Why Technology? Because... by Ben Grey

Let me warn you from the outset. This post will be neither lacking in profound insights nor words. The words are my doing; the profound insights come from many of you. When I asked, "Why technology?" in my last post, I didn't anticipate receiving such a deluge of incredible responses. And in that action alone, the question was answered.

I hope that this post serves you as well as it has educated me. One word of advice on how to consume this content. Take your time. Bookmark it, and come back in increments if need be, but don't rush through it. Analyze and evaluate the thoughts of the many who contributed, and then synthesize the content with your own thinking to form a response you can defend. And as always, I hope you'll share what you come up with.

I like how Dean Shareski describes this type of discussion in his podcast response. He states, "It's important to find some sort of pat answers that we can keep in the holsters, so to speak, and be able to draw from at those moments when we're asked. Sometimes [questions]are asked by key people who really do want to know why." I'm hoping the aggregation of responses here can serve to be the material with which you use to create your "pat answer" that you will stow in your holster and have at the ready when you are asked.

For me, answering the question proved more difficult than I had anticipated. Sometimes a question is rife with complexity in its simplicity. I believe there were several who had the same experience I did. On the surface, it seems so obvious. We have to engage technology. We must. But why? Let me attempt to break down some of the responses I received before ending with my personal response.

In a comment on the original post, Peter Pappas, a former Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, explores the possibility that perhaps our return on investment for technology does not take the form of increased standardized test scores. Peter expounds on what return technology does give us, and he closes his comments by stating, "Shouldn't our students have access to the technologies that allow them to create, collaborate and share their thinking on subjects that matter to them?" I couldn't agree more with Peter.

Paul R. Wood also left a comment telling the story of an experience students at his campus had with a Sudanese refugee living in Israel. The students engaged in a myriad of distance learning opportunities that served to educate everyone involved in the project. Paul says about the experience,

"Our students practically adopted him, started working on ways to get him content, creating lessons and podcasts for him so that he was and is able to practice his english and different lessons and then a couple of times a week they would skype with this young man and visit, and question, and he would answer their questions with and about his situation and the situation of his country and Israel all of this taking place via the web and skype, and wiki's. These students truly understand slavery in the world, oppression of peoples, nations and races. They truly understand and can see and hear the impact of their learning and the fact that they have access to technology and the difference it can make. These are kids I want leading in the future. To deny that would be denying the chance for our students to lead the way to better places and people."

An amazing story. There is simply no way students would have had this experience without employing technology.

Jon Becker speaks of a similar philosophy in his comment when he states, "One word: affordances. Technology should be adopted/integrated where it affords opportunities that were either not possible without it or where it affords "better"/more efficient ways."

MaryKayG raises a similar affordance notion when she states, "Technology affords a student with weak decoding skills access to the same texts as his/her peers. Understanding the content/ideas was never the issue for this child. Now, technology allows them to prove to peers and teachers that they too can handle the sophisticated ideas presented in print texts." It's just about impossible to find an opposing argument for that thought.

In an email response, Will Richardson speaks in depth about the choices we face and experiences we afford students.

"Why are we asking?

Given the choice, would we teach pilots how to fly using a simulator built last year or one built 30 years ago? Would we want our doctors to still use thermometers filled with mercury? (Yes, I'm old enough to remember those days.) Would we choose a car that gets 10 miles to the gallon and has lap buckles for safety? (I remember those, too.)

We implicitly choose newer technology over older technology all the time in our daily lives, yet when it comes to the classroom, many seem to think the old ways are inherently better. And I know it's because figuring out how to use the latest technologies well to foster learning in our classrooms isn't as simple as getting into that new car and turning the key ( or pushing the button) and having it all just work. In those cases, we're the users, not the designers. But as teachers, aren't we the designers of learning for our students? Aren't we charged with constantly redefining, rethinking, rebuilding what we do based on the best of what is currently available to us?

In just about any other undertaking, those who choose not to continually unlearn and relearn in the face of changing technologies are made irrelevant. Think newspapers. Think GM. I know there is a personal relationship aspect to the classroom that should never be replaced and that isn't as important an ingredient in those other enterprises. But that does not mean that we shouldn't be constantly pushing to reinvent our own "product" to meet the needs of our kids, not simply as integrators of technology but as visionaries as well.

