The FETC conference in Florida, one of the largest conferences in the world, is fast approaching, and that spurred some memories of when I went last year. I thought then about how different the exhibits and presentations were from what such a conference would have featured a decade before, and I wondered what it will look like a decade in the future. I thought then that much of what I was seeing was already becoming obsolete (or should be), and it makes me wonder what direction educational technology will (or should) take in the future.
The huge exhibit hall was filled with flashy demonstrations of the latest miracle products, few of which drew my interest. The vast majority of the big ticket items were all designed to improve the quality of a lecture. There were new and improved ways to put information on a screen as the lecturer explained it, and there was especially better ways for the audience to indicate their understanding electronically. I am all for the use of such response mechanisms for lectures, but since I don’t do a lot of that it would not do me a whole lot of good.
I went to two presentations with almost identical titles and almost identical announced purposes — to show cool web sites that could be made a part of instruction. Despite those similarities, there was a stark difference in the content, a difference that illustrates the fundamental problem with anticipating the future of educational technology and change. If we all agree that the purpose of technology is to enhance good instructional technique, then the difference lies not so much in technology but upon the vision of the instructional technique it is supposed to enhance.
In one presentation, every site mentioned had one thing in common: it helped make more effective presentations. It could be a teacher presentation or a student presentation, but it was just a way of making jazzier presentations. There was no discussion of how students were to acquire the information included in their videos and other high tech performances. Throughout the presentation one thought kept going through my mind–how much precious instructional/learning time would my students waste making their presentations look cool? When I look at the state content standards and everything students are required to learn, how can I justify devoting so much time to learning and using skills that are not parts of those standards?
On the other hand, the presentation by well known education theorist Carol Ann Tomlinson stood out in sharp contrast. Not one of the sites she showed us had anything to do with making presentations snappier. Every one of the sites allowed students to interact with data in a meaningful and even exciting way. I am not talking about text-based encyclopedia sites; these were highly dynamic sites where, for example, students could vary inputs and see how those varied inputs affected results. Students could manipulate sites to try potential solutions to problems. They could experiment. Most importantly, when she showed us a site, she gave clear examples of how students could use the site as part of a creative, engaging, and highly instructive project. It was real learning at work.
I hope that what I saw from Tomlinson is more of the future of educational technology than what I saw in the other presentation. I hope I see in the future of educational technology an enhanced ability for students to interact with their world and draw conclusions. I hope I see software that will help teachers diagnose student learning needs and apply appropriate interventions. I hope to see technologies that help students meet the very challenging state content standards and not just make neat presentations showing what they learned in other ways.
I am not, however, wholly optimistic. At the time of the conference, I was a member of a multi-partite ad hoc committee charged with developing a vision for educational technology for the Boulder Valley School District here in Colorado. The committee met all last year and then ended when it completed its mission in May.
The committee had carefully selected administrators, teachers, community members, and students. I was struck in that first meeting by the unanimity of vision among the overwhelming majority of the participants. Almost all had visions similar to what I just described. They filled me with hope.
The exception was the students, all high school seniors. They had no idea what we were talking about. They could only conceive of educational technology as a means of enhancing a lecture. They had never seen anything else, and they could not imagine anything else. Even when we talked about things like project based learning without the use of technology, they were mystified. They only knew what they had experienced—teachers delivering lectures while students took notes.
People with such a background will not look for anything else from technology. As long as that kind of thinking dominates the market, then that is what vendors are going to sell. Educational technology will only change when the market changes, and the market is not going to change until different beliefs about the very fundamentals of education begin to dominate that market.
That committee’s work is done, and they really do have an exciting vision for the future. Most importantly, they realize that they cannot just buy technology that fits a vision; they have to bring that fundamental vision of quality education to the classroom as well. Once that happens, then the market will shift, and the vendors who are creating the technology will have to shift with it.
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