Actually, It Is About the Technology

I have a technophile streak that runs through me. I become giddy when I open up an iPod Touch for the first time. I marvel at how lightweight and instant a Chromebook is. When I was a child, I would dream about a computer that could do games, videos, video-recording, music, audio-recording and connect to other computers. I didn't realize I would have all that and more at the palm of my hand. I am often amazed at how technology can transform a lesson.

I also have a Luddite streak in me. I don't own a cell phone. I don't let the alarm clock define when I wake up. I like French Press coffee. I refer to online identity as the "vapor existence" and I grow skeptical at the overstated claims of the lastest iGadget. When I am at a technology conference, I find myself feeling like a skeptic in a Cathedral of Innovation. You know Tumblr for centuries back when it was called a commonplace book.

Call it Rage Against the Machine.

Oftentimes, to check my technophile tendencies, I say things like, "It's about the learning and not about the technology." When I'm around a large group of people gushing about the latest, coolest apps, I often say, "It's really not about apps. It's about thinking better about how kids learn."

And yet . . .

On some level, it really is about the technology. Blogging is powerful, because students have a magnified audience where they can engage in both a synchronous and asynchronous dialogue. Students can engage in the folksonomy of tagging, embed multimedia and constantly revise a post until they have reached a place of mastery.  It's a tool that is available anywhere they have internet on devices ranging from desktops to netbooks to tablets to laptops to iPods and cell phones.

I love blogs. True, I love what people can do with blogs. However, it isn't all that different from saying "I love having coffee with a friend" rather than "I love the conversations I have a friend while I happen to be hanging out at the coffee shop."

The platform matters. There are amazing people I know because of blogging and Twitter. There are opportunities I now have that would not have existed without this medium. There is nothing wrong with saying, "This platform really can do some amazing things and I'm fortunate to have access to it."

Too often, I fail to recognize the power of the technology. I don't push students to use blogging to its fullest potential. I don't use Google Docs for much more than a simple word processor. I don't ask students to develop a deeper conceptual understanding of numbers when they use a spreadsheet.

On the flip side, I also fail to think critically about the medium itself.  If I'm not careful, "it's not about the technology" becomes an excuse to avoid asking hard questions about the medium itself. We have the whole world in our hands. Is that a good thing? Space and time are evaporating. What is the cost involved?

To a large extent, it is about the technology. Our tools are transforming geography, identity, social systems and communication. Is it such a bad thing that we take the time to ponder what that actually means for our students?
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John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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20 comments:

  1. Hi John,

    I'm supposed to be blogging but got sidetracked by this; happily so, I must add.

    I've "argued" before that sometimes it is about the technology. If we constantly 'belittle' it by saying "it's not about technology", we risk belittling the dreams of those for whom technology is their passion - think Jobs, Gates, Dorsey (Twitter), etc. If we are to inspire kids with such passion, we cannot say "it's not about technology" all the time. Sometimes technology is important, ie. it is about technology.

    Another one is that sometimes we need to really talk about specific technologies such as social media. I have yet to find answers to this question I blogged about Social Media and mobiles - what else can we teach. If you have thoughts on this, I would greatly appreciate to hear them.

    Sometimes, it is about the technology.

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    1. Thanks for the link, Malyn. I never thought about how dream-crushing those statements must seem to students who are interested in technology.

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  2. Thank you! Sometimes I get so tired of hearing that technology is just a tool. As if it can be reduced to some swiss army knife metaphor, when in fact, it has fundamentally changed the way we work, learn, play & live. If we don't realize the impact of technology on our lives, then we are missing a huge opportunity to be a part of figuring out how it will affect the future.

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    1. I think it's dangerous to minimize it to that of a hot glue gun. It really is more powerful than simply "a tool."

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  3. French Press is the way to go. I had some really nice pour over coffee this weekend too. Brazilian from Batdorf.

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    1. I'm jealous.

      I do enjoy machine-brewed coffee as well. We had some of the instant, put-the-packet-in-the-machine cappuccinos at a friend's house and it was pretty good.

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  4. Thanks for the post John;

    While I do agree with you that it is about the technology, what we have to do as educators is make sure that the technology fits both the students and the teacher. We can not do it the other way around, as we progress in this age of gagdgets, apps and gizmo's we need to be sure that we are not trying to make the students fit the tech that we want to use or are comfortable on using. If we do we have lost sight of what 21st century learning is about. To me choice. The ability to learn and demonstrate learning in different ways.

