Reflections on EdTech
The ISTE11 conference in Philadelphia was really a sight to behold, on a variety of levels. I had certainly never been to a conference this size before, and aside from some sporting events, I don’t believe I have even inhabited a space with over 17,850 people before, let alone so many educators who were passionate about educational technology. I had certainly never been around so many iPads before!But one thing that stood out for me was the marked contrast between two areas of the convention: the presentations and meetings among educators on the one hand, and the exhibit hall on the other. Simply put, it appeared to me many of the products being promoted by the vendors were good for the vendors, but not really consistent with the ideas and ideals presented by the educators a few rooms away. Yes, I get that at the end of the day, these companies are there to make money, but seeing this distinction for the first time so clearly was jarring.
The presentations were really incredible. My biggest problem was finding the speaker to choose out of the 5 or 6 per time slot that I wanted to go to, a sentiment I heard echoed by others throughout the conference. In most presentations and in conversations with other educators, I played the part of sponge, sucking up information about this app and that web tool, one time even getting 60 resources in 60 minutes. The common denominator among these resources were that they were mostly free or very low cost, versatile, and easy to implement on the fly. Perhaps most significantly, they all fit in well with the current trend of “Bring Your Own Device,” where schools utilize the prevalence of laptops, tablets, and smartphones owned by our students to create a built in, low cost, EdTech platform (instead of making costly investments in laptop carts and the like).
There was a slightly different theme in the Exhibit Hall. Nothing could prepare me for the first time I entered it.
“This must be as big as….”
Words to describe its enormity failed me. Thanks to a follow up email from ISTE, I now know that the exhibit hall was the size of 5.5 football fields, featuring 1,423 booths of companies selling all sorts of EdTech services, tools, and supplies. There were not one, but TWO full size coach buses inside the exhibit hall, as part of company displays (don’t ask me how they got them in this second story level of the convention center!).
You ever have that experience where you go to the supermarket without a shopping list, and you just find yourself aimlessly wandering the aisles, slack jawed and starting at the latest variety of BBQ chips? That was how I felt as I made my way through that exhibit hall the first time. It was too big to have a plan, to figure out where to go next. You just walked along, collecting a free T-Shirt or a squeeze ball every few booths, and you kept going.
So where was the contrast, the dichotomy, you might ask? Weren’t these exhibitors selling products that were supposed to more tightly integrate the concepts being taught during the presentation sessions?
Well, yes. There definitely were quite a few exhibitors pitching products and services that frequently come up in the context of effective EdTech. I felt this need to walk over to the Evernote table and just thank them for existing! Same with Google Apps for Education. Lego for Education was full of Lego awesomeness. C-Span was promoting an absolutely incredible service that allows teachers to access a full archive of video going back to the 80’s. Great stuff.
But so many of the products that many companies were touting were single use, and very proprietary. I saw specialized ebook readers, clickers, and word processors. These devices would let you read a e-textbook, select an answer, and type an essay.
And that was it.
I kept finding myself thinking, over and over, why not just get an iPad, and find the proverbial “app for that” function that you are looking for, whether its to respond to test questions or read an ebook?
Now, these businesses are not stupid. They would not be selling products that there was no demand for. So now, I turn the question around on us, the education professionals: Why are we buying these products? Why are we investing all of this money in devices that have very specific, limited uses?
I saw an article recently which discussed Malcolm Gladwell’s recent presentation at the TED global conference, and, after offering some historical examples, he asked a fundamental question: “Why do people place so much faith in technology…to solve problems?” His question I think speaks to the phenomenon of the great divide between the ISTE presenters and the vendors in the exhibit hall. It is human nature to seek a silver bullet, that all encompassing quick fix that is going to powerfully and simply solve all of our problems.
I believe that the underlying marketing message of many of the vendors was playing on this human tendency. “If only I had this interactive white board, or these software programs, my school/class/district would be rocking!” And while it would be wonderful if that were true, I think we all know that this underlying assumption is wrong. You know how I know this? Because in all of the presentations, the focus was on teacher’s learning about new tools, about using flexible devices, and about utilizing EdTech as a tool to help teachers continue to do what they do best, and not as a means of replacing them. THAT was the great divide at ISTE, and the refreshing thing that I observed was that most people at the conference understood this concept clearly.
