Why edtech is like organic farming
A few years ago I started buying organic food for environmental reasons. I assumed, when I started, that the main environmental benefits came from the fact that farmers weren’t pumping toxic chemicals into the air, soil and water. And that is certainly a benefit.
But as I looked into organic farming, I realized that the benefits go beyond that. Once you decide to stop using artificial fertilizers and pesticides, you have to change your farming methods more generally. Those artificial fertilizers and pesticides are part of a style of farming, and if you eliminate them, you have to change your entire approach. If you don’t, then you’re farming isn’t going to work. But if you do change your approach you get environmental benefits, such as changes to soil, that go beyond the mere elimination of pesticides.
I’ve been thinking about that as the faculty at my school begin a debate over technology and distraction. We are now two years into our 1:1 program, and I think teachers–including myself–are waking up to some of the implications of technology. There have been plenty of creative uses of technology in the classroom since we went 1:1, but for many teachers and students, I think technology has been employed as an adjunct to existing teaching methods. Students use computers to take notes, or write and submit papers, but they do all that in the context of a classroom which doesn’t necessarily look substantially different than it did two years ago, before every student had a laptop.
I’m beginning to think we have, so to speak, dropped pesticides without changing our approach to farming. And as with organic farming, just changing one thing without changing your whole approach leads to problems–in this case, increased classroom distraction. I find that if you give students something active and creative to do on their computers–make a Powerpoint, create a comic, record a mock newscast–students remain engaged. If, however, they’re using them to simply takes notes, the temptation to distraction is high. So in a traditional classroom, where the teacher is speaking and students are taking notes, or even where students are having a discussion while also taking notes, distraction becomes an issue. But the problem isn’t so much the technology as it is the fact that technology is being used to supplement existing educational methods, rather than transform them.
I’m not a technophile who thinks that technology will bring on an educational utopia, or that technology-based education is always, or almost always, better. Discussion, for example, is one of the oldest teaching approaches in the world, going back to Socrates and the the ancient Greeks. Nonetheless, I happen to like discussion-based classes, and based on student feedback, students usually like a good discussion, too. I therefore don’t assume that technology-based education is better than traditional education. But I think if you’re going to use technology, you have to go all in, and if you’re going to have a traditional-style class, you may have to ban technology. If you want a discussion, have a discussion, but be aware that you’re going to have to force students to close their laptops. And if you want to use technology, go for it, but realize that you can no longer run your classroom the way you used to. It will have to look and sound very different.
There are many ways to be a good teacher. Not all of them involve technology. But if you are going to use technology, you have to be prepared to teach in a very different way.
Image source: Flickr