Stop Arguing about Technology - Focus on Transforming Learning

Chromebooks or iPads? Microsoft Office or Google Docs? Laptops or tablets? Detachable or hinged keyboards? These are the constantly debated issues across most school systems this past year. And while these appear to be important issues for many – impassioned arguments that can lead to fundamental disputes for some – they remain short sighted questions that reveal the reasons why technology continues to be restricted in delivering upon its full potential. Only by opening our minds to explore “what’s possible with technology” can we break away from the cookie-cutter models that so many technology and content companies continue to drive educators toward.

Technology as its used today in many classrooms doesn’t motivate or foster creativity, imagination and new ways of thinking...

It’s what we call a “Return on Education” or “RoE.” For investors who always focus on the ROI, remaining focused on the RoE means that stakeholders can be assured your institution has become a leader in digital learning, and not merely a following for instructional technology.

Tech Plan in a Time Capsule

As a child of the 1980s, I always saw my classes in computer labs as an opportunity to imagine. I was doing programming in FORTRAN, and creating games in BASIC. The possibilities seemed endless. Yet over time, imagination and creativity gave way to more rouge tasks such as writing papers as I moved into college.

In early 1998, I was asked by my superintendent to write a new technology plan from scratch, as the board of education wasn’t happy with the status quo. Officials were aggressively debating the “Mac vs PC” selection, with some even resorting to shouting about their beliefs. At the time, I wrote a very challenging comment in my report, saying, “With the continued growth of the internet and expansion of network computers, computer operating systems will begin to merge into one common format – the internet browser.”

Now before I start to pat myself on the back for creating a hardware acquisition plan that would take us from the dark ages to a more modern infrastructure, I missed the very issues I so often try to raise with school officials 17 years later. I forget to answer the question, “How do I want technology to transform teaching and learning?”

Computer Labs Today

I have had the privilege and visiting many school systems across the country and taking tours of their schools. One common trait I found with nearly everyone is a shared passion to deliver better experiences for their students – far more than what we had as children. But what I’ve also found are dialogues between technology, curriculum and faculty bogged down in the more trivial of issues.

A recent school was having a heavy debate and decision making process around whether to use Microsoft Office or Google Docs for their students. Issues around price, ease of training teachers, privacy and home access have been the subject ofnearly all of those conversations. But something was clearly missing as I came in as an objective listener, and one without anything to gain if either Office or Docs is used.

The missing question? How will switching to either platform fundamentally change teaching and learning?

When I visit computer labs, or classrooms doing 1:1 with personal units or COWs (carts), I typically see students most often:

  • Typing in a word processing application (keyboarding is still in most curriculum),
  • Typing text and pasting images they found online into presentation slides, or
  • Reading, watching and possibly responding to multiple choice in some web-based content created by a publisher

When you look at the 1960s research of Dr. Edgar Dale and his actual “cone of experience,” we see that 50+ years ago experts knew that learning by listening, learning by reading and learning by watching were the worst methods of retention possible, all of which view the student as consumers of content.  Further, existing activities like word processing and presentation slides barely scratch the surface when it comes to delivering RoE for content creation.

Technology as its used today in many classrooms doesn’t motivate or foster creativity, imagination and new ways of thinking beyond some unique anecdotal examples. While there are good examples of select students pushing boundaries and creating 3D designs or videos, that level of creativity rarely expands to the masses.

With so many educators and industry experts speaking about the importance of STEM education, so few students explore STEM careers. How can emerging technology help inspire imagination and creativity, much of the foundation for future leaders in this space?  

New Technologies Taking Shape

While many schools continue with their existing debates, we are starting to see a new transition occurring. A few progressive leaders are changing the discussions to examine blended and augmented reality experiences.

The first time I was fortunate to see HP’s Sprout, I smiled. Imagination was possible again. Weeks later, I would be at a Microsoft store with my daughters. Despite their iPhones, tablets, laptops and other technical devices, the two 11 year olds stopped in their tracks. They spent quite some time creating new images, digitally scanning and manipulating objects until I dragged them to finish my shopping. Along with 3D printing, the maker movement doesn’t need to be limited to the select few wanting to engage in CAD design, but instead expose every student to harnessing their power of creativity that can impact any career choice.

Over this past year, that same level of inspiration has emerged from educators first seeing the technology. While adults are quick to start using the mouse and keyboards, younger users push them aside and rely on the touch screen and touch work surface, capable of 20 points of simultaneous contact. For children as young as kindergarten, computer labs can once again become imagination centers, opening the door to possibilities and giving children the valuable skill to ask the question “what if…?”

Other immersive technologies like Zspace’s virtual reality displays help bring 3D environments in front of single students or entire lecture halls, helping to make sense the difficult concepts of anatomy and design often a challenge with videos or mere 2D images or illustrations. Take the example of the human heart above. I learned the valves of the heart and the path of blood via illustrations in my World Book Encyclopedia (circa 1964). Imagine the ease of understanding as students see the object emerge from the monitor, allowing them to rotate and view at any angle….even use a camera control to travel inside the heart, veins and arteries to understand how blood flows. 

If we are to see real RoE, we must stop repeating instructional processes that have been replicated in one form or another for decades, and start leveraging technology for what’s possible to enhance every learning experience.

Elliott Levine is Chief Academic Officer for Hewlett Packard Americas Education. There he works with schools and universities to support major educational technology initiatives and was co-inventor of the HP Personal Learning Engine (US PTO PCT/US2013/062777), an effort that has him featured as one of three employees at A former K-12 official and regular public speaker, he has worked for and launched startups in the education and marketing industries. You can learn more about him

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