A hammer is not a solution

I stumbled across the quote below from a recent blog post by Donna Lanclos:

“I want to get people to start from the notion that there are educational things that they want to do, or educational processes that they would like to engage with, and then – and only then – talk about the technology.”

Yes please! Last year when considering changing our learning environment, we found the need to roll the conversation right back to: “When thinking of good learning and teaching and the systems that support it…..what do we know (or think we know)? What do we need to find out? What do we hope and fear?” Using this discussion as a starting point, enabled us to start to look for the best ways to use existing tools to create a better  learning experience for students. Baby steps, but hopefully  in the right direction.

It is not the technological tools that should be the focus, but the opportunities opened up and barriers broken down.

I hate technology. I hate learning to use new tools and the need to update everything all the time. I hate spending the time to fiddle with settings so I use the default settings on everything which means nothing really quite works the way I want. And I really hate that for every new update promising to be more intuitive, I spend weeks looking for features that I know must  be  there somewhere. They might as well say “intuitive new features for everyone but you, dummy” on them. I didn’t get internet and email until 2006, have only picked up Twitter in the last six months and default to MS Office tools whenever possible. 2016 is the year that I finally accepted that WordPress might be of some value.

And yet I love what technology has allowed me to do. I wanted (really needed) to finish an education and get a job. While raising five kids  an online MEd met the first need by allowing me to study at a distance mostly between the hours of 9 pm and 3 am. A work-at-home job solved the second need. I supervised teams and connected with clients all over the world. Files moved instantaneously, we worked collaboratively, and the headset to my IP phone became my go-to accessory.  Sometimes I would get off one meeting, run down the street to drop my youngest at daycare and get logged into another call in under five minutes. Other times, I’d be getting kids out the door to school while in a meeting (on mute). Technology was the tool that made the impossible possible. The solutions that were developed to meet my needs were so much bigger than that technology.  In fact, the technology used to support these solutions was fairly rudimentary (nothing that could be remotely considered “leading edge.”)

So I get excited when we talk about how we can use technology to reduce barriers to education, increase connections among dispersed people, widen the participation in all kinds of learning, transform passive learning to active learning, discuss what good learning actually looks like, engage those who would be otherwise be left out, and give voice to those who have been silent for too long. There are so many great tools available to build those types of solutions.

And I get frustrated with technology-centric talk that focuses too often on the next new, shiny tool, update or improvement. Fitbits for education, wearables, smart learning systems, sigh… Anyone who thinks that a computer is going to teach my children to become better people than other people has met neither my computer nor my children. Imagine the dumb stuff we could avoid if we focused on process improvement rather than flashy gadgets. Think of the true innovation that might emerge.   Von Hippel found that “80% of the innovations judged by users to offer them a significant increment in utility were in fact invented, prototyped and field field-tested by users…rather than by a manufacturer.” The motivation for innovation matters and who is driving the innovation matters.

Worse still, all the time (and money) spent learning these new tools is time not spent focused on what really are structural, policy and/or cultural barriers. For example, the technology to supervise a student completing a practicum online exists but I am currently involved in sensitive discussions about how we could possibly offer a practicum without requiring students to come to campus.

Tools are not solutions. I don’t hear anyone claiming that a hammer is the next solution to homelessness. Tools can however be used as excellent distractions. What they distract from is that when it comes to change making the technology work is the easy part (that’s why those who want to make money flock to it).





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