Our task this week was to develop a contemporary definition of educational technology and describe how our understanding of ed tech has been shaped. I would define ed tech as technology that is used to enhance or promote teaching and learning through a variety of tools and methods, varying in delivery. As for how my understanding of ed tech has been shaped, that’s a bit more complicated.
My sweet grandma recently celebrated her 93rd birthday. Some of my favourite conversations with her have been when she describes her schooling and education and how she came to be an adult in a world that was so fast changing. She remembers riding a horse to school (she was one of the lucky ones – the rest of her friends walked). Most of the kids didn’t go to school past grade 5 or 6, especially the young men, since they were needed to help their fathers work the farm. She remembers rationing during WWII and how they were so excited to find a beehive on their farm – it meant they could have honey. The first piece of educational technology she remembers is the slate. Having books to read was a privilege. She remembers the first radio her family got and how all the neighbours would come to their home to sit and listen to the programming. The radio is the first piece of educational technology that influenced her learning in a significant way. She was a farm girl from Saskatchewan and suddenly she was learning about people living in other areas of the world. As she grew into adolescence and young adulthood, there were new and exciting programs and all sorts of music on the radio. The day she and my grandpa got their first television set was an exciting day, indeed! Again, their home became a gathering spot, as they were the first in their community to own one. My grandma has never owned a computer or a smart phone and she has said that she feels like she has dodged a bullet not having to learn how to use or operate “those machines.”
By grandma’s standards, I guess you could say that I also have witnessed some astonishing changes in educational technology. Today’s students are not the same as students from 1993, the year I graduated high school. We were taught and subsequently learned using different methods than students in 2018. The mid-90s is when the Internet became “a thing” that I needed to know about and its capabilities were definitely not what they are today. My students do not know or remember a time before the Internet was readily available at the tip of their fingers. It is well known that I am not the most technologically literate person – I have to work hard to understand and incorporate technology in my daily life. How, then, am I to help my students navigate the technology jungle? I would venture to say that in my day, learning was a combination of knowledge retention and critical thinking skills. Today’s learning is more about critical thinking and application skills. I can definitely help students learn to think critically and analyze information using the educational technology tools available to us.
Postman’s “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change” discusses key ideas that address some of the cautionary measures that should be addressed. Yes, technology can be fantastic for teaching and for learning, but we must also approach it with an air of caution. His first idea is that “culture always pays a price for technology.” YES. With the convenience of having our smart phones able to do so many things for us, what is being taken for granted? Face to face communication! People are forgetting how to communicate with others face to face or by phone. How many people do you know who will go out of their way to avoid making a phone call? My own daughter does this – if she can’t email or do it online, chances are she will avoid the task. As educators, we can guide students to learn how to use these communication skills, we can practice them with the use of technology, and we can promote being social instead of solitary.
Postman’s second idea is that “there are always winners and losers in technological change.” Think of my grandma. She’s not interested in learning how to run a computer or a smartphone. She definitely is not going to text us from her landline or get an email address at this stage in her life. This requires us to call her or visit her in person, which is definitely NOT a bad thing. But she is not the only one whom technology is keeping powerless. Those who live in poverty and cannot afford smart phones or internet connections suffer as well. Accessibility is often something my colleagues and I must address, as not all of our students are fortunate enough to have technology at their fingertips.
Postman’s third idea is “that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.” In the words of Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message.”
Sometimes I think that my resistance to technology is that I have seen firsthand that it can cause loneliness and isolation. In an era where we have knowledge at our fingertips, retaining knowledge is less valuable than it used to be. Indeed, wisdom seems to have vanished from some people completely.
Postman’s fourth idea is that “Technological change is not additive; it is ecological.” His warning that we should be cautious of technological innovation is something that resonates with me. Once a technology has been introduced, there is truly no going back. We are stuck with the bad parts of it as well as the good parts. As Postman mentioned, the creation of standardized testing has changed education dramatically. It seems absolutely absurd that we would even use these tests with everything we know about the diverse abilities and ways that students learn, but they are still being widely used to categorize students and redefine curriculum.
Postman’s final idea that “media tend to become mythic” is a common conception of students. Ask any teacher at a school and most of them will tell you that though “bring your own device” is great in theory, in reality it is a bit of a headache. Students (and some parents) feel that it is their right to have their cell phone at all times and that they should be able to use it in whatever capacity they want simply because they own it. Somewhere along the line they’ve lost track of the reality that they can certainly survive (and perhaps even thrive!) without having that piece of technology at their fingertips. When I taught Media Studies, we did an experiment with students – we asked them to give up their cell phones for 24 hours. The alternative to giving it up for 24 hours was giving it up for the school day – from 8:30am to 3:45pm. Many students panicked. We’re talking full blown hyperventilating, crying, and shaking. I sent a letter home to parents to inform them of the experiment. Parents also had mixed reactions. Some were furious that I would ask their kids to do such a thing! Some stated that it was a safety concern and their kids needed their cell phones so they could call in case of an emergency (insert eye roll – how did any of us survive before cell phones?). Some parents thought it was such an awesome idea that they sent their own cell phones to school with their kids to be “locked up” overnight. The experiment was a great way to remind students and their families that our reliance on technology to make us feel safe or complete is terrifying – indeed, it may even be dangerous for our health.
One thing is for sure … technology is ever-evolving and we must evolve with it to some extent. My quest to find appropriate ways to use educational technology to enhance my teaching and students’ learning is ongoing.