Technology Doesn’t Matter (Unless…)

Last week, I was reading a blog post written last fall by Tom Murray that popped up in my Twitter feed, “No. Your 3D Printer Does Not Make You Innovative.” I enjoyed the way Tom categorized the roles these exciting tools are playing in classrooms, ranging from “bandwagon” devices (which get purchased with great fanfare and excitement, only to go on to live sad, lonely lives gathering dust in a closet .somewhere) to “MVP” devices that powerfully transform learning.  I have personally witnessed the full range of these types of implementation over the past few years. Tom’s big point was that exciting technologies such as 3D printers aren’t worth the investment if schools do not evaluate what they are doing in the classroom to ensure they are leveraging the full potential of the devices. As he states in the post, “Innovation is not about tools. It’s about people, processes, and pedagogy.” 

Taking this idea one step further, let me say that the same principle applies to all educational technology resource we decide to invest in for our classrooms. Technology resources are significant investments for schools, and they are at times purchased with inadequate focus and vision for what they will be used to accomplish. This goes for 3D printers, laptops, Chromebooks, iPads, VR/AR systems, interactive white boards, desktop computers, robot systems, document cameras, LED projectors, software tools, etc. These technologies may well have the potential to transform learning by increasing student engagement, involving students in real problem-solving, facilitating innovation and invention, building curiosity and creativity, etc. However, this is much more likely when implementation follows planning to evolve instruction and create new, powerful kinds of learning experiences. On the other hand, each has the very real possibility to go down in flames as huge wastes of precious school dollars.

How do we ensure, then, that we are getting the most from our exciting, new investments?  Here are a few questions that might be helpful for schools to consider before investing in the latest, hottest technologies:

  1. What student need or learning outcomes will be met by this technology?  Does it fit our overarching “why?”
  2. Are there existing resources or less  costly alternatives that meet the same goals as effectively?
  3. Are current classroom structures well suited to make the most of this tool–furnishings, arrangement, schedule, grouping, management, etc.?
  4. What training will teachers and students need to effectively and powerfully  use this technology?
  5. How should instructional time look when this technology is in use by students?
  6. Could students adapt the tool to new applications that go beyond the curriculum? Beyond the classroom?
  7. How will success be measured?

In summation, for me it goes back to something I heard more than a decade ago in a workshop led by Dr. Bernajean Porter. Dr. Porter proposed that the highest use of technology was “transformative”, allowing students to do and experience things otherwise not possible. If an education technology is truly an advancement in student learning, this should be obvious in what is happening in the classroom. Even the most amazing and powerful tools, however, can be significantly handicapped by a lack of planning, training, or vision. The priority for successful and impactful implementation should be planning to ensure opportunities for students to successfully use the technologies they are provided to solve problems, create, invent, design, connect, communicate, and engage in ways they could not imagine doing without them.

More Reflections on Why

Another impact of the Simon Sinek book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action is that I have been giving thought to how I could put my why into one concise, easily understood statement. While not ready to declare it as final, the following is the current incarnation:

To facilitate meaningful and engaging learning experiences that equip students to reach their dreams.

Here are a few key elements:

  1. Facilitate–my role is to provide tools, training, resources needed for learning.
  2. Meaningful–meaning is a highly personal thing, and we should look for and offer diverse learning opportunities and technologies reflective of the outside world
  3. Engaging–while digital learning tools are exciting to a large percentage of kids, they do not equal engagement by default. The focus still needs to be on powerful classroom practice that pulls learners in.
  4. Experiences–with a nod to John Dewey, learning is most effective within the context of powerful experiences. Do the technologies and strategies I promote create these?
  5. Equip…their dreams–we as educators are beholden to standards. Goals for our students are dictated from ivory towers and governments. Ultimately, however, I think most of us could see no higher level of success than if our students returned to us to tell us of big dreams we inspired and how they achieved those dreams.

Finally, another thought hit me yesterday: What would it look like if we taught our kids to articulate their whys? How might making these concrete affect how our students approach learning? Would our schools even fit their whys at all?

