The advent of the car in American culture was a great boon. People could easily go places in relative comfort that were previously impossible or impractical. But while cars allowed people to go places more quickly and easily, they didn’t tell people where they should go. The technology was good in that it created the possibility for more value-producing actions, but the car didn’t say what those value-producing actions were. The technology available for education is similar. The entire public domain (tens of thousands of titles) is now available in an instant for free online. If that weren’t enough, a dizzying number of apps, software, and websites are specifically designed for educators and learners. In essence, educators now have a nice fast car, but how do they decide where they should go?
Currently technology is being gobbled up by schools at a mind-numbing rate. Much of the purpose for technology relies on the idea that the curriculum for any given subject is a static body of knowledge and we must find a way to make it engaging by changing the form of our delivery. Why? Because we believe on its own, schoolwork is boring. So we find an app that delivers the lesson as a video game, we look up videos on youtube, we have the students use Twitter or Surveymonkey to turn in answers, etc. We buy into the quote by Isocrates, “The root of education is bitter, but sweet are its fruits”, and we try to add a little sugar to the bitterness. But my suspicion is that when students seem engaged by these new forms they are really enjoying the forms, not the subject matter. (At least, that’s what my students usually tell me.)
Now almost everyone has a class or two that has a special place in his or her memory from school. I haven’t done a poll, but I would bet that nine times out of ten that special class wasn’t special or effective because of the technology; it was special or effective because of the teacher. That’s because of the simple fact that teachers teach, and whatever technology they use to teach (a chalkboard, an online curriculum, or the latest software) is a tool they use to help them teach. (I don’t mean to get all warm and fuzzy about teachers in general. On the contrary, that most adults only mention one or two teachers that resonated with them is pretty damning.)
My memory of those special teachers is that they knew their subject, were passionate about it, and showed their passion through life-long study of their subject and its importance. They didn’t see “the curriculum” as a static body of knowledge that they needed to make palatable. They saw it as a vibrant, living, important story to be passionately told. They were scholars and their courses were compositions. Their courses were integrated products from the mind of a competent composer designed such that at the end, the student understood a single unit. The student “got” literature, “got” math, “got” science, “got” history.
So, when assessing technology options, this special teacher should be considered. What technology will best help him more thoroughly bring his unique qualified vision to reality? What technology will help him adjust his vision quickly and easily to fit the needs of his particular students? What technology will allow him to present a course that has the appearance of an integrated whole? (And not the appearance of a patchwork of supplementary materials from disparate sources) And if he isn’t that special teacher, what technology will help him become one? What educational technology will help the teacher become the passionate, life-long learning scholar he needs to be to make his subject come alive?
Currently there are wonderful technologies that help the dynamic, passionate, teacher present a better educational product, and I happily use many myself. Sadly, there are many other educational technologies that instead sacrifice the matter of education to the form of education. Remembering the importance of the role of the teacher in teaching is an easy way to tell the difference between the two.