two types of school could literally be across the street from each other.  While total emersion in technology can backfire if done incorrectly, I am more concerned for those schools that are in the shunning mode.  And the resistance, as I’ve seen, can come from the top down or the bottom up, organizationally speaking of course.  So here are a few of my suggestions to help chip away at the resistance factors. 

Administrators: 

Don’t force technology on your teachers; some of them truly are afraid of it.  Encourage them to explore but be firm in your resolve for the direction you plan to take the institution.  Let them know there is a seat for them on the bus if they want it, but the bus is pulling out regardless. 

When you implement technology, don’t set stringent usage requirements, resentment is likely to set in.  Offer your teachers technology training opportunities…options abound.  But help them or get help for them to focus the options on areas most advantageous to their discipline.  This will help avoid the detrimental “information overload”. 

And, if I may be so bold, be sensitive to what the teacher believes makes him or her “a teacher”.  I have a 3rd grade teacher who said I can bring any and all technology into her classroom, but don’t ever take down the chalkboard.  Seems she’s dreamt of being a teacher since childhood and the chalkboard is a critical staple of that dream.  I get that…and the chalkboard is still there…and she uses it…but she is also a real leader in classroom technology integration at our school.  One century’s technology does not preclude another’s.

Teachers: 

Fear not the technology beast.  Computers are our friends.  I tell all my teachers, “It’s very difficult to break the computer…but even if you manage to do it, we can fix it.” 

Lead the students in their quest for knowledge rather than feel compelled to impart knowledge.  It is ok not to be the only one in the classroom with all the answers. 

Learning no longer resides solely within the classroom.  It never really has only resided in the classroom…there has always been peer-to-peer learning.  But today there are orders of magnitude more learning resources available to students than ever before.  But guess what?  Same goes for you in your own professional development.  Construct your own Personal Learning Network (more on that in future blogs) and learn from your peers, many of whom are doing truly innovative things in the classroom and ALL are more than willing to share. 

While I envision a day where schools will never have another “snow day”, clearly that day is not today…nor will it be tomorrow.  But just like the side mirror on your car that reads, “Warning – Objects Are Closer Than They Appear”, deeply integrated education technology in every school is closer that you might think.

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