Another question to ask about new technologies

In this post, I put forth three questions that are good for creating a little objective distance between you and that shiny new technology you saw at the conference are MUST HAVE in your classroom. On the plane to San Antonio, I was thumbing through the SkyMall catalog and found another question to add in to that mix. It was inspired by this:


This is the “Learning Tower and Playset”. As you can see, it’s intended for kids to climb, so they can get up and see what’s happening on a table or countertop that’s normally too high for them. It also doubles as a playset; the platform that the child stands on can be removed and the kid can get inside it, and there are accessories that come with it so the child can use it as a puppet show theater or a make-believe drive-through window.

This product, like the technology we teachers use and think about using, does solve certain problems. My kids love to get up on a chair or stool and watch me cook and sometimes help me cook. But chairs and stools can be unstable, especially given that kids tend to lean over when they are looking at or reaching for stuff on a countertop. Both of my girls have fallen off whatever they were standing on for this very reason. So the Learning Tower solves the problem by giving the child a stable platform with a big base and a sort of enclosure at the top to prevent the child from falling off.

But this product also creates problems as well. The base of this thing is two feet square. That doesn’t sound very big, but that is an enormous chunk of real estate in my kitchen. Even the stepstool that L often uses, which is maybe 12 inches by 10 inches, seems to get under my feet at the worst possible moment all the time. I can’t imagine putting a playset in the kitchen.

So that’s the fourth question to ask when evaluating new technology:

  • What problems does this technology create?

And rest assured, every technology creates problems. Take something like Maple, for instance. It’s a hugely useful tool that solves many problems for math students and mathematicians. But it also creates problems. We have to train students, and ourselves, to use it. We have to put up with network installs that never seem to work. We have to think about where the money is coming from to pay for it and maintain our license. And so on. Even the computer itself creates problems, not the least of which is the environmental problem created when the computer is manufactured.

So it seems that to evaluate a new technology, you have to look at a sum balance given by the usefulness of the technology in solving an existing problem, minus the redundancy that technology has with other existing technologies AND the minus the extent to which the technology creates new problems. You’ll never have a problem-free technology, so the question is whether, on balance, the technology solves more problems than it creates is really the key.

I might corner one of the exhibitors here at the ICTCM and ask her/him all four of those questions; a vendor who gives a straight answer to the fourth question might well be worth doing business with.


Filed under Educational technology, Technology

6 responses to “Another question to ask about new technologies

  1. Robert Foth

    Nice thoughts – We usually find the answer to 4 when we start using the technology and realize it is not a nice as we first thought (having this experience with a particular online homework system right now).

    I hope the conference is going well (having conference envy).

  2. virusdoc

    One problem I’m running into with teaching technologies is that adoption of a new technology by even a minority of professors at an institution creates an expectation that all professors with utilize this technology all the time. As I designed and have now taught the first half of my first class, I was told that students would expect that all my lecture notes would be available on the Blackboard website, that I would have a course forum for student-professor interaction, and that all my lectures would be podcast. Frankly, I don’t think any of these is an essential element in an effective course. Do they make life easier for the students? It would seem they do, but what really seems to happen is they use these online redundant information sources as an excuse to take lousy notes in class, or to not even come to class because they think they’ll get the same experience from the podcast. And I still have to do the labor of maintaining all this, despite the fact I think they are a net negative for the learning experience.

  3. I think the real lesson to be learned here is how instructive SkyMall can be. How much knowledge have I gained from that formidable publication!

    For instance, I learned that some people think heating a hot dog AND a bun is such a difficult task that they’d rather buy a product whose sole aim is to do only that. To me, this is odd, because anyone rich enough to buy one appliance for every type of food they prepare probably doesn’t (1) prepare their own food or (2) eat hot dogs.

    To keep it topical, the problem this “pop-up hot dog cooker” creates is the need for space to use it — space not already used by the microwave, stove, or toaster oven, any of which could be used alone or in combination to do more or less what the aforementioned device does.

  4. Jami

    Seems like a pretty common sense principal to ask those questions of anything new… 🙂

    My philosophy on technology…
    I have a problem. I need some sort of technology to fix it. I go research and find the best thing suited for my problem.

    This is opposed to “oh that looks cool, maybe I’ll buy it and then see if it fits my needs.” or “ooo, that’s new, maybe I can make up some reason why I might need to use it, so I’ll go ahead and buy it”.

    And really this applies to everything, not just technology. Oh how different life would be if people lived out of necessity instead of want. 🙂 (me included!)

  5. Robert Foth

    To Jamie:
    True, but what if that is also how we find out we had a question/problem that we needed to solve. I find that exploring some of these new tech ideas actually gives me new ideas in how to teach / reach students. For instance when I first saw Flash I though how cool to make an animated example, but after I did my first tween I went one step further and said “wouldn’t it be cool if the problem was randomly generated – and bam now I have an infinite number of animated tutorial problems for a specific topic”. It is not that we need to buy that new tech toy or download every new application/software (free of course), but we need to explore fundamental question of how could this help me or how could this change my teaching (for improvement).

  6. I Agree on how chuncky the learning tower is in the kitchen. THere is a smaller similar product out there – The Kitchen Helper.