Karin Forssell, directs the Learning, Design, & Technology master’s program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Her students design innovative solutions to learning problems. She studies the conditions under which teachers choose to use digital tools, and the features that make them useful.
For some teachers, the idea of incorporating technology into teaching is intimidating, to say the least. It’s complicated. It’s distracting. It breaks. It is not necessary for good teaching.
In common parlance, “technology” is a word we use to describe things that are new. To quote Alan Kay, “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.” Hence Marc Prensky’s distinction between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” If you were born before the advent of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, or SnapChat, you might well have a sense that they are different, uncharted, and not critical to good teaching. By talking about technology, we invoke a sense of exciting novelty, but also untamed wilderness. Untamed wilderness is not necessarily what a K-12 teacher or a university professor is looking for in a course.
“Technology” is useful. The National Academy of Engineers defines it as “any modification of the natural world made to fulfill human needs and desires.” By this definition, technology for teaching includes not only student response systems and MOOC platforms, but also lecture halls, blue books, and chalk. All of these can help us address the challenges we face when teaching. If the word “technology” distracts us from talking about improving instructional practices, would it perhaps be better to use a different word?
First, we can focus on the different “needs and desires” that instructors might want to address in teaching. For example, we might want to provide students with a sense of how ideas are connected through interactive representations. Or allow them to quickly receive feedback on whether their understanding is correct. They might need to engage with some ideas in ways that protect them emotionally, or interact with something that would be too dangerous in real life. We might want to find out who among the students does not understand the concepts, and to explore why. Once we have identified the needs and desires, we may need new “tools.”
Unlike “technology,” the word “tool” evokes a sense of stability. Humans have used tools for thousands of years. We use tools to provide us with leverage, or power, or the insight needed to act on a given situation. They make us smart. In courses, they help our students engage with the content we teach.
Tools are used by people to allow them to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. They amplify human capabilities. So different tools are appropriate for different skill levels, or for individuals with different strengths. An instructor in history would reasonably be interested in a different set than an instructor in physics, given the nature of the content being taught.
Tools are designed to solve problems. Tools make it possible for us to do things more easily, more quickly, or better. They have handles. Whereas “technology” often feels inscrutable, a “black box” that operates as if by magic, a tool was designed to be operated by someone. On a well-designed tool, that handle is obvious. Of course, not all tools are well designed. But thinking of tools as designed allows us to get inside the head of the designer. It suggests ways that we might create a theory of mind. (If all else fails, it allows us to blame the designer with our own dignity intact.) For our teaching purposes, a tool that does not do what we want and expect is perhaps not the right tool for the job.
An interesting effect of talking about tools instead of technology is that it frees teachers from worrying about the intimidation, complication and distraction that “technology” can bring. Instead, we focus on the problems we want to solve in our teaching, or the challenges we choose to take on for our own continuous improvement. The beauty of focusing on the challenges instead of the solutions is that we might uncover a variety of ways of approaching the problem.
In having conversations about the nature of teaching, learning, and our students, we grow far more than in debating the merits of “technology.”