If Engagement is the Problem, Technology is Not the Answer

“Technology is not the starting point for changing culture in the classroom.”

I have a standing search in Google News that lets me know when there are ever any new stories in the world that contain the following three words: “school,” “technology,” and “learning.” It’s not that I don’t have enough to do already without scanning the usual 15 or 20 articles that crop up on a daily basis from all over the place. And mind you, I don’t check the feed every day. (I’d probably be in therapy by now if I did.) But every now and then I drop in to see what people are doing that’s worthy of a write up in the local (or sometimes national) press.

That’s how I recently found this story from the ABC News affiliate in Fort Wayne, Indiana titled “E-Learning: Technology changing the culture of the classroom.” I’m always drawn to headlines like those because most often, the story doesn’t quite live up to the hypeline, if you will. And this one is no exception.

I’ll leave it to you as to whether or not you want to read about the impact of technology on the kids in schools in Fort Wayne, but let me save you the time. For all of the “ohhs” and “ahhs” flowing from both the reporter and the edleaders she interviewed, the bottom line is this: not much has changed, not even the fancy rhetoric we keep using to suggest that things actually have changed.

I want to break some of this rhetoric down a bit, because it’s used so often without critique in 90% of what passes for edutechjournalism these days. And it’s rhetoric that I think we better start correcting if we’re ever going to get to the point where technology actually does begin to amplify learning in the ways we know it can but seldom show up in classrooms. So, bear with me…

Here’s the lead:

“Long gone are the days when computer labs in schools were only used for research and testing, when students’ classroom tools consisted only of textbooks, pencils and papers.”

Um, no, actually. Those days are not long gone. In fact, in lots of places, that’s still SOP when it comes to technology. But these kids are lucky I guess, because they have a 1:1 program. Until you read this:

“The students use the technology every day for research, presentations and homework through a blended learning environment which combines the physical classroom work with an online learning space.”

Say what? Does that sound like a changing culture to you? Or this?

“What teachers are doing is they are essentially taking everything they do in the classroom — their learning targets, the daily activities, the homework — and they’re digitizing all of that so that kids can have access in the classroom and at home.”

Wow. Transformative.

And, then there’s this:

“What we want is instruction from the teachers, and then to use this — just as they would use a textbook or they would use any other information source — that it is a tool to help them teach, it’s a tool maybe to engage students in a creative way, maybe to engage them in way that will catch their attention.”

“A tool to help them teach.” A tool to maybe engage them and catch their attention. A tool to make them more motivated to do the work.

She says her students have embraced the technology, using the iPads 3 times a week for various assignments like spelling and math problems. Shipe, and teachers across the country, say the iPads seem to increase motivation in students. “Anything that they have the opportunity to do on the iPad, they’re going to put in more effort, they’re going to take more time, they’re going to be more willing to do it.”

If you’ve hung around these parts at all you know that I advocate for a higher bar for technology than comes across in this and most other articles of this ilk. Engagement and motivation problems don’t stem from the lack of technology as much as the lack of relevance and agency over learning provided to the learner. Engagement and motivation are products of learning about things that matter to kids, things that they see value in, things they want to learn more about. That’s were culture change happens, not by giving kids iPads.

Yet this is the narrative around change that we embrace both in schools and in the community. Just by handing out, we’re now different, better somehow. Just by putting it in their hands, they’re going to be more prepared for the future, as in:

“Their world is going to change even more rapidly than the world we live in today. They need to be very adaptable, and technology helps them with that. It helps them learn new skills, helps them adjust to things changing rapidly.”

No, not really. The only thing that can help them adequately “adjust to things changing rapidly” is a love of learning and a curious, creative, connected environment in which to learn. Technology can certainly help that, but it’s not the starting point for a different culture in the classroom.


(Originally posted at ModernLearners.com)

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Want to explore more of these ideas around learning and education? Check out my latest TEDx Talk “The Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools,” my blog at WillRichardson.com, or checkout my Amazon author page.