Can a "gadget guy" also be an "education guy"?

Can a "gadget guy" also be an "education guy"?

Summary: A university student takes issue with my approach and brings up some great points about educational technology.


I read a very interesting critique of one of my articles the other day. A student at the University of British Columbia reviewed my "Top 10 Ed Tech predictions for 2011" and concluded that the piece, a combination of my interview with Dell's Adam Garry and my own thoughts on where we were headed in the land of Ed Tech, was "uneven", complimenting Garry's focus on education and criticizing my focus on gadgets.

I'll be the first to admit that I love all things hardware. My gadget lust is, well, kind of sad. My wife would absolutely throw me under the bus in a heartbeat and agree with her. I wonder, though, if hardware and educational focuses can't go hand in hand, though? After all, schools don't spend very much, unfortunately, on pedagogy around the use of technology in education. Rather, they spend money on hardware which, in theory, should support the pedagogy.

This isn't meant to be a rebuttal of the student's analysis, by the way. It was actually a very well-written blog and I understand where she's coming from. It's really more of a late-night musing on how my views of education and technology come together. I recently gave a talk at the Bridgewater State University Ed Tech Day conference on ways in which tech and pedagogy have a tendency not to come together. I've embedded both the YouTube video of my talk and the presentation itself:

And the presentation, a few clips of which you saw in the video, if you could stand watching me talk for that long:

Gadgets, my friends, are great. Many of them can be incredibly cool in the classroom. I get emails all the time from people who have come up with a compelling use case for iPads or interactive response systems or their new lab full of Ubuntu desktops. More often, though, I get pitches from companies wanting me to talk about the "next big thing in ed tech." Sometimes, I can immediately envision myself back in the classroom using the device or bit of software. Other times I think, "Really? This is a business model based on the ability to convince administrators that they really need this gadget for their students."

I'm inclined to think that talking about gadgets (and I mean that in the broadest sense) is an opportunity to talk about what we really need and don't need to support teaching. Sometimes it's just plain fun, because gadgets fill our lives and our students and teachers can often derive some value from them if they know they exist and have a chance to think about cool ways to use them in a classroom that's relevant and timely. All of us, though (even the most gadget-inclined), have to know when to say when, and understand that, as the student at UBC pointed out, evaluate "their applicability to educational practice."

Topics: Ubuntu, Dell, Hardware, iPad, Tablets

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • RE: Can a

    Thing is, schools can't always afford new gadgets every year. And it's really difficult to know what is a passing fad and what's here to stay. Not to mention having the "latest and greatest" doesn't always mean being the most effective. Many things are flashy, but only marginally better than the previous generation.

    Coolness isn't always effectiveness.
  • RE: The Dawn of the Post-PC Era. Not.

    Yes, they should just stick with the traditional books/sources etc. Then use a Desktop PC or laptop at home for real research and study.

  • Understand what you are trying to do....

    Technology has too often been an expensive replacement project for K12 schools. Smartboards replace chalkboards, ebooks replace textbooks, laptops replace typewriters, etc....

    Educational thought endorses unsustainable, labor intensive activities (smaller classrooms) as the best way to teach K12 students. This is the equivalent of the rules that required railroads to continue to have three people on each train well into the 90's. The introduction of diesel engines allowed freight trains to be run by a single engineer, but regulation kept the conductor (who rode in the caboose until they were eliminated in the 80's) and a fireman (a guy who shoveled coal into the boiler of steam engines) until their jobs were eliminated in the 90's (40 years after they were no longer needed). Today you can run trains by remotely from a central office, safer and with higher density than having human engineers controlling the engine, but they will likely ride along until mid-century.

    K12 education is very similar. Unlike traditional businesses over the last thirty years, education has not used technology to disrupt their business. While most employees are significantly more productive than they were in the 80's, K12 teachers are actually less efficient. They educate fewer students, using more effort and expense.

