Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Technology as an amplifier.

When we think about the potential "technology" has to transform classrooms, there is no shortage of cliche's or 140 character "truths" that can be uttered in a moments notice. And it's not that I don't believe in many of these ideas or that our students do not deserve to learn using whatever tools help them learn best.  Over the years, one of the statements that has always resonated with me is the idea that "technology is an amplifier".  At face value, this may sound like a truly underwhelming vision of what "technology" can be in the hands of the right teachers and students. My initial thought about this statement years ago was that it didn't go far enough in shining a light on the potential "technology" has to offer in our classrooms and schools.

Yet here I sit several years later and upon further review, I think this statement is spot on.  That's not to say that the uses of "technology" in a classroom can't be transformative. It's just that often the "technology" we use shines a light on the wrong things. In some cases, it amplifies bad practices too. Which is why I think we have to be careful that we aren't being hyperbolic when discussing the power of technology to the technophobes and cynics when heavily investing in "technology" in schools. We have to accept that no amount of new devices or access to new software or tools will ever increase learning. Period.

What  does increase learning is the effort and will of the person(s) behind the design of the learning opportunities and experiences for our kids. (ie. the teacher)

Five years ago when I began to heavily invest in teaching and learning about technology in my classroom (mostly through my online PLN), it became obvious to me that I was a hypocrite. The very things I was spouting  to complete strangers and preaching  to colleagues  were not evident in my classroom. And maybe my colleagues were just patient because no one called me out on it. But it was true.  And that burden weighed heavily on me.  All of the technology I was using in my classroom was "amplifying" poor instructional and assessment practices. Having students re-create "digital" poster projects was not innovative. Disregarding curriculum in order to do projects that interested me and had little academic purpose other than to say we were learning "online" only benefited some of my students.  I'm not too proud to admit that I had wasted kids time by giving them way too many days to "research" just so I could say we were using online resources. The truth is that I loved the idea of doing all of these amazing "projects" I kept reading about, but I just didn't want to put the time or energy into ensuring that the "technology" was being used effectively, efficiently, and maximizing the learning potential for ALL students.  I did not want to collect and use evidence that might prove that I had absolutely no clue.

I didn't want to explore standards. I didn't want to determine the essential questions or enduring understandings. I didn't want to write student friendly objectives or have my kids reflect on them. I couldn't even begin to determine how to best assess my students because I hadn't even identified what was most essential to begin with. I was wandering the desert. And I suspect that many of my colleagues are stuck there right now too.

Perhaps to be fair, jumping from web based project to web based project led me to designing a project based unit which led to designing a few others.  I began to study the standards and grapple with essential questions. I began to explore transfer skills and determine what content was essential. I began to map out my assessments methodically and strategically and I was rarely surprised by the results I achieved (good or bad). I stopped hiding from the data and other evidence and each assessment provided an opportunity for me to challenge myself. It became as much about my growth as my students.

I have hope that many of my colleagues who are engaging in web based collaborative learning are moving towards the panacea of authentic, student led personalized learning too.  The potential to learn together, collaboratively and beyond our physical location is too great to pass up. But so is the potential of designing truly meaningful, authentic, standards driven (there, I said it) learning experiences that don't ignore the classic literature or seminal moments of mankind's history. We can't forsake exploring essential content or grappling with integral skills just so we can have our students use the latest web based tools.  We can't simply trade the textbook for a laptop and expect our kids to become expert learners.  At the end of the day, technology is an amplifier. The question we must all ask ourselves is "What exactly is it amplifying?"