Using the Technologies of our Time

by Jean Tower

Schools must leverage the technology of the day for teaching and learning. PERIOD.


We can all have a chuckle when we read about past admonishments about technology. Socrates warned that books would diminish our capabilities to speak and carry on intelligent dialogue. When I was in high school there was a division on whether calculators had any place in schools or not.

In Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, by Collins and Halverson, we find a historical list of doomsday predictions about the use of technology in school – kids need to keep up their slate skills, their pencil sharpening skills, and their ink-making skills.

From a principal’s publication in 1815: “Students today depend on paper too much.  They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?”

From the journal of the National Association of Teachers, 1907: “Students today depend too much upon ink.  They don’t know how to use a pen knife to sharpen a pencil.  Pen and ink will never replace the pencil.”

From Rural American Teacher, 1928: “Students today depend upon store bought ink.  They don’t know how to make their own.  When they run out of ink they will be unable to write words or ciphers until their next trip to the settlement.  This is a sad commentary on modern education.”

From Federal Teachers, 1950: “Ballpoint pens will be the ruin of education in our country.  Students use these devices and then throw them away.  The American values of thrift and frugality are being discarded.  Businesses and banks will never allow such expensive luxuries.”

From a science fair judge in Apple Classroom of Tomorrow chronicles, 1988: “Computers give students an unfair advantage.  Therefore, students who used computers to analyze data or create displays will be eliminated from the science fair.”

Today I hear that students have to read “real” books, practice handwriting, write essays on paper……. Every era has their accepted technologies and newer technologies that have not yet become “the way we do things.” People have doubts and fears about the emerging technologies and worry about how to use them safely and wisely. I encourage safety and wisdom, but outlawing new technologies does nobody any favors.

In my school district, when I talk to parents about what kinds of technology uses we are seeing in the schools, I use this framework:

Emergent, Widespread, Authorized

Authorized is meant to include current communication systems and software and tools that are accepted and have systemic use. They are accepted throughout the organization and our parents, students, and educators take them for granted.

Some practices and technologies are in a phase between authorized and emergent – widespread but still maturing and not yet systemic. They are in use by many and others are contemplating their use.

Emergent technologies are those that we are beginning to adopt or that innovative educators are exploring. I consider it the work of the technology department to support both the “authorized” use of technology, as well as encourage the emergent. In my more than twenty years of school technology leadership, I have seen MANY technologies slide across my framework from emergent to authorized. In 1995, I had to advocate strongly to be allowed to create a web page for our school district (emergent) and now many (most?) schools require every teacher to have a web page. Twitter is still in the emergent phase in my district, while blogs have moved to widespread and taking payments online is now authorized.

There are constantly new things being added to the emergent list and continuous movement across the lists as technologies become more widespread in their use and then are accepted as authorized. This process makes sense to me – we try things out and if they are successful they become more widespread and then some become de rigueur.

What bothers me is when we get stuck – fear keeps us from allowing educators to test out emerging technologies, and a nostalgia keeps us focused on the 21st century equivalents of oratory (afraid of books), slates (worried about a dependence on paper), and quills (nervous about depending on ballpoint pens). Let’s get over it and use the tools of the time we live in!

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