Reflections on technology in education, part 1

Author’s note: I realized that I’ve been putting “part 1” into a lot of my titles, because I always seem to have more thoughts than I can express in one moderately-sized blog entry. I’ll get to “Ruminations on e-books, part 2” soon, I promise. As for the other orphan part 1 titles, we’ll see.

Let me first say that this a huge topic, and I couldn’t hope to completely cover it in numerous, numerous posts. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and having some interesting discussion with people both in and out of academia, though, so I wanted to organize these thoughts in a (hopefully) cohesive manner.

The primary question that educators need to answer, aside from what they’re going to teach, is how they’re going to teach it. Pedagogical opinions vary widely, and whole educational schools make their reputations on how they teach their students to educate others. I’m not an educator, so I can’t speak to the various theoretical or conceptual reasons behind different pedagogical styles. What I can speak to, though, is how educators either enhance their teaching or detract from it in their uses of technology. I find that really good educators have asked themselves the question “What is the best way for me to teach this subject?” and then attempted to apply technological solutions that help them meet their goals. For me, educational technology should try to enhance an educator’s pedagogical style, and not the other way around.

Now that’s not to say that an educator can’t improve their pedagogy through technology. There are many educators now who think certain types of technology will help them engage their students more effectively and perhaps even shake up the traditional classroom. I am all for these kinds of changes, as long as they have sound pedagogical reasoning behind them. If, for instance, you realize that it is difficult for your class to understand the dangers that slave owners feared from the presence of the Union Army during the Civil War, a map of these army positions is a great way to emphasize this point. When charted with so-called emancipation events, this map becomes even richer. The aggregation and presentation of this data is a great example of what educational technology is all about, in my opinion. It doesn’t redefine the salience of emancipation for African slaves, nor does it change the fact that most emancipation events were predicated on the presence of the Union Army. It does make the connection between the Union Army and emancipation events immediately and visually relevant – in this case striking a near-perfect balance between data and design.

But the question still comes back to pedagogy. Does visualizing emancipation in this way help your students understand the legacy of the Civil War? If it does, great! If not, get rid of it. Educational technology, to use a terribly hackneyed phrase, is a means to an end – education of students – and should always be evaluated according to that rubric.

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