Last week, the New York Times opened its doors for the inaugural Schools for Tomorrow conference on bringing technology into the classroom. Archived videos can be found here; the twitter stream can be found under #nytedtech. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend the conference and reflect on what I felt were some overarching themes:
Teachers and technology
Central to the day’s discussion was the role of the teacher in the midst of widespread technology enthusiasm and implementation. What will teaching look like in the schools of tomorrow?
For starters, we must avoid false dichotomies. Technology will by no means replace teachers, and asking whether students learn from teachers or technology is misguided (they will learn from both!). As Harri Skog, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, Finland eloquently said, “Technology is a good servant but not a good master. It cannot replace human interaction”. This notion of human “irreplaceably” is supported by a growing body of research on the affective and cognitive underpinnings of learning. While the role of the teacher changes with technology-facilitated education, the teaching profession becomes more important, more professionalized, and more challenging than ever before.
Specificity and alignment
“Asking how technology can improve education is the wrong question. It’s like asking how a refrigerator can help me become a better cook”. – Tracy Gray, Managing Director, American Institutes for Research.
Too often, conversations surrounding technology and education are exceedingly general. We don’t need general conversations, we need specificity. Hand in hand with specificity is alignment. Giving a teacher a general tool with lots of bells and whistles is dandy, but if it doesn’t fit in directly with the curriculum, it’s not so useful. Conversations must shift to specific uses of technology in the classroom and how these uses align with school curricula and standards. The importance of alignment is relevant both classroom-level and system-level technology implementations. Without alignment and specificity, scaling up becomes an even greater challenge.
The formal-informal nexus
“The school of tomorrow is an experience, not a place.”
With the emergence of digital technologies comes the ability to learn anywhere, anytime, anyplace. While the focus of the conference was on formal education systems, informal learning was inevitably mentioned. Some questions posed included: Can informal learning help make formal education more relevant? Can informal learning help maximize classroom time?
Technology changes a lot of things, but what does it not change?
Horn Mun Cheah, Director of Educational Technology, Singapore, expressed this beautifully when he reminded us that we mustn’t forget the “evergreens”: the aspects of our educational ecosystem that have always been, and will always be, relevant. There are certain aspects of education that are timeless, irrespective of technological innovations or pedagogical shifts. These include discernment, critical thinking, character education, study skills, and ethics, to name a few. A system that fails to include these essential traits fails to adequately prepare students to live in the world.
There are many open questions, and many skeptics in high places
One could not help but notice an underlying tone of skepticism, even cynicism, throughout the New York Times conference on bringing technology into the classroom. Indeed, there are many open and sobering questions that still remain unanswered.
Nevertheless, we cannot turn back the clock; technology in education is here to stay. Policy makers are no longer asking if we should use technology in education, but how we can use technology in education. I applaud the New York Times for broaching this important topic. Improving the relevance and quality of education is a colossal challenge, and cross-sector collaboration is a great place to start.