Three Choices When Faced with Technology

Technology is a permanent part of society and culture. For decades, scholars who study technology and society have documented the active influences of technology on individuals who experience it and on institutions that reflect it in the organizations that emerge.

These effects are particularly acute for educators. The digital devices that students carry into classrooms and with which they interact for hours outside of our classrooms affect their brains to a degree we are only beginning to understand.

When faced with the reality of technology, educators and other leaders have three choices:

  • Adopt the technology for your current purposes. In many cases, technology is designed for purposes and we can use the technology for those purposes. Ideally, we realize improved efficiency when we adopt technology. I like to use the example of online testing. Most educators still find it necessary to ask students questions and determine their ability to provide correct answers. This can be accomplished with amazing efficiency if we adopt online tests (ignoring the investment in time necessary to digitize the tests in the first place).
  • Adapt our purposes to reflect the capacity of the technology. In other cases, technology is designed for a purpose that is not perfectly aligned with our goals, but it makes sense to change what we do to make use of the technology. I like to use the example of wikis. Documents and sites created with wiki software are editable by anyone. In classrooms, we can adapt to the reality of the wiki by having students contribute to the public wikis, thus gain a “real” audience for their writing. We can also deploy wikis for our own students, so they write for each other. The shared work of creating a wiki is an adaptation of our writing assignments, and they become more meaningful for students because of the changes we make because of technology.
  • Exapt the technology. Exaptation is a term that comes from biology, and it describes how structures the originally evolved for one purpose change to be useful for another purpose. Feathers are an excellent example; originally feathers evolved as thermoregulatory structures. Over time, feather changed so that they could be used for flight. The examples of how educators have exapted technology—used it for purposes other than the one originally intended—are harder to find. Some even argue that exaptation precedes adaptation. According to that argument, social media has been exapted by educators. When we create twitter feeds and embed them in our web sites, and post homework assignments, examples of good work, links to relevant information, and similar items for our students, we have taken the technology and changed its purpose to meet our needs.

Notice, that ignore the technology is not one of the options for educators. It amazes me to continue to see educators who have done nothing to change what they and their students do because of technology. Superficially, students may be doing things that are different (for example they are typing papers using G Suite), but the students’ interaction with ideas is unchanged.

This seems an increasingly dangerous stance for educators who hope to be employed. Society is changing… the tools our students use are changing… we have a role in the intellectual development of students, but if we don’t adopt, adapt to, and exapt emerging technologies, we are sure to be ignored as irrelevant.