New Technology and Old Thinking: Why Classroom Technology Falls Short

When teachers describe various classroom technologies, we often hear comments like, “it’s just like X only better,” with X describing whatever they are accustomed to. For example, a smartboard is “just like” a whiteboard, only better. In other words, we have installed an expensive, more complex, less durable whiteboard with an extra convenience or two. Many teachers will not even take advantage of the added features, feeling that the technology is too complicated, cumbersome, unreliable, or whatever, and the smartboard will end up being nothing more – and sometimes a little less – than a standard whiteboard.

There is plenty of blame to go around for failed classroom technology. Teachers may be unwilling or unable to integrate the technology, support departments may be understaffed or undertrained, the network infrastructure may be inadequate, the chosen technology may not be matched to the intended outcome. The list goes on, but at the core is the simple fact that change is difficult and we prefer to continue doing things the same old way and continue thinking in the same old way.

This is both a predictable and understandable reaction. After all, what we have been doing has been working, more or less, and even if we admit that instruction could be better there is no guarantee that adopting new technology will be the key to improvement. In fact, it is certain that no matter how well trained the teacher is, no matter what techniques and tools are applied, all instruction will fall short in some way and no amount of training, testing, regulation, or funding will change that. Good teachers recognize the limits of the profession, but they also continually search for ways to increase the impact of education on their students.

I fully believe that most teachers are continually looking for ways to improve the effectiveness of their instruction. It is the relentless search for “better” that allows new classroom technologies to gain a foothold. But, without exploring the merits or failings of any specific technology, I submit that the greatest hurdle for most teachers is not the technology itself, rather it is how we think about it and what our expectations for it are.

I do not personally find most technologies to be that difficult. As a network administrator/electrician/teacher I see, configure, install, and use technology all of the time and I am comfortable with most of it. Still, I find that actually integrating this technology into my classroom is a real challenge.

This year, I have been experimenting with a couple of technologies that were, in my mind, simple and minimally disruptive to the sacred “how we have always done it” altar. I have increased my dependence on Moodle (I have been using it for a while, but this year I am delivering more content), I have adopted a pen display and projector in place of using a whiteboard, and I have been using Socrative for formative quizzing. In theory, all of these technologies are just electronic versions of standard classroom fare, but in practice, they have been much more challenging.

Nearly every aspect of both my teaching philosophy and practice have been touched by these three “simple” tools. For a while, I didn’t understand why such seemingly small changes required so much extra work in order to be effective – isn’t technology supposed to make my life easier? What I failed to account for was the fact that technology represents a fundamentally different medium. It is as though I had been working with oil paint and switched to watercolor.

One could argue that the end result is the same – a painting – but even a child recognizes that the character of an oil painting is very different from a watercolor. What I had been doing was like trying to make watercolor look like an oil painting. No matter what you do, you can never get anything that looks better than a bad imitation. Does this mean that oils are fundamentally superior to watercolor? No. I simply mean that the two are different. They require different techniques and have different strengths and weaknesses. A portrait can be painted with either, but they will not – and should not – look the same even though they ultimately accomplish the same goal.

In the end, this means that using this new medium will require a lot of perspiration. It will require a real commitment to acquire the right technique and to adapt content to take advantage of each technology. What is more, as I begin to work with other technologies (collaboration, video, etc) I will likely find that each of these represents a different medium. It is a lot of work, but so far the feedback from my students is encouraging and feels more like an exploration tour than just a long, hard walk.

As I explore, I am growing more convinced that I am on the right path. Each new technology will require adaptation in order to take full advantage, but I am confident that the vast majority of educators are up to the challenge. It’s time to commit and change the world.

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