Sometimes one is asked an innocuous question that leads to a good deal of reflection. In this case, I was asked to recommend articles characterizing the debate regarding the effectiveness of technology in education. I quickly thought of positioning somebody like Nicholas Carr opposite Will Richardson, providing a clear debate forum. Then I realized that I would be doing the individual requesting the information a disservice. While there will always be naysayers who believe that both the pristine Socratic approach to learning should not be sacrificed and technology invites lack of focus and distraction, the resulting dichotomy created by Will Richardson, who argues that learning is necessarily collaborative, and effectiveness is the right network of connections, just feels contrived. The differences articulated in the traditional debate are polar extremes rather than a synthesis of how technology reinforces our best efforts at teaching and learning. And that is why the debate is no longer useful.
If we think about the changes in technology, education, and brain research that have occurred since the mid-90s, it is not surprising that a debate that had substance at one time no longer does. Recall the famous Apple promotional video made at the Dalton School during that timeframe. It led to countless visits by educators worldwide to see what Dalton was doing. We overlooked the primary lesson learned then, and only today has it become more clear. In the video, Frank Moretti, then Assistant Head of School (currently at Columbia’sCCNMTL), likened the integration of technology in education to the use of a lever to move a boulder. Somehow we forgot that message, and became very focused on the tools themselves instead of how they were being used in the context of a teacher’s pedagogy. Even today, we read from reputable journalists that online learning will eliminate the need for teachers. It sounds like failing to move the boulder, and deciding to walk around it. We move forward, but the boulder is still there to potentially crush us.
Today, with the advent of Web 2.0 tools, the dominance of web media, and the incredible availability of information if you know where to look, we are in a position to move the boulder with a much more sophisticated lever than we had in 1995. Given the latest brain research, we can keep our students stimulated and learning by encouraging them to engage others, exercising higher order thinking skills, and embracing an interactive world that was previously available only in printed narrative or teacher lectures. And yes, our students will be distracted, and yes, boys will not embrace these new tools for learning as quickly as girls, but since we can anticipate these nuances, we can adjust to them.
At the end of the day, however, the effective integration of technology tools is all about excellent teaching. When we believed that technology alone could improve education, we stumbled again and again. Some of the tools excited teachers and students for a brief shining moment, but the Hawthorne Effect is neither real nor sustainable. It takes talented teachers who understand the current educational landscape and believe that our profession is all about kids learning, and teachers coaching those kids, to make the transition to 21st century learning. Much of public education today is a “Race to Nowhere,” packed with metrics that are based on the factory model fallacy that all kids learn the same way and have the same potential. We know these assumptions are biologically flawed, but are unwilling to confront those assumptions in this “land of opportunity.” In every school, public and private, there are great teachers, assisted by great technologies, that constitute the tipping point for effective teaching and learning, and they have done it with the tools that our kids are using; they have met our kids where they live and learn. The fundamental principles of the pristine Socratic method, the Agora of the classroom, have not changed. What has changed is how we implement the engagement and learning that the Classical Greeks made fundamental to their culture. Doing that successfully incorporates the best of the old and new, and consequently ends the debate.