Thoughts on Decades in #edtech

For more than 30 years, I have considered myself a part of the NEMS community. I attended conferences early in my career. Later, as I was completing my degrees, I presented master’s thesis and doctoral studies at numerous conferences. I served in leadership positions within the organization, and always found the community quick to challenge me to think more deeply and it accepted my challenges to think deeply.

This “TechCorner” column begins with this confession as this will be my last contribution to this regular column. I recently accepted a position in instructional technology leadership in a community college, and intend to continue working with those vital institutions until I end my career. While I have written this column despite working outside middle schools in the past, this seems a good time to reflect on what I have learned from the NELMS community.

About 10 years ago, I gave a series of well-attended presentations at NELMS conferences focused by the theme ”emerging technology trends.” At the time, digital technologies available to school and technology leaders were diversifying quickly (a trend that continues, although it seem to have slowed compared to its rate back then). There are some trends I have noticed while writing this column and they led me to several conclusions about technology in our schools.

Standardized educational technology restricts teaching and learning. In many schools, we have finally accomplished the goal we set for ourselves when computers first arrived in schools. One-to-one schools ensure access to digital tools in schools. Unfortunately, those tools often restrict what is possible. Middle school educators understand the importance of “challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant” curriculum, but when our students creativity is forced into the limited capacity of a Chromebook, the richness of cretions is limited. Don’t get me wrong,  those devices are useful and effective, but when educators and students are not supported in their efforts to be sophisticated creators of information, school and technology leaders have failed them.

Technologists and educators don’t speak the same language. I have met many wonderful and talented and caring technology professionals in my time. Most of them, however, are not educators. Technology professionals and educators do not use the same language, they do not see situations in the same way, and they do not solve problems in the same way. The design of effective technology systems in schools requires collaboration, and–in many cases–translation so they all agree on what they need. It is obvious and frustrating when I meet a school leader who has handed off all technology decisions to the technology leader. Those decisions have real and lasting influence on what happens in classrooms. Just as we do not want educators responsible for running networks, we do not want technology professional running classrooms through the systems they deploy.

The best technology lessons are characterized by sound other than mouse clicks. One of the most common questions I am asked is “how do you know if technology is being well-used?” The answer I give is to listen and watch. If you hear only clicks of mice (or buttons on touchpads) and you see students only looking at screens the use is dubious. Students engaged with technology in a lesson spend time talking, asking, reading, swapping devices (e.g uploading images from their phones to use on other devices), looking at screens with furrowed brows in groups, maybe even laughing, and congratulating each other and criticizing each other. 

Digital technologies are a permanent part of school infrastructure, operations, but most importantly, these are a part of technology and learning. NELMS is an organization that puts teaching and learning first. This is as it should be and as it always will be.