Three Questions to Ask Before Choosing Technology for Education

Emerging Technologies and Edtech October 10, 2014

Education technology is trendy. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t read an article or have a conversation in which someone makes the familiar argument that “education is the one industry that hasn’t embraced the technologies of the 21st century.” The world has changed – so the story goes – and while every other industry has adapted, school hasn’t. 

It sounds convincing. We should certainly embrace tools and technologies that will help educators become more impactful. But we should do it because it works, not for the sake of modern humanity’s obsession with progress, newness, innovation, and disruption. 

To ensure that educators choose technology for the right reasons, here are three questions you might ask before choosing technology for the classroom.

1. Does it make academic content more meaningful?

 With all the talk of 21st -century skills, it is easy to get caught up in new literacies and look for technologies that contextualize academic skills within current use cases. However, if there’s one thing we know for sure it is that the way we use knowledge is bound to change. The dilemma is that while it is clear that we should not be teaching directly to today’s workplace skills, we also cannot imagine what skills will be in demand when today’s students become adults. 

Luckily, education is not about job training. Instead, it is the child-rearing activity of civilization. We nurture our young into reflective citizens by teaching them the social and epistemological agreements of an increasingly global collective. Critical thinking and the ability to wield the academic languages with which we articulate ourselves are the key skills which enable us to remain flexible in the face of a perpetually changing world. 

Therefore, while keeping the dynamic nature of the human experience in mind, teachers, administrators, and policy makers need to look for technologies that offer the most meaningful learning experiences. And that’s not as abstract a criterion as it seems. Just remember, all good tech implementations enable students to be more creative. Great digital classroom technologies scaffold opportunities for learners to playfully imagine applying academic content to the world of their wildest dreams.

2. Does it humanize or mechanize the classroom?

Unfortunately, applicability has been prioritized over theory in recent years. This is not an accident. Privileging action above thinking is the ideology of the corporate world. The trouble is that running schools according to the wisdom of business is precisely the thought paradigm which led to the highstakes testing procedures which currently plague the United States. We account for learning outcomes as if they were profit margins. We measure the dividends returned on technology and infrastructure investments. We see children as industrial resources evaluated according to their ability to acquire “workplace skills.” And for some bizarre reason -and despite all evidence to the contrary – we continue to expect that these metrics will somehow correlate with thoughtful, ethical, and responsible adult individuals.

The fundamental problem is a kind of deterministic thinking that sees causality through a mechanized metaphor – as if students were machines being programmed, modified, and tuned up. We assess learners’ ability to perform operations and therefore we privilege the regurgitation of facts rather than the ability to thoughtfully make meaning through metaphor in a reflective and contextualized way. We value precision more than poetry. 

If our education technologies only aim to maintain the current paradigm of precision with increased economy and efficiency, we’ll find they make things worse. Devices that help our students see the inherent fallibility of human thinking, however, have the potential to bring new vitality to our schools.

3. What’s the implicit message?

 School is ultimately a “technology of the self” (to borrow a phrase from Michel Foucault). It involves a systematic process through which we nurture individuals’ sense of agency, decorum, and responsibility. School is the structure within which narratives of personal and collective identity are contextualized using the intellectual structures and academic skills that we’ve inherited from preceding generations. Digital tools have the ability to enhance schools. . But we need to make sure that these tools are aligned with learning outcomes which prioritize human dignity rather than haste, consumption, and algorithmic metrics. 

Don’t be fooled into thinking that educational technologies are neutral. Manufacturers want us to believe that tablets and computers are merely tools that transmit academic content to students. On the contrary, they do much more than that. Embedded in every technological solution is a moral/ethical stance, an image of the good life, and a narrative of the idealized self. The worldwide success of Apple’s marketing is evidence that digital gadgets are not only tools with which we manipulate our environment, but also props in a performed identity narrative. Google Glass and the current crop of wearable devices all presume that consumers have a desire to blur the boundaries between ourselves and the digital tools we use.  

The way we design and use tools and technologies teach our children how to make sense of the world, how to think about knowledge and information, and how to relate to themselves and to one another. Making sure we agree, in principle, with the tool’s implicit messaging—its vision of an ideal way of being—involves the most important questions we can ask. Yet, these are the questions we most often skip.