My aspirational brain vomit

Educational Technologies: What Should We Consider Both Now and Beyond the Pandemic?

With the turn to more digital technologies for COVID-19 school shutdowns, and so many forced into using tech where they hadn’t much before, it is important to consider what our next steps will be. With the continuing situation, there will likely be some hybrid of emergency distance-learning with students rotating to physical school to reduce the risks of a crowded classroom. In the aftermath, once things return to some semblance of normalcy and the need for this experiment has dissipated somewhat, we’ll be reassessing our relationship to and use of such resources. Out of this experience will come educational-technology opportunities and boondoggles. In the next while, I imagine those wanting to sell us the latest gadgets, online learning platforms, and applications will really step up their sales pitches. Already, many companies are providing temporary free-access to some of their resources, which is appreciated, but is also an effective way to entice us (some IS tempting) to use our budgets to pay for more subscriptions and tools down the line if there is any money left in pandemic-eviscerated budgets. I think it behooves us to dive more deeply into this as a topic, once we’ve moved past our collective scrambling, as part of determining the future of education. 

So let me preface the rest of this article with the fact that most teacher-librarians are trained in ed tech, though ed tech is not our only area of interest (there is also research, literacy, resources, facility management, curriculum and program development, etc.). Furthermore, I did my entire master’s degree online due to both lifestyle needs and the ability to access a program not locally available to me. Thus, I’ve used a fair amount of online ed tech in my own learning, which largely suited me (master’s = mature + motivated), as well as some in my teaching. That said, I am very cognizant of the need to approach various types of educational technologies thoughtfully.

I am of the opinion at this juncture that technology will not replace teachers yet, no matter the claims of those who clearly have a grudge against some teachers and as a result have since labelled all teachers as wastrels. That aside, I’ve read the likes of Harari’s Homo Deus, but artificial intelligence (AI) is just not nearly there yet and won’t likely be for a very long time. Good learning for most students, regardless of the availability of technology and AI, requires some level of trust of and connection with their teachers, along with effective teaching techniques and curriculum. And, good online learning (though the research jury seems to still be out on the efficacy of even well-planned virtual learning for many people, especially of grade-school students) still requires a teacher developing the course and guiding students through it. At the moment, teachers are discovering the need to considerably adapt their regular classroom practice for the online world, if their students even have access to that, as many don’t or have very limited access (although I won’t be addressing lack of access in this article). This is time consuming as they scramble to determine what will best engage and teach students under the current circumstances while also maintaining students’ mental health.

How do we assess technologies for use both under our current circumstances and as we move forward to an unknown future? Note I am aware “technology” can refer to many things – after all, a pencil is a kind of technology though I’m focused on digital technologies. Here I pose and attempt to answer a number of general questions which will hopefully be relevant regardless of where we end up over the next while:

What are we trying to accomplish with the technology? Is it something which allows students and teachers to work together online and/or is for on-campus use? Is the technology in question meant to make life easier so students and teachers can focus on what is important, or is it explicitly meant to target cognition and skills development? Will students and/or teachers gain something they couldn’t otherwise?

Is there sufficient data supporting the efficacy of the tool being considered, provided by researchers without a vested interest in the outcome? If not, it probably shouldn’t be invested in unless a school or district has an extra sum of experiential money set aside (which would not be taken away from other key areas). In the case of “extra” funds, students and teachers could experiment with and assess these untested tools as part of critical-thinking development and design learning. The appropriateness of this of course will depend on the student age group.

What will have to be sacrificed to fund the acquisition of such technologies? Unfortunately, there are schools and districts, which, in a rush to impress parents and local taxpayers, don’t carefully consider what might be lost when funds are reallocated for technology purchases. There are often people, resources, and programs lacking the flash and prestige of the latest digital technologies, but who are quietly holding a school community together academically, socially/emotionally, and otherwise. Yet sometimes schools and districts lay off these key staff or cut these important programs to secure tech funds. In many cases, someone high up in the school or district has been suckered in by a great sales pitch peppered by supposed “research”. Administrators and committees need to carefully consider the big, long-term picture.

