Thursday, November 14, 2013

Technology is a Tool...

One of the tag lines in my digital writing workshops is "Technology is a tool; it matters how we use it." The idea is that teachers shouldn't use technology just to fill an ISTE standard or say they use technology. As a tool, there are ways to use technology that make sense and ways that don't. You don't try to cut a piece of wood with a hammer. Tools have specific uses and purposes, and while creativity can often help you use tools for slightly altered purposes, essentially tools are made to perform a specific function.

I got a question from a teacher that made me rethink my tag line. She wanted her students to use a technology tool for a project that she created. She had a description, rubric, and great models using the technology tool for students to view before starting. Here is what made me rethink my tag line:
1. She wanted her students to do the project the next day and she still had questions about the tool.
2. She wanted the project finished in one day and her students had never used the tool before.
3. She had never used the tool herself.
I have no doubt that this teacher had a great assignment, thoughtfully constructed with an assessment rubric that would guide her students in the cognitive processes involved and models that demonstrated excellent work. But she forgot one vital element. She didn't teach her students how to use the tool.

Here's an analogy, and you can ask a shop teacher if this is accurate. An industrial arts teacher assigns a birdhouse for students to make. She has a great rubric, a detailed assignment with a list of all the requirements, and several excellent models for students to view. She discusses all the most important features of a birdhouse and even offers some idea generating activities to help students design their birdhouse. After making sure everyone has all of their questions answered about the assignment itself and a blueprint ready to craft, she directs them to the floor where all the construction tools are and tells them they have one day to complete their birdhouse. But students don't begin working. They've never used a hammer or saw before. Anybody see the problem here?

Modern adolescents are great at learning to use new technology tools. We see the results all the time. But those are the results of learning that we see. We interpret that to mean that our students will inherently be able to use new technology tools, and that is wildly inaccurate. What we don't see is the process, mentoring, social motivation, and time spent by these kids in actually learning the tools. If you strip away the structure of how they typically learn to use new technology, teens aren't any better at figuring out new tools than anyone else. Worse than adults, perhaps, because they have fewer strategies for working through frustration.

Also, assuming all technology tools are easy to use, intuitive, or accessible is detrimental. There are no standardized rules for building technology tools.  So learning new tools is like learning a new language or a new art medium--some commonalities may occur, but unless you have experience with a lot of tools of the same nature, you're going to struggle at first. It takes time to learn new things--especially tools. Technology tools in particular have more features than are strictly needed, so they are harder to learn to use efficiently.

Finally, consider the types of technology tools teens use regularly and what their purposes are. Teens learn social, sharing tools or game/simulation tools. Teachers are asking them to learn cognitive processing tools. Teens learn their choice tools for entertainment purposes and the negative consequences of failing to learn these tools are negligible. Teachers ask students to learn tools to complete other learning tasks and the consequences for failure are severe. We ask them to learn a new tool in order to process new information. That's a double learning whammy. Plus, the result of success in learning the new tool is more work, which may be a disincentive for many students.

There are several things that make learning new technology tools either easy or difficult.
1. The time available to practice, play, and learn
2. The consequences of failure and the results of success 
3. The motivation behind learning the new tool
4. The mentoring structure in place
5.  The purpose of the tool
6. The similarity to known technology tools
7. The complexity and number of features
8. The accessibility and ease of use

When you use a new technology tool in your classroom, assign a throwaway assignment that focuses only on using the tool. All of the cognitive processes of learning new course content and skills should be eliminated. Content should be easily accessible by all students and the only assessment should be participation. The more complex the technology tool--that is, the more available features--the more time students need to play with the tool to learn it. Consider mini projects that boost grades after a unit of study so that the material and content is fresh and easily accessible, or "all about me" projects that use students' lives as the content.

When including technology tools for students to use, think about those qualities listed above that make learning new tools easy or hard. Support student learning of these tools by offering time to play with the tool and learn its features, a strong mentor structure--that means either you learn the tool, ask a student to become an expert beforehand, or find a forum for students to consult--and no negative consequences (aka "bad grades") for students the first time they've encountered the tool.

No industrial arts teacher would ask students to construct a project without first letting them familiarize themselves with the tools needed. No kindergarten teacher would ask a student to write a sentence before they learn to hold a pencil. Technology is a tool. No teacher should asks students to use a technology tool that they've never used before without first letting them figure out how to use it.

My new tag line: "Technology is a matters if you know how to use it."




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