    Once the education establishment realizes that their goal should be to teach more information to more students per teacher, then technology can be leveraged to achieve that goal.
    • RE: Can a

      @jcschweitzer - With all due respect, you are way off base here. It is a myth that teachers teach fewer students today. Classes for the teachers I know are the same size as when I went to school in the 70's. And likening the number of students one teaches to the number of nuts an assembly line worker puts on their respective bolts (i.e. THE measure of productivity) is placing a very narrow minded view of what teachers are supposed to do. If that is really what you want, the solution is easy... you get the schools of the 80's and 90's, where large groups of students sailed through their classes, with little knowledge retention requirements to impede their pursuit of extra-curricular fun. Instead, measure productivity by the learning environment the teacher provides, and you will find that the productivity of most teachers has increased dramatically in recent years. And, yes, educational research (a much more appropriate term than educational thought) says that if you want real learning, then you need smaller groups working with hands-on examples and problems. Like it or not, whether or not it offends your sense of throughput, that IS the current best practice in education. You can listen to the data, or you can hide from it. But it doesn't change the fact that the data clearly show it works for a larger share of the student population more often than traditional methods of lecture.

      Sustainability is in the eye of the purseholder. You clearly don't like spending more money on the people teaching in our schools, and so you want teachers to do more with less. And you want that in today's environment, where students are less inclined to attend school than ever (truancy is rampant, and punishment for it is toothless in most urban and suburban schools), in-class time is shorter than ever, where students simply decide not to turn in work because schools today have late work policies that allow a student to turn in work for full credit at any time, and where, for many, it just doesn't seem to matter if they pass or fail. For the rest, they believe that showing up in class and doing the homework (no matter how many they got right) should earn them a solid B. Would you want that job for $40,000 a year (approximately the average salary in the US for a high school teacher)? That's why I don't teach K-12. In a way, you are right. It is unsustainable. No one in their right mind will take the job in another decade.

      We agree on one thing, though. Technology has a huge capacity to improve the teaching experience. It isn't, however, linked to whether a teacher is productive or not. In a round about way, you allude to the problem in the first paragraph in your missive. Far too often, technology is thrust upon (or even in some cases, sought out by) teachers without any regards to how that technology should be developed and implemented. I used to work in the science end of pharma, where large systems were rolled out to an intelligent and educated work force. In no way would we have considered simply handing an employee a $25,000 piece of scientific equipment, or a seat at a $250,000 software data package and say, "See what we bought you? See you later.. Have fun!" That would have been a disaster. Yet that is exactly what we do with every aspect of technology for education, be it class management software, presentation tools, even learning software. The real truth is, if you want teachers to use it effectively, you need a project development team that includes IT professionals to implement what the teachers can dream up. Until that starts happening, technology will forever be a simple add-on to what we already are doing.
  • What do you mean by gadgets?

    What do you mean by gadgets?<br><br>Hardware? Software?<br><br>If the software doesn't run on a lap or PC I don't need it.<br><br>If I can't read it on a lap or PC I don't need it.<br><br>The above is from the perspective of a post grad student who takes classes for fun.<br><br>By gadgets I thought you meant things like Lab Pro and accelerometers and sonars and such, .... Not E-readers and IPads.

    Bottom line is, if whatever I have to 'run' to go to school does not run on a PC then that thing has no business being there.

    <br><br><br><br>I sat through 25 minutes of your video, you need focus. Overall it was a waste of time.
    • ?

      @rmhesche <br><br>What in the world are you even talking about? He's talking about gadgets for the sake of having gadgets, whether it's software or hardware. They need to have an educational purpose and improve instruction and learning. Not just a toy, which is how a lot of things end up because they don't receive proper training or even want to learn new technology or way of teaching.
  • Literacy is the most pressing problem


    I too am a teacher and a gadget freak - as my wife would also attest.

    However, the debate over whether electronic devices are greatest thing for education since the quill pen or not misses the point entirely. The most pressing educational issue is the extent of illiteracy in our schools.

    Even though I work in Australia, I am sure that we have this as a common problem. A considerable portion of the student body have poor reading skills and, as a consequence, they cannot cope with the written material that is presented to them - be it from a book or from a computer screen .

    This results - usually - in them turning off and then making mayhem in the classroom. This seriously affects everybody's learning.

    Until we seriously address this problem, there will not be much progress in raising standards. To raise stands we must focus on the Junior Primary (R-2) years. Here, a major effort must be made to ensure that children leave grade 2 able to read at level, and thus be able to read much more effectively in later years.

    People like us need to seriously pressure the "system" to change what happens in the junior primary years. The Finns have done it, they have raised standards and now we must do it too.

    What role the electronic media should play is obviously an open, but subordinate, question.