Posted - December 2016

Educational Technology Success Grows From Purpose Not Need or Want

by Matt Harris, CIS Affiliated Consultant

During the early parts of my Educational Technology (EdTech) career, I was sold a bill of goods. I was told that the post-millennial generation was full of Digital Natives. In fact, I have strong memories of when we threw that term around as a means of acculturating our faculties, parents, and administration to the needs of contemporary students.

It has been a few years and now those Digital Natives are entering the teaching profession. They bring with them years of technology use for learning and for productivity. We were told that this lifetime of knowledge would revolutionize the EdTech field because finally a group of teachers would just get it and not have to learn it.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Our post-millennial teaching cohort has the same array of skills, attitudes, and aversions held by their predecessors. Some are excellent with technology integration, while others are fearful of computers in a classroom setting. Yet, all of them are on Facebook or Snapchat, no more than 3 meters away from their mobile phones. They all seem to need or want to use technology in their lives, so shouldn’t they be well suited for EdTech success in the classroom? This doesn’t compute.

It does when you think about it. Technology for learning has never come out need or want. The ways in which young people use technology outside of work or school is around connectivity to others. It’s about a desire to be part of a community or the innate human need to connect with other people. The technology simply provides immediacy and variety of connection to fill those wants and needs. It doesn’t direct, encourage or offer any creative solution to a life problem. This approach to using technology has never (and will never) find a toehold in education.

Instead, we need to think about purpose. The most successful EdTech initiatives all share the common thread of purposeful design and execution. Programs and devices have been put in place to take students through a journey towards an end. They were not reactive approaches to deficit or a marketing ploy to get pictures of kids on computers on the school website. 

The purpose itself can be tricky, but it needs to be at the start and at the heart of any EdTech endeavor. We often talk about purpose through the lens of expanding the possibilities of learning through access to resources, connectivity with others, and individualization. We want teachers to have the opportunity for transformative pedagogy and increased student learning. We want to build creativity, higher order thinking skills, responsibility, communicative capacity, STEM skills, and digital citizenship.

Well-defined purpose serves a guiding beacon for your EdTech endeavors. It helps teachers and administrators understand the why and how of a program or a purchase. It provides students a roadmap to learning that helps them take ownership of their experiences. It even provides a means of performance evaluation and KPIs, both of which I am asked for regularly from school boards and administration.

I have found that the most successful EdTech programs have their purpose clearly articulated at the beginning. School community members know it and can articulate it in an elevator pitch or a five-minute discussion. These schools are transparent about their purpose and they return to it regularly. It is a part of their strategic and operational DNA.

So, how do you do it? I suggest finding examples of purpose or vision in other schools. Perhaps look online, contact your friends at other schools for resources, or even pose the question on TIEOnline or Twitter. I suggest being collaborative with teachers and administrators within your school so they own the purpose and don’t feel it is dictated to them. And always ground your purpose in the core values of your school and our shared educational mission of improving student learning.

Further, I would be prepared for revision throughout the process and know that if your purpose is tied to student learning it will be right, regardless of how many changes come through. And when you have it, print it, post it, and learn to feel comfortable talking about it.

And finally, remember these two things when thinking about purpose:

  1. Teaching and learning wins out over devices and resources every time.
  2. There is danger in starting your purpose with “we must have this…”
  3. Technology for learning offers potential, not promises. 

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