Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Why Students Need Teachers to Use Technology Well

I assume it’s a sign of my age, but the best way for me to stay awake on my commute from Salina to McPherson every day is to listen to NPR.  The news keeps me engaged enough that I don’t get sleepy.  When I was younger, it was quite the opposite.

This week, a cartographic historian was on the program.  He was asked about the differences he saw between modern maps on our phones and computers and the ancient ones he studies, and he said that they open with ourselves at the center of everything.  

I hadn’t really given it much thought prior to hearing his answer, but it’s a good metaphor for the way technology has developed along with the invention of smaller and more portable Internet-ready devices.  Software on our phones, tablets, and computers is almost all designed to help us do something we need to do.  They are personal, designed for our use alone.  

Think about that for a minute:  there has never been a time in history in which people could collectively solve our biggest problems more easily, yet nearly everything made today is designed to help individuals with their own lives.  Technology is incredibly egocentric.  Should this concern us?  

From an educational standpoint, yes.  Despite being born into a world of technology, kids aren’t likely to use it for good unless they are shown how.  Where are kids getting their technological moral compasses?  Who is teaching them the digital right and wrong?  

It is absolutely loony to me when I think about how we raise our kids in this environment, particularly when it comes to what is expected of teachers.  We wouldn’t think of letting our children go into a crowded public place and shout obscenities, or even behave in a way that would be considered rude by others.  At the same time, Googling most 7th graders can get you to a Twitter account where kids openly say things that would give their grandmother a stroke, and it’s there for everyone to see...forever.  Meanwhile, teachers are required to know exactly zero about using technology in their classrooms, or how to model its use for students in their everyday lives.  

The capabilities of today’s devices are staggering, and that’s great.  But I’d like to think that technology in general-and the Internet in particular-could be used for things much more powerful than a digital bullhorn. They can be used not only to make our own lives easier, but to improve all life on earth.  But we don’t see apps being designed to improve the human condition, to end poverty, or to provide water to poor African villages.  

I believe that is where teachers come in.  Of course, we can just wait and see what happens when a generation of “digital natives” grows up using technology for their own needs, with little if any guidance and even less instruction.  Or, we could intentionally provide them with both the knowledge and understanding of how they could leverage these tools for the common good.  More importantly, we can make sure students understand that they should be leveraging its power in this way.  

We need to stop thinking of technology as one more thing we have to do. It is a way of doing things better than before.  Sometimes it’s a way of doing things that we couldn’t do before.  We need to learn how to use it in the same ways we want our students to use it in the future.  

Students are surrounded by technology.  They were born with it and have grown up with innovation that most of us ignored until we were behind.  Most adults assume that this makes kids naturally “good at technology”, but it doesn’t.  Students are good at doing exactly what they want to do and nothing more.  In other words, they can entertain themselves with it, they can use it to talk to their friends, but they don’t know how to use it to find good information, learn new things, or solve problems.  

So much has changed in the world in the last 20 years, yet it is strangely absent from most classrooms.  Despite the power of modern tools to change the world for the better, they won’t unless someone shows students how.  I am not willing to bet that it will happen without a responsible and caring teacher to lead the way.  Are you?


  1. Well said. I actually read this article two or three days ago and it keeps coming back to me. In one of my classes we do a unit on digital citizenship and discuss appropriate use of technology. However, I was humbled to realize that I am among the egocentric using technology. I am embarrassed to admit I don't think about how I could use it to help others. So, now I am thinking about that - and how I can encourage my students to use technology to help others. In fact, I had a conversation with my teenage daughter about this topic just last night in a car ride home from Salina. Thanks for a very thought provoking article! Can I reference this on my facebook page? I'll give you full credit and link it.

    1. Thanks for the response, Julie! Of course you can reference back to here from anywhere you like. I don't even care if you give credit, I just want the conversation going. If they click and come here, that's great!

      I wouldn't feel too guilty about not using technology as a way to save the world, there just aren't many ways to make a difference without getting creative with the current offerings. My main point is just that the development and advancement of technology is trending toward personal use and productivity. I just wish our culture was pushing things a different way. My hope is that teachers will lead students to think about how they want their world to be, and empower them to make it that way.

  2. Great article. Thanks for the engaging read during conferences!