Feb 14

Humanity, Community and Technology in School

Technology is not a neutral tool.  It is rewriting the way we think about everything in our society from communication to security to commerce to privacy to, of course, learning. The potential for that to be a force for good is near limitless, but we should be thoughtfully skeptical when we think about the uses of educational technology especially when it comes to the larger issue of school reform and the continued rise of edu-business.

In the spring of 2012, at the opening keynote of Education Innovation Summit,  Michael Moe told a room full of education entrepreneurs that over 90%  of the many billions of dollars spent on education in the United States was spent on personnel, and the only way to further monetize the education sector, as he called it, was to reduce personnel costs. To the few teachers in the room his point was clear–if you want to use technology to make money and education you have to find a way to reduce the number of teachers. And there are many powerful people who seem to agree with Mr. Moe’s statements.

So let us be clear – technology should not be used to supplant teachers. When we use the tools we love as an excuse to reduce the number of caring adults who interact with children, we run the risk of doing irreparable harm. In fact we almost guarantee it.

School is about much more than Newton’s Laws of Motion or the difference between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution – though both those things are important. When done well, schools help children learn how to live lives of meaning. When done right, schools help children become profoundly and active citizens. When done with care, schools help children learn how to care for one another. Technology alone cannot do those things. The purpose of school is not to train children but to teach them, and that requires the human element. If anything, we need more adults in schools not fewer.

Technology is and must be a transformative element in our schools. Fundamentally, it changes the equation of why we come to school. Whereas before we came to school because the teacher was there, now we come to school because we are all there together. Technology can allow us to embrace a more finely honed sense of community in our schools.

The mistake is thinking that we no longer need this thing called school because we have all of these new technologies.  And the greater mistake is thinking that all we need to do is develop the right app or the right product and we can buy and sell our way to a technological future of learning that no longer needs the people.  The logical end of that path is a level of solipsism that our society cannot and should not abide.

It is not that technology should supplant school, rather it should transform it. The promise of educational technology is that we can reinvent and re-imagine schools as the center of a community of learning. It is true that we no longer have to define school as four walls and floor, but let us not use that to throw away all that we have learned over the past hundred years of public school experiment. Let us instead mind the rich vein of educational history to find those moments of empowerment, those moments of connection, those moments of authenticity, those moments of care. Let us realize that those moments – more often than not – came at the intersection of a caring teacher and the students who trusted her. And then let us ask ourselves how can the technology enhance, magnify, multiply and transform those moments so that more children can feel that their learning matters and that there school matters every day.

And that is the promise of these tools we love so much. Anything short of a vision of educational technology use that allows students and teachers to inquire more deeply, research more broadly, connect more intensely, share more widely and create more powerfully, sells short the power of these tools — and more importantly, sells short the promise of learning and of school for our students.

And that we cannot and should not abide.