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.

Questions First

I’ve written about it before, but the new year is a great chance to re-visit the topic of teaching and encouraging effective, powerful questioning in our students. As your students get back into the classroom this year, make it clear that questions and a sense of wonder and curiosity are critical to the learning that will take place. Save a spot on the wall, bulletin board, class website, or class Twitter feed just to recognize outstanding student questions–a “Question of the Day.” Better yet, have students nominate outstanding questions as they occur throughout the day and pick the most outstanding at the end of the day. All meaningful change and innovation starts with questions about real problems, yet questions consistently take a backseat to regurgitated answers in education. For much more information and resources to teach effective questioning strategies, visit and join the Right Question Institute. It’s free and filled with helpful tools and information.

Other resources:

Technology Empowered Citizenship

This morning I read an interesting piece by my friend Alec Couros and a colleague of his at the University of Regina, Katia Hildebrandt. The post examines a shift happening in some education circles away from a focus on online safety to a focus on active digital citizenship. Online safety lessons and curricula have mostly focused on how students can avoid harmful or dangerous behaviors, like identity theft, online predators, cyberbullying, etc. Digital citizenship encompasses a broader discussion involving how to interact and participate in a positive manner online. Alec and Katia share a useful resource that contrasts the two here.  Taking it further, they advocate that students be taught to move beyond this personal responsibility focus to one that emphasizes a type of “participatory citizenship” that addresses social problems and the systems that perpetuate them.

I heard a great example of this in the closing keynote by Reshma Saujani at ISTE last week. Ms. Saujani shared the revelation she had during a campaign for congress several years back. Visiting  computer classes as she campaigned, she noticed the pronounced absence of female students. Seeing this as a significant problem for our society, she decided to attack the problem head on by creating a website and a coding club for a small group of girls. She engaged leaders in non-profit foundations, schools, industry, and government in conversations about the gender gap in computer science and has been able to introduce tens of thousands of girls to coding and computer science through her Girls Who Code foundation.

The idea of students using the power of technology and the internet to affect social change is not new, but it is also not the norm in too many schools. As Alec and Katia assert, many schools are still engaging only in a discussion of the consequences of negative behaviors and unsafe practices online.  This is depriving our students from the opportunity to experience empowerment as citizens and engagement as learners. In many schools, online safety or digital citizenship lessons are included only as add-ons, filler activities that allow schools to check off their compliance with state or federal expectations, such as e-Rate requirements. How much more powerful would it be to get students involved in actual citizenship and advocacy as local or global issues and needs arise during the course of instruction. Innumerable opportunities exist during the study of history, science, literature, etc.

The following are a few ideas of my own for engaging students in these types of digital activism or participatory citizenship within the framework of an existing curriculum:

  • Build passion by connecting issues to the students’ world. Does this problem still exist? What impact is it having on me or others? Why is it important?
  • Research the problem. Apply critical skills and media literacy to answer the questions still remaining.
  • Engage students in solution-focused imagining. What could be done to alleviate or solve this problem? Who or what is needed to tackle the issue?
  • Give students the tools to be heard. Teach students to use tools such as blogs, podcasts,  wikis, YouTube, or Twitter allow students to share the issues they are passionate about with a global audience.
  • Connect to other stakeholders. The internet can allow students access to experts, other groups working on a problem, or even those most impacted by the issue.
  • Encourage creative and impactful application. As students learn new technologies, have them explore ways to use them to solve real problems (e.g. using 3D printers to create prosthetic limbs).

These ideas are influenced by and sound a lot like project based learning, problem based learning, or service learning, certainly. And like these pedagogies, students engaging in active, participatory, digital citizenship need more time and flexibility with their projects and products and teachers who are capable of facilitating classrooms with greater levels of student control.

What are your thoughts? Is a focus on online safety good enough for schools? What are you doing with students to promote the use of technology for social impact?

10 Easy Steps to a Maker’s Mentality Classroom

Here are 10 things the innovators of tomorrow should have opportunities to do every single day:

1. Think critically about a real problem

2. Ask questions. Deep, probing, open-ended questions.

3. Communicate/debate the problem.

4. Envision solutions to the problem.

5. Test/prototype the solutions.

6. Solve problems arising from the solutions.

7. Persevere in the face of frequent failure.

8. Regroup and revise solutions.

9. Share what they’ve accomplished and learned.

10. Reflect on the bigger implications of what they did/learned.

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