From the Principal's Office: When Interactive Boards and Tablets Aren’t 21st Century Classroom Tools

I think most educators would agree that interactive boards are not always 21st century classroom tools. In fact, when they are only used to reinforce lecture, worksheets and other 20th century teaching and learning methodology, they are little more than chalkboards with computer chips. The iPad is not necessarily a 21st century classroom tool either, if students are only using it to read e-texts and complete e-worksheets. It is only when students and teachers are engaged using interactive boards, iPads, and other devices, to collaborate, create, and problem-solve that they become 21st century classroom tools.

Too often, anything labeled "technology" is immediately construed to be a 21st century learning device, but that quality never lies in the tool itself, but in how teachers and students engage its use in the service of learning. Going back to the interactive boards example. How many millions have schools and school districts spent on these devices to simply be able to brag publicly that they now have "an interactive board installed in every classroom?" Because there’s only one in the room it often becomes a device that only the teacher interacts with and uses. This kind of thinking betrays a belief that technological devices are inherently 21st century learning tools, but they are not. It is a maddening thought that a teacher would simply use a very expensive interactive board to only do the same things he used to do with an overhead projector.

In order to keep in mind when technologies are truly 21st century classroom tools, 21st century school leaders should perhaps consider the following as they think about new technologies for their schools or districts:

  • If you are buying technology so you can brag about it, you are probably buying it for the wrong reasons. There is nothing magical in the simple presence of an iPad or interactive board in the classroom. Just because it's there does not mean students are engaged in 21st century learning. Being able to boast about the number of iPads, laptops, and interactive boards in your school or district does not mean the claim of being a 21st century school can be made. Rather, it is what students and teachers are doing with the devices that matter the most and the kinds of learning they are engaged in while using them.
  • Don't be afraid to ask the tough question: How is this technology going to fundamentally transform the kinds of teaching and learning in my classrooms or schools? The expectation when it comes to technology purchases should always be that students will be doing 21st century learning tasks, not 20th century learning tasks. These tasks include: collaborating, creating, and problem-solving.
  • Be prepared to support teachers when introducing new technologies into your school or district. This means providing them with professional development, additional resources, and time to collaborate with colleagues as they try to integrate the devices into their classrooms. Providing technological devices without support from school leadership might as well be giving teachers a paperweight or doorstop.
  • Be wary of sales pitches that focus primarily on what the technology will do rather than what students can do with the technology. Bells and whistles do not make a device into a 21st century learning tool. What is more important is how the device will empower students to engage in collaboration, creation, and problem-solving. It is important to ask, "What kinds of work can students do with the device?" not “What can the device do?” Force salespeople to do more than show features. Ask them to show what kinds of learning students can engage in while using their devices.

As indicated earlier, interactive boards and iPads are not always used as 21st century teaching and learning devices. They can be used to perpetuate 20th century learning or they can get students collaborating, creating, and problem-solving. It is only when there's a fundamental change in what students and teachers are being asked to do with the devices that they can become 21st century learning tools.

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J. Robinson has decades of experience as a K12 Principal, Teacher, and Technology Advocate. Read more at The 21st Century Principal.