Today's Student and Technology Relevance

I serve as Chief Technology Officer.  I work at the Technology Learning Center.  Our Technology department team of 114 incredible technologists supports learning with sophisticated hardware, software, coaching, and elbow grease.  And yet, I regularly find myself in conversations of various forms that demand an answer to the question, “What is technology?”

For example, the question, “Shouldn’t it all just be learning?  Why are we differentiating between technology and academic coaching?”  Or, “This software package will really help our kids, so the Technology department needs to fund it.”  Or, my absolute favorite, “Is this finally the ‘sweet spot’ for technology purchases?”  We could do worse than to spend a day or more having honest, reflective conversations on these valid questions.  To be fair, Dr. Punya Mishra and the Deep-Play Research group at Michigan State University partially skewered this question with a treatment of 1903’s technology, the crayon, in their 2012 publication, “Rethinking Technology & Creativity in the 21st Century: Crayons are the Future”.

Technology Defined

Dr. Mishra’s team takes the notion down an important path regarding “trans-disciplinary creativity”, but, I believe, leaves unanswered the question of, “What is technology?”  Here’s an online definition from Merriam-Webster, “The use of science in industry, engineering, etc., to invent useful things or to solve problems.”  Is anyone here satisfied with that definition?

So, take a moment and write down your definition of technology before you read further.  Go ahead and post it in the comments section if you like.  I asked the technologists at Clear Creek ISD to do just that, too.  I figure it helps if we at least have a shared understanding of what it is that we do.

Just like the hollow definition from Merriam-Webster, other offered definitions may not ring true, either.  “Hey, a pencil is technology!”  I’m pretty sure that’s not technology today.  Read Bain gave it a shot in 1937 with, “technology includes all tools, machines, utensils, weapons, instruments, housing, clothing, communicating and transporting devices and the skills by which we produce and use them."  It seems that it would be easier to list everything that technology is not.  Bernard Stiegler offers two definitions here.  The first is, “organized inorganic matter,” and the second is, “the pursuit of life by means other than life.”  Both will make you think, but then quickly you realize the short-sightedness of the definitions.  Isn’t it technology when we manipulate genes?  Extend human life?  3-D print and transplant human organs?  Create life? 

Technology is Relative

How about Sir Ken Robinson’s quote?  “Technology is not technology if it already existed when you were born.”  I like that thinking quite a bit, but, is my technology (go back with me to TRS-80, Atari 800XL, Apple II land) relevant to kids today?  Maybe relevant is not the right word.  I think the key is that “technology” is relative both to a person and to a time period.  Like Einstein’s understanding of time, technology is relative to the observer.  After all, if we are going to have this word and use it extensively, it should mean something.  It’s not acceptable to identify everything since sharpened sticks and fire as technology and have that be relevant to our kids.

Leveraging Technology for Learning

Here’s a common thread, though.  The understanding of technology is never innate, and technology is still technology until it slips into the background noise.  Crayons are no longer technology.  To the degree that a technology requires specialized understanding to use or understand, it’s still technology.  If you want to leverage technology for learning, you will need experts in technology who can smoothly integrate it into curriculum and pedagogy.  (Thank you Dr. Mishra for TPACK!)  And, for the people who somehow expect technology to eventually somehow “stop,” it’s probably more useful to understand that technology is more like a strong current in the ocean.   You have to swim in it, or submit to it.

If technology is relative to the observer, how does that understanding change how we help kids learn, especially when we think about what technology will be to them once we are obsolete?

Kevin Schwartz serves as the Chief Technology Officer for Clear Creek ISD, home of 41,000 students, NASA, and the Latitude 2 Learn 1:1 tablet computer initiative and he brings 20 years of experience in K-12. He is also Chair of the Texas K-12 CTO Council and actively serves on the CoSN SEND and SmartIT committees. Kevin is a frequent presenter on a broad range of education technology topics and is a consultant to school districts that seek transformational changes in learning through technology.   

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