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Wires and lights in a box

By Barry Bachenheimer
June 27, 2014
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"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it's nothing but wires and lights in a box." —Edward R. Murrow

Broadcaster Edward R. Murrow uttered these words in a speech to the Radio Television Digital News Association in 1958. While he was talking about television, he just as easily could have been talking about today's laptops, tablet computers or interactive whiteboards. This may sound almost blasphemous for a column in a magazine that explores how technology impacts teaching and learning, but technology is never the ends, it is simply a means. It's not about the technology, it's about the learning.

My vision for schools is to provide an innovative learning environment where all students can actively explore their personal passions, be inspired to intrinsically gain knowledge, develop and improve communication and collaboration skills in a variety of media, and use information and research to accomplish personal and professional goals.

To get to this vision, several shifts must take place. Technology, specifically a 1:1 laptop or tablet program, can cause this paradigm change — as long as the proper steps occur along the way.

The first step must be to put the focus on student learning, exploration and readiness. Not test scores.

When my school district adapted its 1:1 program over a decade ago, the board of education and district leadership had the foresight not to tie the laptop initiative to test scores. They felt that to be a productive citizen in the modern age, students needed access to digital age communication and resources. Test scores are simply one indicator of learning " " a highly political indicator to be sure, but laptops themselves can't be expected to cause the change, and the change won't happen overnight. It is a process that takes time, patience and perseverance.

Currently, many districts are buying up tablets, Chromebooks and laptops to get their schools technologically ready for the Common Core assessments. But if instruction hasn't shifted away from didactic instruction, multiple-choice/fill-in-the-blank testing and purely content-focused curriculum, it won't matter.

In any discussion of digital age skills, high on the list is always what I call the Triple C: communication, collaboration and creativity. When you put technology into the hands of every student, the instruction needs to foster these three skills. The purpose of a class is not to impart knowledge and content. Instead, students need to do things with that content, such as identify and solve problems, prioritize, organize, present and look at multiple perspectives. There needs to be a calculated plan in place to have kids learn and develop these skills while using effective digital citizenship practices. When classroom instruction is presented this way, the 1:1 program forces the shift as students have tools to communicate with peers, as well as with the world.

The teacher is no longer the only person in the room with all the answers. Instead, the technology is the tool that can help students ask the questions and explore the solutions. The teacher's role is to help guide them to effectively and appropriately communicate, work together and promote innovation. When that occurs, amazing things happen, as was the case when my district organized a Virtual Day during a recent snow day. School was held and learning occurred despite the physical campus being closed.

Getting teachers to alter their instruction requires professional learning. Sure, they should learn how to use the technology tools, but more importantly, they need to collaborate with colleagues to examine their instructional practice, find ways to better engage students and use technology as a tool to facilitate engagement.

We need to encourage teachers to take instructional risks and praise them for taking chances. Altering what seems like a successful method of instruction in favor of an uncertain one is a major risk. We must support teachers to encourage innovation.

School presents a fine line between having kids learn what they need to, have to and want to learn. They also need to be exposed to things they never would have if left to their own devices. There must be time for students to pursue their education passions to foster lifelong learning.

A shift in learning requires buy-in from all stakeholders: students, educators, administrators, parents, school board members and community members. To get this buy-in, we must clearly articulate, present and continually follow up on the vision for change and the sought-after outcomes. The time to engage these stakeholders is not just when the technology is purchased. Instead, it is an ongoing conversation that should be taking place all the time.

Bottom line — if districts purchase laptops for students without going through the steps described, all they have acquired is "wires and lights in a box."