Educational Technology: Race, Expedition, or Toolbox?

I had a conversation with a colleague about technology in education the other day that scared the daylights out of me. He expressed a concern that some teachers were getting too far ahead of others in using class websites, blogs, and other forms of communication technology. He thought things were getting out of control and that the administration needed to reign things in and make sure everyone was doing similar things in a similar way.

The reason that scares me is 1) what he’s advocating isn’t too far fetched, and 2) I’m one of the technology front runners right now. Incorporating technology has been incredibly beneficial for me. I’m not willing to go back to the way I taught even three years ago and I’m not even sure that I could if I wanted to.

I dawned on me afterwards that he’s viewing the use of technology in school as a race. He recognizes that there are some people that didn’t realize the race was happening, didn’t hear the starting gun, are losing sight of the other runners, and can’t see where the finish line is. That group is lumbering along, gasping for air, desperately hoping a referee will show up, blow a whistle and declare everyone else disqualified for starting early.

I think my colleague would be much more comfortable if educational technology were like a mountain climbing expedition. When hiking in the mountains the standard operating procedure is that the whole group sticks together. They move at the pace of the slowest member and one of the most experienced climbers comes up behind the group letting no stragglers fall behind. Success or failure is a group endeavor which requires lots of advanced planning.

The problem is, of course, that neither of these metaphors is appropriate. Technology in education isn’t a competition between teachers. It’s not Darwinism or a zero-sum game. Allowing one teacher to “get ahead” doesn’t mean that another teacher is necessarily “falling behind.” And treating educational technology like a group expedition is incredibly impractical. Too many teachers are already at the trailhead, boots and packs on, ready to go while schools have yet to even identify the destination, much less the route, or the logistics.

To me a much better metaphor for educational technology is a toolbox. The point of education is education, not technology. Technology is simply a toolbox full of tools that might provide a better way for a teacher to do something important.  Different teachers use different tools (both high-tech and low-tech) to accomplish different things.

While schools may see wisdom in telling the fastest runner to slow down, or in getting everyone in the same location moving at the same pace, the last thing a school should do is tell someone they can’t use a hammer anymore because they’ve decided that everyone needs to use a saw.

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