Recently, veteran teacher turned ed-tech expert and author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms Will Richardson gave an interview with Education Week about the growing role of technology in schools. The article stood out because it is (unfortunately) very rare to hear from someone with such intricate knowledge not only of technology, but also of the ways that technology can work to address the most pressing problems and needs in America’s schools today.
Perhaps most importantly, Richardson points out the monumental change in the kind of skills required for success in today’s society. Thanks to technology, a flood of information is constantly at our (and our children’s) fingertips. As a result, informational skills – knowing how to find, synthesize and apply relevant information – are becoming exponentially more important. At the same time, content knowledge – i.e. what each individual “knows” – is becoming increasingly less important compared to how well one is able to communicate and collaborate with others.
Technology is a primary cause of this changing reality, and, according to Richardson, teaching about and through technology is the only way to prepare students to deal with it in their everyday lives.
Richardson also notes that while students are generally quite savvy at the social uses of technology, they often have difficulty negotiating what the MacArthur Foundation’s study Learning with New Media calls its “interest-based” uses—those which connect users based on what they want to learn rather than their social connections.
This is an incredibly important distinction for teachers to understand for two reasons. First, it points out the limits of the idea that children are inherently more skilled in the use of technology than adults and therefore don’t have much to learn. In fact, the technological skills most kids have are easy for adults to acquire, and those that they don’t have, most educated adults do. Second, understanding this distinction shows teachers that that they have an opportunity to teach essential learning skills using a medium with which students are familiar – yet not so familiar as to make teachers extraneous – and which allows students to choose content that interests them.
Teachers can guide students through internet-research projects with their goal being not just to learn about their chosen topic but to learn how to determine relevant information, to think critically about sources and bias, to synthesize new knowledge with prior knowledge, and more, all in the hypertext environments with which students are already comfortable.
Simply using the internet as a new medium for teaching the same old content to be memorized and regurgitated – using YouTube videos instead of filmstrips or PowerPoint presentations from a laptop projector instead of slideshows from an overhead projector—misses the point entirely. The ways in which technology has transformed the way we live, learn, and work are not superficial, but completely transformational; the ways in which technology is implemented into education must be transformational as well.
Ideally, technology should push school culture away from obsession with “right” answers, away from the idea that collaboration is “cheating,” and away from the idea that everybody must constantly be learning the same content as everyone else in their age group at any given time. It should be skill-based, student-centered, and integrated seamlessly into every aspect of the curriculum, not limited to a “unit” or once-a-week “special.”
The fact that schools lag so far behind every other aspect of modern life in terms of the technology used and skill sets valued is simply unacceptable, and is indicative of the fact that we have not seriously thought about the overriding purpose of K-12 education in quite some time. If we believe that its purpose, or at least an important part of its purpose, is to prepare students for higher education and work in today’s digital world, we would be well-served to take Mr. Richardson’s recommendations to heart.