I am a teacher, a developer, a parent, and a techie. I love technology in all its forms. Part of my role at my school is to ask, what is the benefit of technology in the classroom? The more I ask this question, the more I realize that it is not about the technology at all.
For example, what’s the benefit of scuba gear? When you take a scuba course, you learn the basics: how to put it on, how to adjust it, how to keep yourself safe. But then, relatively quickly, you jump in the water. That’s the point where it stops being about the scuba gear. Scuba diving is about all of the unexpected discoveries you come across. It’s about the fish, and the shipwrecks, and the treasure. It’s not about the great scuba tank you are using. Rather, it’s about all of the places you can go, and the depths to which you can travel, because of the technology. The gear is transparent, and transformative, and because of it, you never look at things the same way again.
In my life, and in over twenty years of teaching, only three kinds of technology have fundamentally altered the way that I looked at the craft of teaching. Here they are.
Everybody has to floss. Is there a better way? No. Like it or not, you do it because you know it prevents bigger problems later. However, that waxy piece of string is kind of like the umbrella – it hasn’t really changed in all these years, right?
Actually, as it turns out, I was wrong. My dentist introduced me to this new kind of dental floss that uses Gore Tex, which is absolutely fantastic. It totally transforms the flossing experience. I still have to floss, but what I realized was that by removing the friction, I could focus on reaching all of those hard to access areas.
In school, there are all sorts of things that as teachers, we know we should do, but we don’t necessarily enjoy. Things like recording classroom observations, writing and doing assessments, holding parent conferences, and getting at those little bits of knowledge in the hard-to-reach recesses of a teenager’s brain.
Technology can help. We can use Evernote to keep track of things that happen in the classroom as they happen, and enter them in Filemaker Bento later. We can use Socrative or Google Forms to do more formative assessment. We can use Skype or Google Hangouts to connect virtually with parents when we need to. All of these tools make it easier to do the things we already know that we should be doing, and make those tasks just a little bit easier.
Once I got a GPS unit in my car, it forever changed the way I drove. The GPS showed me where I was on my journey. I could enter a destination, and it would always show me how to get there. If I took a wrong turn, or decided to take a detour, it always showed me a friendly blue line to get back to where I wanted to go again. As a result, I felt much more free to explore.
A typical course syllabus is fairly linear. Often it shows you more of the things you don’t know yet rather than the stuff you do. A typical map simply shows you all the places you have never been. It doesn’t tell you where you are on the map. It doesn’t tell you anything about what you have done or where you are going.
Developers know that a good interface, and by extension, good course design, should always show you these three things:
Armed with this information, people naturally feel free to explore, and the consequences of failure are minimized. When you are afraid to fail, or when you are afraid of getting lost, you don’t take risks. And, when you follow the same old path, you don’t learn anything.
In school, we try to give kids choices. You don’t have to follow the same path through the curriculum. There are some required courses, but lots of electives. What if every course did this? Suppose in a given course, you had to do certain things, and in other places, you had a choice. All you would need now is the equivalent of a GPS. Something that celebrates what we’ve done, shows us where we are, and constantly highlights the path to our goal.
Here’s the last thing that fundamentally changed the way that I looked at teaching and learning – something that I used to take for granted.
Some of you might remember that before the DVR came along, watching the popular sitcom “Friends” was an event. If you weren’t home at 8pm on Thursday, too bad. With the VCR, you had to know ahead of time that you wanted to record something. But then, after the DVR was invented, you could actually pause live TV! This was quite a revelation.
In my household, we used to start all of our shows half an hour late so that we could skip over the commercials. We could set a filter that automatically recorded anything with the words “Red Sox” in the title. It was like video RSS. Our experience of watching TV was no longer restricted to the physical necessity of being in the house at that particular time.
In the classroom, does the best learning happen at 7:30 am? Why should learning only happen when the teacher is present? The flipped classroom model is like DVR for the classroom. We can time-shift the teacher!
The idea of the flipped classroom is to record the lectures, or the reviews, or even the test corrections, and allow kids to watch them as homework. They can pause, rewind, even fast forward the learning process. Or, we might bring in another teacher via podcast or iTunes U, as that person may be able to convey the information more effectively. After all, timeliness and relevance trump the event. Learning should be all the time. It should not be an occasion.
To be transformative, technology does not have to be revolutionary. It can transform what we do in subtle ways. It can free us to explore, take risks, and learn. Or, like satin dental floss, it can affirm and facilitate our doing all of the things that we already know we have to do well.