5 Things Schools Never Question But Should

Presented in no particular order, here are 5 deeply engrained ideas or practices in education that we follow, zombie-like, without asking if they are the best ways to promote student learning:

  • Number grades
  • Subject areas (science, English, reading, math, history, etc.)
  • Daily (and yearly) schedules
  • Report cards
  • Age-based grade levels

I think we could have some REALLY interesting faculty meetings just based on these pillars of education. What else should we question more? Could we do better, or are our current conceptions and applications of these things sound?

Does Educational Technology Matter?

Over the Thanksgiving break, multiple family road trips served as good opportunities to catch up on some audio books that I’ve been carrying around in my phone for the past year or so (My family might question this, but I’m driving, and they have their own headsets, so…). Once book I’ve been listening to is Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek. It is an interesting read/listen, if a bit repetitive at times. I have long believed that  vision was the best motivator of people, and Sinek shares many examples of groups where shared vision nurtured great accomplishment and sustained success. While primarily focused on business, the importance of understanding our why might be even more important in education. Our best schools and best educators are certainly not motivated by money or fame, after all. There is something more intrinsic and powerful that makes great teachers get to school early, stay late, create colorful and engaging learning environments, lend an ear to a student in crisis, continue to learn and grow professionally, put up with the tests and budget cuts, etc.

The book prompted me to do some reflecting on why I work as an educator and digital learning leader. Educational technology has been a source of some debate for many years. Research has, frankly, painted widely varying views of the educational impact and value of investing in computers, iPads, software, peripherals, etc. Entire schools have been set up as computer-free zones. Classroom technology and infrastructure funding are annually sources of debate and always on the chopping block. Still, technology integration remains something that some of us passionately promote at staff meetings, conferences, professional learning sessions, in social media, and even over family dinners. Here are my whys, which happily made a convenient acronym, CORE, and everyone loves acronyms!

  • Creativity — technologies offer countless opportunities for students to create.  Creativity is demonstrated and strengthened through producing an imaginative multimedia presentation or video, writing an original program, constructing a robot, or designing a 3D prototype. The most powerful moments I have witnessed involving educational technologies are those where original ideas became concrete products. Importantly, creative thinking transfers to almost all areas of life, whether solving a problem at work, fixing a car, raising a child, etc.  The creative processes of imagining something, making it, evaluating its quality, troubleshooting, and making needed improvements  are vital to our students’ future success, and technology is a valuable partner in their development.
  • Opportunity.  Whether a geek or a caveman, it is impossible to deny with sincerity or credibility the importance of some level of technological proficiency in the home, workspace, etc. Students who graduate without being able to use multiple tools and platforms are immediately at a disadvantage to more experienced peers, whether in the college classroom or the workplace. It is my goal for our Matador students to be exposed to a wide range of technology tools and, when possible, to master them. The opportunity to use these tools also opens students’ eyes and minds to future learning and working opportunities that they might have never considered or imagined. In short, I don’t want any of my Matadors to be limited in life by a lack of experiences while a student here.
  • Relevance. Used well and appropriately, educational technologies make learning immediately more relevant to students and the way they live. For example, a teacher could take students to the library or refer them to the class encyclopedia or dictionary to conduct research. I have heard teachers express that students need to know “how to do it the old fashioned way.” I have never churned butter, and it hasn’t once kept me from putting too much on my pancakes. I won’t argue against library research skills, but for most of us, research happens in the palm of our hands or sitting in front of a monitor. Name an elementary or middle school research topic, and a student can find an informative and suitable Youtube video in seconds (something they usually didn’t need a teacher to learn). Ed tech is comfortable and familiar to students, and the actions and products created reflect what they are doing and making outside of school. T
  • Engagement. My 3rd grade teacher’s biases aside, I have always found that happy students are more effective learners. Students faced with interesting, relevant, and challenging learning tasks  engage deeply and, therefore, learn better. Technology alone does not guarantee engaged kids. However, when technology is a part of a powerful, creative learning experience, and when it is a tool for creatively sharing ideas or projects, engagement soars. While “fun” should not be confused with engagement, students’ affinities for technologies make learning tasks less tedious, resulting in greater effort and stamina. The engagement effects can be especially significant for populations most at risk.