As Josh Stumpenhorst eloquently wrote about the other day in a blog post titled “The Real Game Changer in Education,” the technology in and of itself is not the game changer. He went so far as to say that in his opinion, social media and the connections he and countless other educators have made using it, was not, in fact, a game changer for him.
It’s the people that change the game.
It’s the teachers stretching themselves to learn new skills and applying them in class even when its uncomfortable.
It’s the administrators that have the vision that things can move forward, and do the work in the tranches to ensure that there is a foundation based in a strong school culture and intensive faculty training and support.
As an aside, I think this is one of the reasons the Khan Academy has become somewhat of a lightening rod in conversations among educators. In my opinion, there are well meaning educators that are fighting what Khan is doing because it is being interpreted by many in the mainstream media as a savior for education, when we know that video can never replace a teacher, and the flipped classroom is simply one of many strategies that a teacher can employ in running an effective classroom.
My bottom line?
We, as human beings, need to be aware of our tendency to try and find that magic pill, so that we can a) exercise appropriate skepticism when something is put forward as the be-all and end-all, and b) focus on using the amazing resources that are out there as tools on our educators tool belt to continue to change the game.
I had a conversation last night with someone who was asking me how I might respond to school stakeholders who question the need for integrating educational technology in our schools, especially if I did not have any empirical evidence that “any of this stuff helps.” While I had some of my own answers to that question, I happened to come across an excellent blog post this morning by Lyn Hilt (@l_hilt on twitter for those of you with a PLN!) that I think really addresses this issue head on. As she writes, it’s less about the technology itself and more about “partnering” with the students, seeing what they need and want in an educational experience, and providing a framework that works within that. Increasingly, as our students continue to enmesh themselves further in technology, the best way to do this is through the use of EdTech.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post…it really resonated with me.
Here’s the link to the blog post.
(Cross-Posted on AviChai’s EdTech Blog)
AKA Chris Lehmann
Principal, Science Leadership Academy (Philadelphia)
These words were part of the last presentation that all 18,000 or so of us at ISTE 2011 attended, the final keynote. Judging from the amount of tweeting Chris’ keynote (and this line in particular) generated, the presentation was very impactful. For me personally, I think it was a really great way to conceptualize a framework for all that I had learned over the last 4 days, and really all that I have learned in the area of EdTech over the last couple of years.
At ISTE, a conference devoted to technology in education, the technology did, ironically enough, feel invisible. Ideas were flying hard and fast, in both sessions and in the hallways. I heard over and over, as someone would take out their iPad (which apparently EVERYONE has!), “here, let me show you…”
It wasn’t a big deal.
It wasn’t like “oohhh, look at the whiz bang effects!”
Rather, it was with the understanding that this is a tool like anything else, with the goal being to advance the level of learning.
As I walked through the cavernous Philadelphia Convention Center, I was struck by the fact that networks were being developed and strengthened in real time, right before my eyes. And again, the technology that helped enhance those networks wasn’t being touted as the main thing here. It was, like the wifi, invisible. One of the most powerful experiences for me at this conference was meeting members of my PLN (Personal Learning Network) in person. These are educators from around the world that I have connected with over the last 15 months or so, primarily via Twitter. My PLN is another example of technology being invisible while having the power to create connections in ways that would be impossible before. While it was a little intimidating to walk over to some of these EdTech “Rock Stars” with their thousands of twitter followers, I found them to be exceedingly humble, and genuinely interested in sharing and learning. These were not online “personalities” using social media to promote a brand, these were first class educators who have recognized how vital the process of sharing is to improving education. As Joan Young wrote on her blog
“My most favorite part of the conference has been meeting people that I have learned with, collaborated with, shared deep conversations with through Twitter, blogging, online conferences and Skype sessions.”
