Where “Technology” Fits in Teaching and Learning

These days I often hear “Technology is just a tool” and for the most part I agree. However, unlike some “tools” there are technologies that have the power to transform experiences. I’ll give you an example.

Let’s say that a teacher who has been writing notes on the chalkboard for years decides to finally start using PowerPoint. After looking at the notes that are usually written on the chalkboard, the teacher copies them into bulleted lists on PowerPoint slides. Essentially the student experience is the same. At one point the teacher was writing on the board and the students sat in seats and listened/asked questions and now the students sit in seats/ask questions while the same information is displayed to them.

The teacher has “used technology” but the experience has remained the same for the students. This is NOT transforming the learning experience for the students.


“Well, what if the teacher makes the PowerPoint available to students using their school website so that the students can review the slides at a later date,” you might say.  Well, that is a bit of a transformation isn’t it? At the very least the student has the opportunity to access the material for review, whereas before they would have to rely on their notes taken during the class. I am good with that. It is a step in a better direction.

Let’s look at another typical classroom assignment. A teacher asks a student to write an essay about a book and they are asked to write it double spaced and in a Times New Roman font. It must be 1600 words long and the rough draft must be turned in on Friday. The student goes home and writes the paper and prints it and turns it into the teacher. That is a pretty normal course of events. Maybe there is some peer editing. That is good. But in general, the student writes the paper and hands the work into the teacher. It is graded and returned to the student. From the student’s perspective, the “audience” (the real audience) of the work is the teacher.

What is the student wrote the paper using a Google document. Google allows you to write and share your work with whoever you want. So the student writes the paper and as they are writing it they send a link to the work to an aunt in Texas and a cousin in Alabama. The student asks both of them for comments on the work and receives them. Then, before the rough draft is even turned in, the student has shared the work with a couple of trusted classmates to help give comments and corrections.

Not only has the student communicated with distant family members while writing an essay, but they have now had four people look at their rough draft before it is ever even turned into the teacher. This transforms the writing experience into more of a community event.

Now imagine that when the work is finally completed, it is placed on a blog and the student shares the work with a few more family members. And if they are lucky a couple of them share their comments about the work. Depending on the work, it may be seen by people directly involved in the subject of the essay. Or other students writing about similar topics. At the very least the work has a chance at being read by others, where if it is simply turned into the teacher, it will never go far.

For me, there are many examples of how technologies can completely reshape a learning experience and usually the transformation is not about stuff but about people. Like in the example above, what really changed was the possibility for others to help, share, and guide a learner. And I suppose that is what most interests me about technology is not the “making of things” but the “bridging of people.”

For me photographs provide one of the best visualization of how a tool can transform and experience or event. Not long ago it was common to take photos of the family vacation, take the roll of film to the local Thrifty Drug store and have them develop the film. If you thought you might share some of the pictures with other family members you might have them make “duplicates” of the pictures.

So there you were, standing outside Thrifty a week later looking at your photographs. You had a great time on your vacation and you really want to share the experience with your family. You realize that with each “sharing” you are losing some of your pictures. Even though you go duplicates you have many family members and soon you only have a few images left of your awesome vacation! Well, you can see where this story goes.

These days you are ON YOUR VACATION and sharing your trip with your whole family AS YOU TAKE IT! And they can comment on your adventures as you are having them. That would be the Facebook model.

Working in a college one of the things I miss about the K12 classroom is all the student work on the walls. I miss seeing what people DO in school.

I guess that is where I see technology helping us. We can make visible what we are doing. Not everything mind you, but what we choose.

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6 Responses to Where “Technology” Fits in Teaching and Learning

  1. Cheryl says:

    I love TED talks.

    • wendy watson says:

      I also love Ted Talks. i have them on my Ipod as podcasts. Guy Roz does a thematic radio program on NPR on Sundays where he takes 4 segments and pulls them together. I find Ted Talks so inspiring particularly because it highlights the new and innovative things that “everyday” people are doing…not just celebrities; but, perhaps, the TRUE celebrities of our world!

  2. wendy watson says:

    I am testing this post to see if my web address shows up in the comment.

  3. Mark C. Frederick says:

    I use at least one TED talk every semester. They can provide a host of opportunities for discussion and writing.

    There are three (thus far) that have been particularly successful for generating thoughts among students:

    Sir Ken Robinson: “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”

    Jane McGonigal: “Gaming Can Make a Better World”

    Josh McWhorter: “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!”

    McWhorter (a linguist) makes the argument that texting is written speech, and it is becoming a language of its own (so it is more than just “bad” English).