It should be mentioned that I don’t spend a lot of time promoting or supporting prescriptive technologies or software. I do recognize the value or place for some of these. However, specialized math tutorials, reading programs, commercial assessments, and similar technologies are simply too narrow in focus to fit the CORE reasoning behind what I do, and subject area specialists are often best suited to make those choices. For them, an important why might involve a student mastering multiplication facts or understanding context clues. My work necessitates that I focus on tools and strategies that have broader, more open-ended impact, and my whys reflect this.

It is also significant that I do not see high test scores as a worthy why or goal for using educational technologies. In my experience, effective, engaging learning experiences produce students more than capable of handling the tests. I wanted my students to truly lose themselves in the learning, and that is impossible if our why is just a  test. Tests are not a why that kids will share, and learning will suffer.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts. What are your whys? Leave your comments below. 🙂

3D Printing on a Budget–RXS 3D Pen Review

Ever since I first saw the 3Doodler show up on Kickstarter, I have been fascinated with 3D pens. These devices promised to open up a new world of creative possibilities to our students. Demo pictures and videos showed 3D bicycles, Eiffel Towers, unicorns, and more, all created with ease by simply drawing…up.  Well, fast-forward a few years and I will testify that either professional artists were at work making everything look so magically simple, or else I am just very inept. Even so, they continue to amaze and inspire my curiosity and creativity, and I am placing them in all of our elementary campuses,

Today, you can find literally hundreds of different sizes and shapes of 3D pens. While the earliest models ran well over $100, the newest are as inexpensive as $8.  After looking at several review sites and customer reviews, I decided upon the RXS 3D Pen for our elementary maker spaces. The RXS runs around $30, and is one of a big family of clone devices, as one manufacturer apparently supplies a few dozen companies. The large number of reviews and low price would seem to indicate that this is a popular model for the casual hobbyist.

The RXS has some nice features worth noting:

  • Because it can run at multiple temperatures, it supports either PLA or ABS filament. PLA is a low-temp filament made from organicmaterials. It prints shinier and with generally fewer flaws, but it is not as strong as ABS. ABS is oil-based and stronger, but prone to warping and gives off significant odor when melted.
  • Filament speed is easily controlled with a sliding bar on the side of the pen. Slower speeds allow greater control and precision. I think students will be more successful with the pen set to the slower speeds, particularly as they get used to the techniques involved in its use. Higher speeds, at least for me, tend to result in sculptures of spaghetti.
  • Loading and unloading are easily accomplished with buttons on the side of the pen, with the loading button also being the control to dispense the melted filament. It feels very natural and comfortable.

I have honestly not encountered any major issues with the pen, which is a very pleasant surprise given the low price point. The only cautions are the strong fumes given off by the included ABS filaments do require ventilation or an outside workspace, and the tip does get very, very hot, meaning students might be wise to wear gloves.

Overall, while my skills are still questionable (as evidenced to the right), I really like this pen. It is a bargain investment that promises to inspire some very exciting creations!

New Podcast: #30: What’s On the Horizon?

This (long-delayed) episode of the Moss Free Show discusses the six educational technology tools identified by the authors of the 2017 Horizon Report K12 edition as having immediate or imminent 2-5 years) impact on teaching and learning. What are your thoughts? Do you agree with the identified technologies, or did they miss something more significant?

Listen to “#30: What’s On the Horizon?” on Spreaker.

Matador Makerspaces Supplies

I wanted to share the shopping list for the new elementary makerspace carts, going into all of our elementary campuses in the next few weeks. After soliciting feedback from campus librarians (who will manage the carts as a part of the library inventory) and campus technology teachers, the list evolved from its original form to include more low- or no-tech tools, such as pipe cleaners and craft sticks, and less of the techie stuff I admittedly favor. I did manage to include a few, like MakeyMakeys, 3D pens, etc. You can view the entire list here.

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