Three questions for filtering new technology

One thing that is sure to happen at the ICTCM later this week is that I will be inundated with tech stuff (from the exhibit hall) and ideas about using tech stuff (from sessions and workshops) in my teaching. Of course it’s good, clean fun to play around with tech stuff, and it’s good to come into contact with other people who are passionate about technology in teaching and with their ideas. But there’s a danger here as well: You might get so swept up in the zeitgeist of the conference that you begin to uncritically adopt all kinds of tech stuff and tech ideas for inclusion in your classroom without really evaluating it.

So when I am at the conference, there are three basic questions that I will ask whenever encounter tech stuff or ideas. They are the same questions I have asked for years about technology, whether that technology is for education, entertainment, home improvement, or whatever:

  1. What does this technology do?
  2. What problem does this technology solve?
  3. What technology currently exists to solve this problem, and in what sense is this product an improvement over the existing technology?

This series of questions has, in the past, provided me with a buffer of objective distance from interesting-looking tech and forced me to think critically about things I see, rather than just snapping up whatever looks cool or interesting and blindly moving forward with it in my classes. Forcing yourself to see new technology from a problem-solving point of view is a pretty good exercise in general.

I daresay that there are a lot of edubloggers out there that could stand a little more objectivity and critical thinking in how they approach technology; sometimes ed-tech blogs put off a sort of glassy-eyed cult-like aura, like the blogger wants nothing than for you to drink the Kool-Aid of the latest read/write Web 2.0 social network/digital storytelling thing they just spent 36 hours deconstructing. (I think the delusion about digital natives arises mainly as a product of the haze of one’s own unbridled indulgence in educational tech. Spend enough hours wasting time on Twitter and you can convince yourself that 24/7 sharing of personal acts and information is actually normative.)

If a technology product I am considering cannot be described easily in terms of its basic functionality, or if it is not in place to solve a clearly-defined problem, or if it does not improve significantly upon existing technology whose functionality is well-defined and which solves a clearly-defined problem, then most likely it’s not going to make me be more productive or my students learn better.

I think these questions actually originated with Wendell Berry, not somebody you’d normally associate with the ed-tech stormtroopers in the blogosphere. He’s something of a Luddite, I know, but an intelligent one and a person whose caution with new technologies I have always admired.


Filed under Educational technology, ictcm, Social software, Technology

14 responses to “Three questions for filtering new technology

  1. Hmmm, “wasting time on Twitter” – everyone has a pretty passionate view on Twitter -good OR bad, you’re entitled to yours as well 🙂 I personally don’t have a use for twitter in the classroom, but as a professional networking/resource sharing tool it’s been invaluable. Honestly, I’m in a bit of a different situation than many edtech people, but I use Twitter heavily for business contacts – can’t deny the value of finding new business contacts! I’m also constantly evaluating my use of new tech tools in the classroom and I completely agree with your assessment of using caution when introducing new technology to students. On the other hand, I’m using many of the new tools in my other non-classroom job and we have a responsibility to prepare our students for this world. Balance is the key……..
    Oh, and how’d I find this post? From your tweet on twitter……….

  2. I wish that my math teachers had employed more interesting methods in the classroom. I excelled in algebra, geometry, calculus … but not because I had math teachers that inspired me all that much with task-based learning and technology. They didn’t. I was in love with the shapes and the patterns and the void spaces inbetween them. The diagrams captivated, intrigued and called to me. I had my own internal passion and curiosity. Those attributes saved me. But, on the other hand, I saw my classmates suffer of boredom and lack of motivation.

    I guess most math teachers (if my experience throughout school is any respresentative measure) aren’t the artsy fartsy creative types that like to explore outside of the lines too much. Most equations have order and a right answer (on all my tests anyway). The thinking was linear, organized, controlled, definite, and predetermined.

    Math, nor any subject should be taught that way. We learn by having real experiences and doing things (working out a calculus problem on the blackboard isn’t quite my idea of “doing”). So, while I share somewhat your caution for evaluating technology before willy nilly throwing it at students; I also caution to not let play and exploration be erased from the selection process. Nor should the selection process be limited to one person’s thinking and evaluation. One persona doesn’t know enough or have enough experience or have shared all cultures of their students to act so. Let that selection process be collaborative with other educators across disciplines and across your student populations as well.

    So along with critical thinking and narrowing down, remember that right-brainers need to think divergently before convergently. Allowing room to explore and expand breeds creativity. Narrowing too fast and without a good mix of participants gets back to individualism and the 20th Century. If the students evaluate the technology and not the teacher, wouldn’t that make for a more trusty measure of utility and purposefulness? Let’s remember to allow for play and making mistakes, because that is how we learn. And, let’s not forget that there is an endless variety of learning styles and intelligences that need catering to. Let’s not leave them behind because we alone as teacher have decided that something or some process has not use. We are facilitators and learners ourselves, not exclusively knowers.

    P.S. I live twitter for both professional development and exploring for classroom tasks. Many forget that twitter gets pushed to the cell phone. A piece of technology that all secondary and above student use and love. I have a zillion ideas of my own. Love to hear others, too.

  3. @Frank: Good thoughts. There’s a fine line between critical acceptance and uncritical rejection too, and too many technologies and teaching approaches get ignored out-of-hand simply because they are new, or involve spending time learning something on the teacher’s end. Uncritical rejection is just as bad as uncritical acceptance.

