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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? 

Here we go again

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The iPad has arrived and with it the usual claims about the transformation of everything education. I saw that the TLT group here on campus has taken up the issue in the form of a post at Geek Dad. What disappoints me about all this is that it is so predictable and so seemingly ignorant of past prognostications of this type. People have been saying that technology will transform "everything" about teaching and schools since there have been schools. One of my favorites:

"[This technology] appealed at once to the eye and to the ear, thus naturally forming the habit of attention, which is so difficult to form by the study of books...Whenever a pupil does not fully understand, [it] will have the opportunity...of enlarging and making intelligible."

This was said about the chalkboard in 1855. 

My point is that if we want to change schools the place to start is with the teaching. Technology is an amplifier. There is plenty of evidence that technology in the hands of teachers with outmoded pedagogical practices just gives us more and faster outmoded practice. We need to start with a conversation about how to change teaching and then see how technology can support the transformation. I know it sounds obvious, and yet there are so few examples of it happening out there. We are willing to spend huge sums of money to put technology into our classrooms, but are not willing to put more than a pittance in to supporting the teachers in reconsidering how they teach. We are spending money to amplify what is already wrong with schools. It makes me feel like I am watching This is Spinal Tap, when Nigel Tufnel explains the special volume on his custom amps:

"Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where? ...Eleven. Exactly. One louder."

If we don't change the way we think about teaching with technology the iPad in schools will just be one louder.

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