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The Elephant in the Room: Technology Scares Us

Celebrating student agency, privileging creative ways of thinking, and trading control for vulnerability in our school systems.

LightField Studios / Shutterstock

For educators, this has undoubtedly been the most trying year of our careers. As we pack up our classrooms (physical and virtual), we look forward to a reset and a fresh start in August. Change is already afoot, for we know that we cannot simply revert to a pre-pandemic type of schooling given all that we have learned.

In many instances, we have watched as our students have led the way. When we struggled, students adapted. Tensions emerged within our systems.

This year revealed what many of us don’t like to admit: technology scares us.

The World has Changed, and Yet Our Systems Lag

Technology empowers students to create, to communicate, to research. Fast-moving and always changing, technology opens metaphorical doors. Where teachers and librarians used to provide physical books and articles curated for student research, now, they cannot always control the information that students will encounter. Understanding sources, copyright, and how to conduct productive internet searches are competencies that many adults are still learning, and yet there is newfound urgency to equip our students with these essential digital citizenship skills.

During remote and hybrid learning, however, consequences appeared with the onset of more technology. For example, we found that students had used digital platforms to create their own backchannels to converse and share during the school day when social outlets were no longer available to them. We worried that students disengaged from instruction more readily when it was conducted through a screen.

Given these concerns, limiting “screen time” has emerged in some systems as a solution while we prepare for fully open schools in the fall. Other settings, which necessarily moved to a 1:1 model (one computer per student) are contemplating rolling back that access to technology for various reasons.

Unfortunately, the more we prohibit students from using technology, even in ways that we do not understand, the more we thwart them from gaining the critical skills that they will need to understand and participate in the complex world that they will enter when they leave our systems. Limiting this potential, in turn, limits student agency.

Our work — and the world — has changed, and yet our systems have not.

Our methods of schooling, ideally, should mirror the realities of the social, cultural, and political world in which they are situated in order to prepare citizens who can reason coherently and debate empathetically. However, this notion not only forces educators to give up some control but also to reframe conceptions of childhood as fragile and in need of protection. In fact, students are often more adept at adjusting to rapidly shifting environments than adults, and readily take ownership of their learning when given the opportunity. The more we resist the changes that technology inevitably brings, the harder it will be for our systems to serve our students. It is no wonder why many of our educational systems are experiencing high levels of dissonance.

Centering Student Agency, Rather than Adult Comfort

I had a conversation with an elementary school librarian recently, and we were discussing how her library was organized. She explained that she organizes the library for students (by genre rather than the traditional Dewey Decimal System), and the result is that adults sometimes complain because the layout of the library is something that is unfamiliar to them. She justified to them that this is a library for the students — the adults don’t need to understand it. It isn’t designed for them.

This statement struck me. How often are we truly designing and organizing schools for students? This should be easier to answer than it is. Ultimately, education shouldn’t be developed for teacher, administrative, or school board comfort.

That’s why we must have the uncomfortable conversations that go against the grain, that center student agency, and that privilege creative ways of thinking outside the box. And yet, our hierarchical way of making decisions in education, a reluctance to change, and an incessant reliance on “the way things have always been done,” often derails attempts at progress toward these goals.

Technology can be a powerful lever for us to accomplish these objectives — but many times, technology is underutilized. This can be for various reasons: because devices are old, we’ve run out of time for projects that don’t fit neatly into the curriculum, we want to limit screen time and focus on face-to-face conversations, or because perhaps technology doesn’t make sense with the project or task. These aren’t invalid reasons in and of themselves. However, the whole picture is important.

We should be mindful about whether these limitations are, in fact, fear-based. Leaning into those fears, coupled with a willingness to take risks, allows us to lead with vulnerability. Leading with vulnerability can change our mindset and change our relationships with our colleagues and students. When students see us as a human, they are also given permission to struggle, to fear, and to not know.

So, How Are Students Using Technology?

To ground this conversation, I present several anecdotes where students used technology with agency in their learning environments. In many ways, these diverge from a traditional view of technology in the classroom, where instead students are able to use devices to design their own dynamic learning experiences (Richardson 2009).

In a concurrent setting (with some students attending school in-person while others attending remotely), students began using technology to work across home and school spaces, affording greater equity to class participation. During a math lesson, students in the classroom opted to join a breakout room with remote students to collaboratively solve math problems and dialogue around their solutions while annotating a shared screen. In a time where students were desperately needing connection, technology bridged the gap.

Additionally, I visited several fourth and fifth-grade classrooms that were using a digital book creation platform to publish their fantasy writing pieces. Students took their drafts and strategically considered templates, layouts, and other text features to make their digital book appealing to an authentic audience — their classmates. They leveraged their knowledge of the fantasy genre to build suspense through page breaks and photo inserts while exploring the nuances of the digital platform. Seeing all of the books on their digital “shelf” prompted a heightened level of engagement, as students became not only writers but digital content creators. One student told me that he “loved the aesthetics of the program.”

These are the moments that we want to keep.

Admittedly, there were also moments of learning that our systems didn’t know how to handle. Students, adept at using technology, found creative ways to communicate outside of their virtual classrooms, creating separate chat lines or “backchannels” through various platforms. While risky, I can’t help but applaud students at thinking flexibly about ways to build connections. In a period of isolation, they reimagined the tools that they were given in new ways.

It is this out-of-the-box, tangential thinking that will prepare these students to discover, reimagine, and solve complex problems. It is these students that will keep our global community progressing in clever and innovative ways.

Of course, this is the very notion that frightens us: that students may be one step ahead. It is in these moments that I encourage us to consider: What do we want our students to be able to do when they leave our systems?

Moving Our Systems Forward

As I’ve said before in previous pieces, whether we truly consider difficult questions such as this will shape our post-pandemic moves as educational systems. Students have learned to innovate, to repurpose the tools at hand, and to connect with others in clever ways. Most importantly: these lessons have not been reserved for the privileged students attending magnet programs, or those schools with increased funding. Remote and concurrent teaching have fundamentally reshaped what “access to technology” means. Of course, how that technology is used in classrooms remains inequitable (Reich 2009).

When I’ve listened to webinars and participated in collaborative sessions both locally and across the country, it’s evident that our experiences are similar, and that we are all wrestling with parallel questions. The creativity of our students, and the subsequent anxieties of adults as this creativity grows, is not unique to our local contexts.

Rather than resisting change, I urge us to reflect on what we have learned about technology integration, be intentional with how we pivot, and — above all — celebrate the agency that each and every student has demonstrated through remote learning. We won’t move our systems forward without this.

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Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

Learner, teacher, author, scholar and passionate advocate of education.