    I’d caution, though, that before meaningful creative work can take place, there has to accumulate a certain critical mass of content knowledge which is usually acquired through pretty boring means. When was learning bass guitar 25 years ago, I wanted to play like Bootsy Collins in the worst way, but until I learned proper scales and interval techniques and so forth — nothing more than left-hand stretches — I sounded terrible.

  4. The question with integrating anything with our learners should always start with what am I trying to accomplish by using it. Trouble I see with people new to using the technology is they become so focused on learning how to use the tool that they lose sight of the reasons why they might use it.

    Funnily enough people often make the judgment that I use technology for technology sake ; maybe you are making the same mistake with the edubloggers you are talking about? It’s very easy to assume that because someone writes a lot about Web 2.0 that they are always advocating its use. And your comment about the “the delusion about digital natives” I believe is more of an issue with people new to using the technology — who have the misconception that our youth must be good at using it and want to us it. The strongest voices that disagree with the digital natives/immigrants debate are people that are really into technology; categorising learners as digital natives shouldn’t be the reason why we want to use technology with our learners.

    I don’t think any twitter-aholic could ever convince themselves that spending 24/7 is normal. And if any did — then it’s time to connect with learners and check out how they really are using technology.

  5. dskmag

    wasting time on twitter – Twitter and Second Life are excellent ways to extend your Personal Learning Network in REAL TIME. I can’t say how many times I have been working at home and a tweet pops up that has lead to innovation. I get off my backside and find out more. I don’t visit conferences and expos. I use to work in advertising – don’t be fooled as to why these things exist. if you hold with the notion that the ‘flat classroom’ bores kids, as just in case learning is a 19th century model, and that our kids need to learn how to participate in their learning – then you peers are probably not in your school or even time zone.

    But if I am explaining this to you, then I guess you might need to consider working ‘on’ learning in the classroom, rather than looking ‘at’ it.

    Nice blog by the way. Just think you’re off base here. No offence.

    Dean Groom

  6. @Sue Waters: Your first paragraph is spot-on. Really your whole comment is, but I would add that many the biggest proponents of the digital native hypothesis are NOT newbies to technology but rather people who are very prominent in the blogosphere and in the lecture/conference circuit. David Warlick comes to mind, for instance.

    And unfortunately, I think all too frequently educators and edubloggers DO use technology for the sake of technology alone with not nearly enough cautious consideration of how students learn best or where they are in terms of their facility with technology. I think we’ve all seen proposals coming out of schools to get money to buy cool stuff, whose justification in terms of student learning is untenable to say the least. I wish this weren’t the case.

  7. virusdoc

    sadly, Robert, you missed the most important “filter” question of them all:

    4. How will this technology make me look to my friends? Will they want to touch it and hold it? Will strangers want to strike up a conversation with me just to get a better look at it? This is at the core of much technology marketing.

    Just kidding, of course. I really needed my Macbook Air, and the fact that it is uber-sexy played no role in my decision to purchase it. Although the cute waitress at the pub who asked to hold it last week was a nice perk…

    Serious additional “filter” question to insert into the discussion:

    4. What is the realistic half-life of this technology before it is obsolete or superseded by a less expensive, more capable technology? If I take that half-life and divide the cost of implementation by usage time, am I comfortable paying that pro-rated cost or would I rather wait? This one is key to explaining most of the fully functional but unused little devices and apps gathering dust in my closet and hard disk. Some of those precious shinies were used very few times because I adopted early before the technology had matured.

  8. @virusdoc, kids today need to learn for themselves how to deal with rapidly and ever changing technology, requirements, relationships, etc. They will have more than 14 jobs in their lifetime (unlike my Grandfather who worked for Bordens his entire life), rapid change and readjustment and adapting and exploiting what is new then leaving it behind for the next tool is a skill we need to prepare them for, too.

  9. Okay Robert you’ve got me with Warlick since I have got into debate with him over it but most totally disagree.

  10. virusdoc

    @Frank: My comment wasn’t meant to discourage teaching students to deal with rapid technology change, merely to also teach them not to be lust-driven consumers who buy the first generation of the New Hotness, use it a few months, then discard it for the second generation and the third and so on. This isn’t adaptation, it’s blatant materialism and it’s bad for both the environment and the students’ long term fiscal security. This applies more to gadgets (iPods, iPhones, Nintendo DS and the like) than to software. But the distinction between hardware and software is blurring.

  11. Have to throw in my 2 cents about teaching to deal with changing technology. If we teach our students ANYTHING about technology, it should be how to learn how to adapt to new tech with ease. Every time we give a how-to lesson with tech it teaches kids that they need hands held to use it. I know Vicki Davis is working on a book about this, and I really think it’s the way to go. If we teach our kids how to EXPLORE, they’ll be able to function independently. Most of our students figured out IM, Facebook, MySpace, gaming, and the like at home, on their own and are probably better off for it. It’s the kids without the chance to explore that are left behind. It’s our job as educators to give rules for the road (digital citizenship) but not try to provide how-to manuals for every app out there. Whew, just had to say it. I’m done now 🙂

  12. @virusdoc If you have a dusty iPhone in the closet … please send it to me ASAP!

  13. virusdoc

    No iphone, but a few ipods I don’t use anymore. I struggle with this issue myself.

  14. Pingback: Another question to ask about new technologies « Casting Out Nines