For other content related to the 2018 ISTE Conference, check out 25 Insights From the ISTE Conference or What’s New With ISTE.
Where It Was Right
Recently Medium published an article titled Google, ISTE, and the Death of EdTech written by Belgian administrator Mike Crowley. It is a purposefully provocative title that ventures into the type of hyperbole that I usually shy away from. There was something intriguing about the premise though that drew me in. In essence, the article proclaimed Google, the EdTech behemoth, had a disappointing showing at the ISTE Conference with hype about their new ‘locked mode’ for Forms. Essentially it’s meant to keep students on task while taking assessments. It may be helpful for some teachers who live and breathe standardized assessments, but it doesn’t in any way look to change any of the ineffectual methods of the current instructional paradigm that is in dire need of it.
In that way Mr. Crowley is right when he says “prohibiting students from cheating on traditional assessments using expensive tech tools to perform a very basic 20th-century task” is in neither transformational or effective instruction. And given how many people I hear cheer about minor updates to this tool or that (in a way that doesn’t serve student needs or shift away from direct instruction)-I’d say any educational metamorphosis hasn’t been as large-scale as I’d hope. As Mr. Crowley rightly says, for some it is “new tools-old thinking.”
Right On Tech, Wrong On Message
While Mr. Crowley is correct that the efforts of many EdTech companies are mired in making a shinier buggy or strapping rockets to their horse with tools that only serve to create a veneer of efficiency and modernism over what is essentially an antiquated way of learning, that remains only a part of the story. Claiming these efforts are insufficient is spot on, but signaling them as the death knell of EdTech willfully ignores every other effort to revolutionize teaching.
There were a number of people at ISTE making a similar case to Mr. Crowley, but instead of abandoning the possible benefits of tech, people like Michael Cohen, the Tech Rabbi, warned that we should be wary of quick fixes and ensure that technology is being used to enhance learning rather than simply allow for more efficient broadcast teaching (where teachers serve only to broadcast information to students). Yes, many apps and high-tech toys are meant only to engross and don’t encourage creative engagement, but they do not constitute the whole of the market. Just as the many terrible books that have been written shouldn’t cause us to stop reading, neither should tech that doesn’t serve to revolutionize indicate that no tech can. In fact, my experience at the ISTE Conference would indicate otherwise.
So while there should be a genuine concern over where the technology is guiding our students, it simply means we must be discerning rather than discarding.
Where EdTech Is Thriving
At ISTE there were numerous examples of technology being used for the hands-on project-based learning that invigorates classrooms and guides students in learning 21st-century skills. I participated in a number of panels, heard keynotes, adventured in playgrounds, and communicated with poster presenters that seemed to know how to provide playful and challenging learning experiences.
The Big Three
While I too have been challenging Google to do better in the areas of accessibility and hands-on learning, I recognize that those shortcomings aren’t indicative of all that they do and certainly not an indicator of what the Big 3 EdTech companies are providing. As for Google, their tools allow for immediate collaboration with an ease across distance not known to previous generations. That’s big. They are also making efforts to expand student perspectives and prior knowledge in powerful ways through Google Expeditions, the CS First Program, and their new Applied Digital Skills curriculum. Perhaps these didn’t get top billing as some have been happening for a while, but even Forms can be utilized for change by creating divergent pathways and question types in an assessment that allows for differentiation and personalization. Even better you can have kids make their own choose-your-own-adventure stories on it and they become the creators.
As for the other major players like Apple and Microsoft. Well, Apple’s whole recent marketing push has been to advocate for the new iPad as a facilitator of project-based learning. Nearly all of their sessions and playgrounds at ISTE focused on shifting towards hands-on learning through multimedia, creative tools, and augmented reality. Microsoft had a huge Hack the Classroom event at the Museum of Science and Industry in addition to their promotion of computer science and Minecraft EDU which is essentially digital building blocks that inspire student creativity. So there are wonderful ways EdTech is succeeding for our students, but only if you’re willing to look for it.
More Ways EdTech is Getting It Right
I’m also not sure how you can say a conference signals the end of EdTech when it begins with a panel of students who have used technology powerfully in the spirit of entrepreneurship and social change. Then that same conference gives positions of prominence to voices of change like my personal friend and inclusive learning advocate, Luis Perez, and one of my edu-heroes and Scratch creator, Mitch Resnick. How can that indicate they are wholly oblivious to the need for innovation?
I worked with Luis as part of a playground exhibiting accessible UDL Makerspaces that use technology both for hands-on learning and to provide access to those with disabilities. Major companies like Apple and Microsoft have been making major strides to provide access to learning experiences that would have previously been out of reach for many learners. That technology breathes new life into classrooms and the lives of students who need it. There are also platforms like Flipgrid that look to amplify student voices and provide a simple platform for students to exhibit and demonstrate their creativity along with their metacognitive process. These efforts go beyond basic updates.
Separately, the work of Mitch Resnick, in the vein of Seymour Papert, inspires many teachers through his work at MIT Media Lab that maintaining a Lifelong Kindergarten where exploration, creativity, and play drive their success. If it works at MIT, why do most classroom stop creating after elementary school? Maybe playing with LEGOs, blocks, and paints will morph into 3D printing, laser cutting, and programming, but it still remains playful creative learning.
The Bottom Line
I agree that too many teachers and classrooms take the easy route of conventional direct instruction because it is what the are accustomed to. That was true well before the technology was as advanced, so it can’t be solely to blame. In fact, resources like Scratch and Lego WeDo allow for creative exploration that is easy to access and yet is capable of a high level of complexity. It is the technology that makes that possible.
I respect and commend Mr. Crowley for his self-proclaimed efforts to be “an advocate for learning environments that provide learners with opportunities to do things that will enhance deep learning and provide students with the potential to do real, meaningful work.” I think that’s the exact right attitude and we should challenge those companies that don’t continue to meet that standard. But we can’t fall victim to demonizing all efforts in EdTech especially knowing that it’s ever-expanding in ways that even the best of us can’t keep up with. So if your perspective only allows you to see the ways EdTech is failing, by all means, challenge those you see. But perhaps also look to expand your vision to see into the places where it is making strides to provide access and truly innovative learning. Then you can amplify the positive change.