It’s about how you use the technology.

I recently read author and commercial pilot Patrick Smith’s book, Cockpit Confidential. His pet peeve: When people say “Planes can practically fly themselves.” He assures us that they cannot. He notes that the claim that technology is all that and a bag of chips is not unique to aviation. Smith quotes author and surgeon Atul Gawande from a New Yorker essay, “Talk about medical progress, and people think about technology… But the capabilities of doctors matter every bit as much as the technology. This is true of all professions. What ultimately makes the difference is how well people use technology.”

My favorite example is in construction. A nail gun is more efficient than a hammer. But if you don’t know how to actually build anything, the nail gun isn’t going to magically give you that knowledge. You will still build a crappy house, but you’ll do it faster.

It’s not all that different in education.

Except you don’t have to use technology at all to teach well. Years ago I had two colleagues who taught history. One was a brilliant lecturer; he could keep a class riveted for the entire hour. The other was a brilliant discussion leader; he could engage students, think on his feet, and get everyone to the same place at the end. I don’t think either of them ever so much as picked up a piece of chalk.

Technology can be used to provide an out-of-class forum where the lecture students could write or tell their own stories – or discuss the day’s lecture. Technology can be used to provide an out-of-class forum where the discussion students can continue their discussions – or write or tell their own stories. Technology can be used to enhance learning.

But every instructor who has tried a new technology with students knows that it’s not a Field of Dreams. If you build it, they may not come. If technology is being implemented with students, students will need some guidance in how to use it. And to the IT folks, the same goes for when you bring in a new technology. Don’t be surprised if faculty and staff don’t immediately glam onto it in droves.

A panel of instruments – in a cockpit, on medical equipment, in a course management system – needs someone skilled at using them to truly make them useful.

Much has been made of “digital natives” – people who have been raised on the internet and all the gadgets that come with it. Too much has been made of them. Remember the first word processing program you learned how to use? You figured out how to use the features that you needed. When you got your next word processing program, you figured out how to make your new program do what your old program could do. You probably didn’t take the time to learn the new features of the program – perhaps even promising yourself you’d look into it later. And now how many generations removed from that first program are you? I confess that I never bothered to learn “styles” in Microsoft Word. I see the style buttons at the top of the screen taking up a boatload of real estate, so I figure someone must be using them. They’re probably pretty useful. But honestly, I have never had a compelling reason to take the time.

Our students are the same way. A colleague related the following encounter that took place in her class.

Student: I completely forgot to do the assignment!

Instructor: Did you put it on your calendar?

Student: I don’t have a calendar.

Instructor: Don’t you have an iPhone?

Students: Yes, but I don’t have a calendar.

Instructor picks up student phone and taps the calendar icon. Calendar pops up.

Student: Wow!

Our younger students are masters at text messaging and music apps. If they haven’t had a need for using the other features of their phones, they may not know what they are. [And I bet there are some older smartphone owners who have mastered the calendar, but are now thinking, “Wait! I can play music on my phone?” Yes, yes you can.]

Take the time, right now, to decide what technology you’re going to try this week. It could be new technology or features you haven’t used in a technology you’ve been using for a while. As for me? I’m going to check out the MS Word styles buttons.

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