Technology does not and will not serve every need or situation. But there are absolutely wondrous opportunities for learning afforded by technologies of all stripes that we deny our students out of fear or a lack of practical context. In a world that is growing more complex through its collaborative, inter-connected, networked nature, that is just not acceptable any longer."

Kelly Hines wrote an outstanding post breaking down both the notion of gaging technology's effectiveness using test scores and the ways technology makes much of what happens in a learning experience more effective with technology. I like the way she postulates that she would begin her response to a group who pose the question of her, "Honestly, I would start by taking a quick, informal poll. Where have you received and made most of your recent calls? Your cell phone or your land line? Have you ever by passed a gas station because they didn’t have pay at the pump? Where do you look for information? In an encyclopedia or on the internet?"

Deven Black also makes reference to the notion of using test scores to measure the success of technology. He states, "Use the right ruler and you'll get valid measurements; otherwise you're trying to measure apples by looking at oranges." Awesome.

In a post that easily contains the best, most brilliant, truthful opening paragraph of all time, Doug Belshaw provides three reasons for not viewing technology as an expensive luxury. Doug considers the cost of technology, learning cultures and communities, and the notion of invisible technology in his response, and he articulates all three points very cohesively to support the idea that we should be engaging learning by utilizing technology.

Doug's last point about invisibility of technology is echoed by Jen Wagner when she states, "My honest thoughts are until 'TECH' is no longer seen as an addition but a constant....it will always be debated, questioned, and ignored. My question to the district would be 'Why should your district continue to not offer the most learning opportunities for your students?'"

My fellow podcaster in crime, Andy Kohl, agreed with Jen's notion of tech being a constant, and continues, "In a way, I feel that the question isn't whether or not we should 'use technology'. The question is whether or not we should rethink how we do what we do (teachers and administrators alike). Technology, among other things, has shown us new ways to teach, learn and grow. However, it's also challenged us to change the system. That's a very uncomfortable spot for some, and the easiest way to shore up the status quo is to fall back on the traditional viewpoints. Therefore, we suddenly ask 'why use technology.'"

Carrying on the pedagogical approach, Jon Orech discusses how technology develops autonomous learners and supports the teaching of "fundamental literacy" in his post. He also brings up the TPCK model, which we'd all be well served to spend some time studying and discussing.

Dr. John Strange, a professor of professional studies, gives a ten point response to the question in his post, including the suggestion that we do away with all "technology teachers". I'd imagine at least a few of you have some thoughts on that suggestion.

As I mentioned early on, sometimes the simplicity of a question drives it to become incredibly difficult to answer. Steve Dembo encountered that in his post, "Common Sense Revolts," and he establishes several extremely sound points built upon the notion that common sense can be a strong convincing force.

One of the comments I love the most comes from Katie Belanger. She states, "If I was asked by school board members why taxpayers should continue to support such programs, I would simply invite them to come to my classroom and see for themselves." I'd hope we'd all have the courage to answer the same.

Like Dean, Bud Hunt created a podcast response that left me audibly agreeing as I listened on my car ride home from work. He makes several salient points, and I find myself entirely agreeing with him about his statement that he doesn't much care for the question. I'll explain momentarily.

There are many other challenging, thought-provoking, incredibly insightful comments on the original post as well. I'd encourage you to read through all of them as you continue to process the question.

My apologies for repeating myself, but I'm simply awed by the quality and quantity of responses from everyone. It's the sharing of our ideas and our conversations that allow us to engage learning with such depth. I believe that would be a large part of my response. So, if given the opportunity, how would I respond to the question? Hopefully, courageously.

If I was asked, "Why should we continue to use and pursue technology?" I'd start by saying we shouldn't. At least, we shouldn't pursue technology. Above all else, we should pursue learning. Establishing the construct with that foundation, we can use technology to build experiences for students that we've never been able to build before. That, I believe, is paramount. Like Bud alludes, if I'm looking to build a learning experience so I can say I'm using technology, who cares?

And I'd end my answer by telling the story of this post. The story of how we all make each other better. The story of how the sharing of our ideas serves to sharpen each one of us who engages in the conversation. The story of how a question can be shared with a mass audience and elicit a global response. The story of how one blog post can beget other's comments, email, blog posts, and even podcasts. And in the end, I'd say with confidence that I'm most certainly, and I hope you are as well, better because of the conversation. And this wouldn't have happened as it did devoid of technology.

So, why technology? I believe you've all answered that entirely. Thank you for filling the holster.