The Role of Technology in Education

It would be easy for a self-proclaimed educational technologist to claim that technology is an indispensable component of modern education.

It’s not.

What do you really need to teach a child how to read? You need a child. You need a willing teacher. It’s helpful to have a book. Everything else is superfluous. When I visited Remba Island in Lake Victoria five years ago, I found a “school” crudely built with corrugated steel and chicken wire. There were no doors or windows, just open spaces to let people — and light — in. Children sat at wooden benches on the dirt floor. There was no electricity and no running water. But there was learning. Students were learning about the water cycle in one classroom and arithmetic in another. In this place where I couldn’t open my mouth without ingesting insects, learning was happening. And there wasn’t a computer or a mobile phone or even a digital camera anywhere in sight. There were just committed teachers and students who needed an education.

But we’re in the first world, not the third world. The expectations here are a bit different.

8720604364_85c5931a14_z_d[1]Technology gives us the opportunity to differentiate and personalize learning in unprecedented ways. Computer programs can break content standards down into specific learning targets. Software can assess students, identify their weaknesses, and provide instruction to address those challenges. It can adapt along the way to provide remediation or extension where appropriate, and it can vary the pace of instruction to fit the needs of the learner. Because the student is constantly interacting with the content, the very act of learning becomes continual formative assessment. Teachers can access this data and use it to intervene where appropriate, identifying patterns in student achievement gaps and working to fill them. Because their roles are shifting away from direct instruction, teachers can spend more time interacting with individual and small groups of students, providing the personal attention that was never before possible.

But that’s not the exciting part of technology in education. While everything I’ve described is possible, there are few tools that actually deliver on this promise. And they miss one important fact: this approach is perfectly suited to disseminate content to students, but simply acquiring content is far less important than it was a generation ago.

My parents went to school because school was where the knowledge was. The teacher was the content expert, and if there was anything about biology or Shakespeare or trigonometry that she didn’t know, there was a textbook with all of the answers. The role of the teacher was to share this knowledge with the students, and we called this process education.

Today, the students already have all of the content. It’s in the device they’re carrying around in their pockets. They don’t need to learn about the civil war from the bald guy in the shirt and tie at the front of the room. They can pull up countless primary sources, documentaries, and analyses of every event with just a few keystrokes. The teacher’s job, now, is to help the students make sense of the content. They have to filter, analyze, and synthesize it. They need to be able to combine disparate ideas in new ways, creating new insights that can be applied to the complex problems they’ll face in this century. They have to be able to ask relevant and insightful questions. They need to be able to think critically and creatively about the problems they’re trying to solve. They must be able to articulate their new ideas in both traditional and new ways, and they must do all of this collaboratively, because none of us is smart enough to face these challenges alone.

Technology makes all of this possible. Students use both general and specialized search tools to find the relevant information they need. They use online tools to curate, annotate, and document these resources. They use social networking tools to connect to one another, sharing resources, providing context, and engaging in conversations about the content and their learning. They use cloud-based tools to work together on the creation of documents and presentations. They use media tools to easily record audio, create video, remix content, and make new products. Then, publishing this work to a global audience is trivial. They engage with their audience through comment systems to react to one another’s work. Along the way, they build a personal network of peers — both within and outside the school — that becomes a cohort of life-long learners.

The value of technology in education is not in making things more efficient or less expensive or more engaging. It’s in making new things possible.

Photo Credit: Lucélia Ribeiro on Flickr.

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One comment

  1. Excellent points. I’m one of those self proclaimed educational technology experts; and I agree: the technology isn’t necessary for education, but it certainly does give us some amazing new possibilities. With technology, teachers have the ability to differentiate instruction, and to enhance the educational experience in unprecedented ways.

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