Can more than one student use it at a time? Unless the technology is part of a well-thought out station rotation (sometimes a reasonable solution when cost is prohibitive), the technology can potentially be less effective than traditional learning tools. Though they have since improved significantly, when interactive whiteboards were first starting to be introduced into many schools more than a decade back, they were lacking in functionality. But, because they had sci-fi promise, they absorbed a lot of funding. Sure, for younger kids, it was kind of cool to have them be able to manipulate figures on a screen, but only one student at a time could do this while everyone else sat and watched. That money could have purchased a lot of three-dimensional manipulatives everyone could have used at once.

Is it a technology which will be used as part of everyday life now or in a student’s future, potentially in negative ways? This of course is where we must engage with the technology by e.g. teaching digital citizenship to reduce the sometimes catastrophic results of using certain applications. I also find students often have no idea of how some of these technologies can be used in innovative ways, such as the opportunity to collaborate with people around the world to enact positive change.

Is the use of the technology implemented in such a way that the skills learned by students can be transferred to different and newer applications? Is creativity encouraged? Does it encourage flexible thinking and problem-solving within Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development? A benefit of technology is it can create efficiencies, but students may also benefit if encouraged to find creative solutions rather than merely being media and tech consumers. So, though some applications are meant to run smoothly in the background to allow for more time to focus on learning, sometimes the best learning comes when students are reasonably challenged.

For instance, website platforms which e.g. can be used for creating publicly shared and hopefully informative group projects, should allow for some level of customization to best suit their audience’s needs. With this ability, students could try out widgets, HTML, or CSS, if time and the scope of the assignment allow for it. The teacher might not even have to be a web-design wizard, but should know enough to help guide the students to find answers for how to make the customizations (or have access to teachers who can guide students in this way). As students develop the level of perseverance and confidence required to do this, they might also one day decide they can manage to tackle true coding languages which helps develop logic and critical thinking, and can lead to creative problem-solving. Currently one of my sons is learning Python and is working on a personalized calendaring and reminder system because he struggles with organization. Students may also consider the need for the development of new types of applications to help us handle our lives during this current world crisis. 

Does it use up a teacher’s already sparse time without any real benefit? Going back to the initial introduction of interactive whiteboards – though some teachers noted could be beneficial because of e.g. having the ability to record notes written on the board, the early whiteboards required use of rather clunky proprietary software to create interactive lessons. It took an often unreasonable amount of time to put together a simple interactive element. In theory this could be reused the following school year, but not only does good teaching require constant tweaking, teachers are regularly reassigned to new grades and subjects. Furthermore, inevitably the tool changes such that the process must be started again.

Can it help with data crunching so teachers can better adjust their teaching to support learners and administer interventions where necessary? Just as many are noting AI is becoming an excellent sidekick to doctors whose can’t possibly keep up with every bit of analysis of symptoms and tests, or the publication of the constant reams of new literature, the right applications can also help teachers by: freeing them to be more creative in their work, allowing them more time to be guides and coaches, and giving them more opportunity to ensure students feel valued and seen rather than just a cog in a machine. After all, students who feel connected in their learning environment tend to do better, as summarized research in this article explains. Relieving overburdened teachers could reduce the number of students who fall through the cracks.

Caveat: we do have to be cautious because some of these data-crunching applications come with privacy issues, including the selling of student data to third-party companies. The Office of The Privacy Commissioner for Canada published key takeaways to consider when looking to add educational technology services and applications to your school programming. Note that each province also has its own set of rules around this, and there are also differences between public and independent/private schools.

My overall point here is, we need to avoid pretending that if we throw enough ed tech at the education system, all of our pedagogical problems will be solved. In and of itself, we can’t seek digital technologies out as the sparkly Holy Grail of effective teaching lest we fall down the wrong rabbit hole. We must carefully consider our engagement with these technologies. We must ensure students and teachers have the support they need to use them effectively. And yes, we must also concede the need for time offline/offscreen (though some technologies do allow for some offscreen tinkering) in order to take advantage of what the three-dimensional world of our five senses provides for human development, as is becoming all the more apparent if we observe our tired, glazed-eyed students after weeks of emergency online-learning. 

I listed only a few possible questions to consider in my article. What are you concerned and/or excited about in regards to educational technology? What are your questions, experiences and possible solutions? This is an invitation to share ideas.

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