Friday, March 12, 2010

Evolving thoughts about technology and education

This morning, I am writing from the MACUL (Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning) education technology conference in Grand Rapids, MI.

A couple of thoughts and takeaway lessons from my experience at the conference so far:

First, the profession of education is exciting, and it is important for teachers to be able to step back from the daily grind of teaching once in a while to participate in conferences like this. Not every "professional development" experience is valuable, but academic conferences like these provide an opportunity to gain quick exposure to a wide range of new ideas that can expand teachers' visions of what is possible in the classroom and of what it means to be an educator.

Second, I have a lot to learn. I thought I knew quite a bit about technology and the Internet - but I already feel behind the curve with things like digital audio and video technologies, and new tools are springing up every day. Even those of us who are "plugged in" and who read and/or write blogs, get our news from RSS feed readers (like Google Reader), and communicate by means of email and Facebook can easily fall behind the times, because the times are rapidly changing.

Keeping up with technological innovations in a well-informed way is a very real challenge that does not happen automatically; it has to happen through self-education, on one's own initiative. This does not necessarily mean adopting every new gadget that comes along; instead, what is important is to be knowledgeable about the tools that are out there so that you can make informed decisions about which to use and which to bypass.

(A key word here is "tools" - I do not believe that technology should lead us around by the nose and cause us to drop the traditional academic curriculum and give up the aim of real literacy - the ability to read and converse with challenging, idea-rich texts - in the name of new "literacies" which may, after all, be fads. I see more value in using educational technology as a means of delivering a traditional, rigorous liberal arts education in a more exciting, individualized, and self-paced way than has been possible to this point.)

Technology also provides ways to "scale up" great teaching and scarce educational opportunities: I was unable to make it to the University of Chicago Law School to see Michael Walzer, one of America's most accomplished political philosophers, deliver a lecture in January; now, however, I can simply listen to the lecture online or download it and listen to it in my car or on a run.

At the beginning of the year, the professors in my Teaching with Technology course at the University of Michigan asked us to draw a picture of our ideal classroom, incorporating technologies that we thought we might use.

My ideal classroom, as I imagined it then, was filled to the brim with books but included no computers. I'm not sure I am entirely ready to abandon that vision just yet - I am deeply troubled by the relative absence of serious reading in many schools and the deterioration of print culture underlying the struggles of newspapers, magazines, libraries, and retail bookstores. Internet access will do a person little good if he or she can't make sense of texts - or lacks the background knowledge, cognitive tools, or drive to use the Internet to find meaningful, useful, life-enriching knowledge.

Those caveats aside, however, I feel like I have been awakened to the wide world of possibilities of educational technology. For that, I have to thank not only the MACUL conference, but also the creative and inspired instruction of Jeff Stanzler and Liz Kolb at the University of Michigan School of Education, the example of my friend and classmate J.P. Horne (creator of, a resource for his economics students), and the powerful ideas of Terry Moe and John Chubb's Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education.

These learning experiences have been exciting for me as a self-educator entering the field of education: it is important to me to belong to a profession that feels limitless and filled with infinite opportunities for creativity, learning, and growth. Changes and innovations in technology, policy, and pedagogy are guaranteed to keep educators on their toes - and I see that as a challenge and an opportunity rather than as a threat. We live in exciting times.