Thursday, January 26, 2006

Commentary: Sotir: State of the Art vs. State of the Use

There are a lot of educational blogs out in the blogosphere, and I try to visit some of my favorites regularly (though I wish more would have RSS feeds so I can track updates easier). One recently poses an interesting thought: Technology for What? A Preconceptual Sketch by Robert Heiny ( I hate to say it, but having been involved with technology for more than 20 years, he has a point. He asks a series of questions, including:

Do teachers agree that increasing (or maximizing) student learning rates is our top daily priority?

What compelling ideal or practical purpose do state-of-the-art technologies serve in student learning?

Do some interests merely want the newest gismos in schools whether or not anyone needs them?

Which imperatives relevant to novice and scholarly learning drive technology evangelists to promote the use of new technologies, such as use of digital ink and wireless connections, to increase learning?

Heady questions, all. As a self-confessed tech evangelist, I’ve asked similar questions. If education existed, and thrived, in the pre-technological revolution era, why do we need technology now? What purpose does it serve? Is it necessary? The simple answer is no, education without technology can be done effectively, as generation after generation proved. One of the most compelling arguments to make in favor of technologically-enabled classrooms is that today’s students demand it. That is true, since many of these technologies were created before today’s students were born, which makes it part of the societal fabric of their lives. They don’t know life without cable, cell phones, or computers. It just IS.

But for me, as manager of an academic technology lab, the question moves more from having state-of-the-art to how we use those tools effectively, which I call state-of-the-use. When I wrote to the original RFP for a Center of Excellence grant for the Illinois Community College Board in 1992, the general feeling was that technology was important, but the question was ‘why?. The Centers of Excellence were charged with being the state models for technology in education. And I doubt that I, or likely any of my colleagues, knew exactly why we needed it. But we had a vision of the future, saw the potential for technology, and set out as if we were explorers of a vast, previously uncharted universe.

As a Center of Excellence, we worked to first define what constituted technological excellence. New hardware and software was delivered almost daily, all amazing and all very expensive. It made sense to give funds to a few to explore the options for the many. And explore we did. Within months of receiving the grant, I was plunged headlong into a world that I had never seen before. Laser disk programs sold for $ 5000 -10,000 per station. Computers cost that and more. Vendors came out of the woodwork trying to convince me that their software was the best of the best. We had any and all adult educational software as it became available. It was overwhelming for my staff of specialists, who were charged with making sense of it all.

Eventually, we returned back from the future to the common sense of the past. We had a meeting and I said listen, all of this is wonderful and amazing and exciting. But we are teachers. How will this make us better? More importantly, how will it make students learn more effectively? We came upon a series of realizations that we still employ in the Center today. First, technology is a tool. It’s like a book or a blackboard or a lecture. It’s nothing more than an additional tool that teachers can employ, when it is needed, and when it is most effective.

Second, teachers won’t use anything that is difficult to access. Change is common, but in education, comes slowly. The way to get teachers to use it is to take away all the layers of difficulty, and make it as easy to use as a book or a blackboard. When students had slates, they were used much as paper had been used in the past. When the first blackboard was put behind a teacher, suddenly the idea developed of using it to explain not to one student but an entire classroom of students. It may have been extremely low-tech, but it revolutionized how teachers teach. You need to think the same way when designing technology for a classroom. It absolutely has to be invisible to be effective. So we brainstormed on the problems teachers had with technology. We came up with solutions. For example, no instructor had the time or inclination to read 500 page software manuals. We determined that teachers needed to know how to get into, through and out of the software programs. We developed QuickNotes, which are one page (hard and fast rule) telling them how to get into, move through and exit the programs. The QuickNotes increased software usage almost 300% in the first 6 months.

Third, teachers need to see a reason to use the technology. We considered the various learning styles of our students and developed a series of Individual Educational Plans (IEP) for every level student who accessed the Center. Any student from any class program could come into the Center and learn what they needed when they needed it. We cross-correlated the software with the classroom curricula, so that students could have it correspond exactly with what they were currently learning and could choose various programs from the same skill sets that presented the information in a variety of learning styles. And teachers needed to only know the class level of the student to point them to the correct software sections. Teachers saw the value that technology offered their students. Student attendance jumped dramatically once they knew they could get the information they needed quickly and easily.

Finally, we determined the need for patience. As a more recent example, I started using blogs as the main communication tool for the Center a couple of years ago, replacing email and the mailbox stuffed with outdated memos. Blogs are archived, and searchable, and they don't clog up mailboxes. The information is there, when you need it and when you want it, and is available anywhere you have access to the Internet. The teachers took to using a blog slowly, but eventually, it became the tool I originally envisioned it being, once the value was established.

Technology for the sake of technology simply will not be used by teachers. They are too busy, and sometimes too reluctant to use something foreign and difficult to understand. But if you make the tool invisible, give it a purpose and a value, then new ideas can and will be embraced. We don’t need to have the newest state-of-the-art. We need to have the best state-of-the-use. We need to spend less money getting the newest and the best, and spend more on developing the uses of the equipment we do buy. Technology still in the virtual box is nothing more than a waste of resources. Get it out, and get it used.