Obsession with tools

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We are obsessed with tools. You can look anywhere in the world of educational technology and all you see is tools: How will the iPad change schools? How do we incorporate Google Docs into our classrooms? What technologies should we include in the syllabus of our Ed Tech class? What kind of Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK) do our teachers need to be successful in incorporating emerging technology tools into their teaching? 

[Ed Geek side note: I find this last most infuriating. What is next Spacial Pedagogical Content Knowledge (SPoCK)? Emotional Pedagogical Content Knowledge (EPiCK)?]

I think the obsession with tools stems from an implicit (and unfounded) notion of scarcity described by Chris Anderson in his book "Free: The Future of a Radical Price". We treat technological tools like they are scarce and we have to decide how best to use the ones we have. This is wrong. If you only have a few tools (blackboards, slates, pen, ink, paper), then you have to think about how to best use those things to teach something. These days, however, we are swimming in tools.

I am giving a talk this week in the College of Education about organizing my digital intellectual life. I was planning on talking about Google Reader, Zotero, Endnote, and Papers (yeah, I know, tools), but really about the flow of my intellectual work. In the process of getting ready for the talk I did some research on the internets and met with the amazing PSU librarian, Ellysa Cahoy. The result was a spate of other tools that do this kind of work, including Connotea, Bibsonomy, Easy Bib and Knight Cite. This reinforced for me is that it is not about the tool, it is about the practice or workflow I am trying to accomplish. What is the task? I want to manage information (in the form of journal articles, mostly) in very particular ways. I want a digital intellectual workflow that is as friction-free as possible. I want to see the journal articles I care most about, I want to gather them into an organized system, I want to read and annotate them and then I want to cite them in new knowledge artifacts I produce. I don't care what tools I use. It is NOT about the tools. In this, I am an agnostic. 

We need to start thinking about things in terms of what we are trying to accomplish [Ed Geek note: Can think about this in terms of Gal'perin's (1974/1989) notion of orienting basis of action], not which tools we will used to accomplish them. I don't care about Twitter, I care about multi-channel student discourse. I don't care about Google Docs, I care about supporting collaboration around digital knowledge artifacts. The barrier to creation of new tools is dropping and the cost of acquiring new tools is ahead on that downward curve. Many tools are free. They are getting easier and easier to build. In a world where you can make (or find) exactly the tool you want for the job, isn't the most important thing being clear about the job? 

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Hi Scott,

I completely agree. The needs of the user are important---not the tools themselves. Unfortunately, the tools are shiny and often detract attention from what's really needed and necessary.

I worked that same notion into the new charge for the Libraries' reference management team: This Team will investigate, narrate and support the reference management workflow mandated by our users' different research needs and levels of scholarship. Do you think that encapsulates your idea?

I was thinking about your workflow after our meeting, and coincidentally, I think I found something that might work well for you. Sente is somewhat like Papers but provides more searching capabilities within the interface as well as Word integration. I posted a short report on it here: http://www.personal.psu.edu/esc10/blogs/E-Tech/2010/02/sente-vs-papers.html
I'd be happy to show you how I customized it for the Penn State environment.

Let me know what you think, and thanks again for the ideas you shared with me last week!

Scott - Being both an educational technology professional and a graduate student in the College of Education, I tend to come at this from two angles. While we shouldn't design instruction around tools, one of our obligation as educational technology professionals is to explore new technology tools that become available to us. Certainly we can't look at them all, but we use our experience and educational backgrounds to decide on some subset that look like they have a potential to positively impact teaching and learning. That exploration should lead to some categorization of tools that can inform the practice of educators so that when they have an instructional problem, they don't have to engage in the long and expensive process of evaluating tools, or feel forced to use one tool for everything because that's all they know. In that sense, there is a scarcity - a scarcity of time to learn or develop new tools or develop teaching strategies that incorporate new tools. It's probably a problem that educators sometimes think that us ed tech professionals are haphazardly throwing tools into their teaching process, when what they should be getting from us is well-informed advice on what technology (if any) is appropriate for their instructional needs. But I don't think the problem is obsession with tools, per se. Our obsession keeps us tapped into a technology landscape that is, as you know, changing at an insane rate. We NEED to be obsessed, or at least very passionate about tools, and I think that's possible without jeopardizing sound educational judgement. It's very easy to rationalize why a particular tool fits a certain instructional need, especially when you've spent a ton of money developing and promoting it, or when you're just so excited with how it's affected you personally. But by and large, that initial tool evaluation is informed by sound educational decision making and regular dialogue with teachers. One thing we need to keep working on is systematically categorizing and articulating the value of each tool we evaluate . As you suggest, we need to be able to say "Is multi-channel student discourse important in this classroom? If so, Twitter may be appropriate". But we have to know what Twitter is first.