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    1. I absolutely agree. I actually think that the blind acceptance of technology is more dangerous than an outright rejection of technology. My point is that we need to think about the nature of technology, the fullest potential of how it works, the ways that it changes the world and ultimately the question of whether or not it is humanizing or dehumanizing (and the nuances within that tension).

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  5. This is unrelated (sort of)... I'm dying to know:

    How do you wake up without an alarm?

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    1. Two things:

      1. I go to bed ridiculously early (9:00-10:00 depending on the day)
      2. I trained my body. If I have to get up at four instead of six, I think about getting to bed at four and I wake up at four. I'm not sure how it's done. Subconsciously? I'm not sure it works for everyone. It might make an interesting health study. However, instead of waking up tense and angry as I used to with an alarm, I wake up refreshed and ready to go.

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    2. My alarm on the weekends is 4-1/2 years old and comes in to tell me that he's not tired anymore. Does that count?

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    3. Impressive.

      I've been waking up without one... but I work and go to class at night. Not sure how I'd do it in the a.m.

      You're right though... I love not waking up angry.

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  6. John, technology is just a tool. Blogs are just tools to. It is the responses that we have, the conversations that are transformative, the tools are just the medium that allows it to happen. I know this is true because I have had posts that have had no response, they could have been written in my notebook for all the transformation I got from them.

    Yes, the medium creates the opportunities for response and conversation, but the key link is the person on the other end, not the computer.

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    1. I don't deny that technology is a tool. It's all about the human element. My issue is the "just a . . ." part of it. Our tools are a profound part of what makes us human. They amplify what we are able to do. They shape the way we interact. They redefine how we see ourselves. Yes, it's the human element that triumphs, but the tools are certainly a huge expression of the human element. I wouldn't know you if it weren't for Twitter. I wouldn't have shared poetry if it weren't for a shared document on Google Docs. I wouldn't have had longer conversations if it weren't for blogs or Skype.

      I think there's a danger in viewing tools as something minimal. They are powerful - both for good and for bad.

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  7. John, this blog reminds me of that part of ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE when phaedrus realizes that the problem with the critique "are you teaching that quality is JUST what you like" is the word "JUST".

    Great thoughts. The post I am working on now is the idea that we are using "tool" claim as a trojan horse to get traction when we all know that it is about transformation. Not sure where that is going yet, but fun to reflect on the journey.

    Great post.

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    1. I love the reference to that book - and what a great book indeed. I love wrestling with the concepts of trojan horse, gifts, power and the question of what is truly "free."

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  8. Our tools may define how we do certain things, but they do not define the thing itself. The trick is to see blogging not as technology, but as communication and discourse.

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    1. I think that's critical, right there. However, I think we're in a dangerous place when we say that blogging is communication/discourse and not technology. It is a medium and the medium itself shapes the discourse. There are things blogs can do that journals cannot (tagging, sorting, broadcasting to many people at the same time). That's what I'm arguing. We need to know the structure of the medium.

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  9. I agree. Technology is a powerful tool that shapes how we learn, what we learn, and what is available to learn. It truly is amazing.

    The availability of experts in almost limitless categories makes it seem like what we teach in school is very shallow. At the same time the depth of knowledge you can find via technology also makes it seem like the extent of what is taught in school is shallow. It seems like we should see an explosion of creativity and innovation due to the amount of information available. But sorting, filtering, and connecting all that info is a skill that needs to be developed--and where better to do that than in schools?

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  10. I like what you said " It really is about the technology. Blogging is powerful, because students have a magnified audience where they can engage in both a synchronous and asynchronous dialogue. Students can engage in the folksonomy of tagging, embed multimedia and constantly revise a post until they have reached a place of mastery." What you're talking about is the learning that happens with master use of technology.

    Those of us who say, "It's not about the tech" are usually talking about having a tech-operation class with nothing to connect it to. It would be like teaching students the scientific process but never actually doing a scientific experiment. The process is fantastic - as is the tech. The REAL power comes when the tool is engaged to bring students to a level of mastery or discovery that would be almost impossible without the tool.

    Hope that helps clarify. Thanks for keeping me on my toes! :).

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Please leave a comment. I enjoy the conversation.