See this post by Tom Whitby for another take on this new element of connection that social media has added to conferences like ISTE.
While my connections with members of my PLN have admittedly not been as deep as Joan’s, meeting people like George Couros, Michelle Baldwin, Lynn Hilt, Tom Whitby, Kyle Pace, Beth Still, Adam Bellows, Mary Beth Hertz, Eric Sheninger, Scott Newcomb, and Josh Stumpenhorst, in person, has given me the resolve to communicate and share on a closer level in the future. Meeting these people and seeing their genuine desire to grow firsthand has also given me the confidence to share more with them, and not just simply benefit from the incredible array of resources they tweet out and blog about on a daily basis. On the Jewish Ed side of the coin, it was great to see Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky, Eliezer Jones, Caren Levine, Eli Kannai, and to meet Adam Simon, Dave Weinberg, Rivky Krestt, Debbie Harris, and others.
Looking at the tweets of others from the conference, I can see that many people have come away inspired by meeting up in person with members of their PLN, but I think as a Jewish educator, I have a bit of a unique perspective that I can share. Within the world of Jewish day schools, educators tend to form networks based on shared affiliations, which is a wonderful thing. My sense, however (and I may be wrong), is that we Jewish educators tend to turn to others within our affiliate network to the exclusion of those educators in different settings. If you are a consumer of the “Mainstream Media,” you would get the impression that many if not all public school are abject failures, and that the system is broken beyond repair. Perhaps this bad rap has been the reason that many of us in the world of Jewish education have not reached out to those in public school world. Or perhaps we simply did not have a vehicle to make such connections, or it could be something as simple as the very human tendency to associate with those who we are already comfortable with and know. I think that having colleagues that work at schools similar to ours is vitally important. After all, we share many of the same issues and challenges. However, I also think that we miss out on something very important when we turn inward exclusively. There is a tendency to share the same old ideas – if it worked in Day School A, let’s try it in Day School B. Or if there is an issue that needs to be addressed, we may feel the need to reinvent the wheel because none of our fellow schools have dealt with this before, and we may overlook the fact that solutions exist.
In my mind, the power of the PLN for Jewish educators is that it opens up our network in a huge way, allowing us to interact with really excellent, thoughtful educators doing great things around the world. I have connected with, primarily through Twitter (and subsequently reading their blog posts), educators in public schools, independent schools, and all types of Jewish schools. I have learned so many new things just by seeing resources that get shared, and my PLN is a reliable source of support and advice when I have questions. I cannot encourage your enough to get on Twitter and start exploring the world of educators that are on there. The names that I listed above are some great people to start with (here is a link to my PLN Starter Kit, a list with all of their twitter names ). On the Jewish Education front, search for #JED21 on twitter, and you will see many amazing educators tweeting their ideas and visions for the future of Jewish Education, or check out this list, my JED21 PLN Starter Kit. And of course, please say hello to me so we can connect and share: twitter.com/dovemerson.
A final thought in the realm of expanding our networks: I really have to commend Avi Chai for understanding the importance of this concept. I consider myself a pretty tech/EdTech savvy guy, but I have to admit, before about 3 months ago, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as an ISTE conference. Avi Chai got the word out, and sponsored a group of 10 Jewish Educators from North America to attend ISTE. I am grateful to them not only for selecting me to attend, but moreover, for recognizing the power of what can happen when you bring Jewish educators from different backgrounds, schools, and communities together. Many of the fellow Avi Chai attendees were people I would probably not encounter in my usual local network of Jewish educators from similar types of schools. Going to the conference with this group, especially sitting in evening sessions with them and reflecting on what we learned that day, added an entirely new and very powerful layer to this conference. In the summer of 2008 I had the privilege of attending the Harvard Graduate School of Education program for principals, with a group also sponsored by Avi Chai, and I had a similar experience of engaging Jewish educators from outside my ‘traditional’ network. I sincerely thank Avi Chai for having the wisdom to bring Jewish educators together, and especially for following this model of assembling a Jewish Educator “team” to attend a larger conference like ISTE together.