Thanks for the Sente suggestion. I will took a look and it seems pretty impressive. It gets some of the things that I was hoping to see. I would love to see how you made is custom for PSU. I like the syncing features for the libraries and it seems to be better at a lot of things than Papers. Did not get a sense that it does citations well, but maybe you can't have everything.


I have to say I only partially agree with you on this. I agree that being obsessed about technology is part of your job (just as being obsessed with teaching is part of mine). My point, I think, is that because we approach problems from our experience (and our obsessions), this tends to be a lens that we often don't recognize in how we make choices/recommendations. When you say:

"But by and large, that initial tool evaluation is informed by sound educational decision making and regular dialogue with teachers."

I disagree with this. Initially tool evaluation is framed as a question of affordances of particular tools. There is not a pedagogical, but a technological imperative. What is this tool capable of. I think that is a useful conversation, but it is not the first conversation to have if you are trying to impact teaching and learning. I can extend this into the second part of what you said. Largely the regular dialogue you have around tools is with content area experts, most of whom are not trained as nor are the obsessed with teaching. There are always exceptions, but this is the rule. My point is not that there should not be both parts of the conversation, but more which conversation should be first. In some cases the tool's affordance conversation may make sense to come first (as when you are thinking about adopting and supporting a tool into a large and diverse university context), however when working with an individual on a particular pedagogical problem the conversation should not start with the affordances of the tools that were adopted by the large university, but with a problem of practice connected to the teaching. Defining this problem of practice is often not something that can be done by either the ed tech professional or by the content area expert, but requires another kind of expertise. I think that the de-emphasis of pedagogy in favor of technology is a central cause to a lot of the perceived tension between ed tech and teachers/faculty over adoption. Ed tech people often voice frustration with faculty for not adopting tools that are perceived to improve teaching and faculty often complain that ed tech people don't support the tools they need to solve their problems. I don't see that so much here at PSU, but it was clear to me from ELI that it is a general pattern in most of the rest of our world.

I'm just not sure that there's a gap in expertise where we're making decisions about building/implementing technology. Granted some Ed Tech people come from an IT background and may put tools first, but many are from an Education background and understand educational theory and instructional design very well. The problem is with process, and basic practicality. It's expensive to identify, evaluate, implement, and support a comprehensive set of tools to meet every instructional need. So what happens, in the case of many of the examples we saw at ELI, is that the ed tech groups at these institutions build lowest-common-denominator solutions. Invariably, as you say, the faculty are upset because those types of solutions barely meet their most basic instructional needs. Actually they might meet many of the logistical needs of instruction very well, but not so much the pedagogical. Instructional designers are an amazing resource, there's just simply not enough of them. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I think it's as much a matter of a different kind of expertise as a process that brings in the existing pedagogical expertise at the right point in the decision making.

Well, going back to obsession as an indicator of expertise, I think there is a gap in expertise. Most Ed Tech people don't have experience teaching (which is not the same as educational theory or instructional design) and almost none spend the lion's share of their time thinking/reading/obsessing about teaching. This is not a criticism, it is simply a matter of priorities, and as you said a scarcity of time. While I dabble in technology and enjoy thinking about it, I obsess about teaching. It is simply my contention that for most Ed Tech folks that equation is reversed. The implications of this reversal, however, I think are profound in terms of how they/I approach the questions and problems of how to incorporate technology into teaching. 
It is the job of folks in Ed Tech to be obsessed with technology, it is the job of content experts to be obsessed with their content, all I am saying is if you are trying to make changes to teaching it is imperative to have someone at the table that is obsessed with teaching.

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