Invisibility and Awesomeness: The Ed-Tech Paradox

You don’t think about your pencil until the lead breaks. About your pen until the ink runs dry. About your pad of paper until you’re on the last sheet.

You don’t think about any of these “tools of learning” unless you need to – which is as it should be.

Compare that to “educational technology.” It’s cool to take a new computer out of its box. It’s exciting to affix a smartboard to the wall. It’s mind-blowing to hold your first conversation with Alexa.

And yet, when we savor the shiny and new, chances are we’re doing something wrong. Our focus should be on what we create with our tools, not the tools themselves.

In that context, the digital divide is the modern manifestation of a broken pencil. It’s the computer that’s not in the home. It’s an intermittent internet. The smartphone that is utterly unsuited for writing the 10-page term paper your teacher has assigned.

Soaking in the conversation at the Education Technology and Computational Psychometrics Symposium (ETCPS), it occurred to me that ed-tech has truly arrived when you no longer notice it. I’m old enough to have lived through several ed-tech paradigm shifts – from typewriters to computers, from encyclopedias to Encarta, from the card catalog to Kindle, and from analog to augmented to artificial intelligence.

While we may all luxuriate in the “new car smell,” what most of us want is technology that simply takes us – with some comfort, confidence, and perhaps cool – from where we are to where we want to be.

In that spirit, if students are passionate about birds, I want them thinking about ornithology, not technology. I want them listening to bird calls, studying beaks, and thinking through how bone density determines whether a bird flies, swims, or scampers along the ground.

When the algorithms are invisible, that’s when ed-tech is most awesome. And when the on/off nature of the digital experience becomes all too apparent, that’s when technology falls short.

Unfortunately for students on the wrong side of the digital divide, technology never fades into the background. It’s the only thing they see. Consider:

  • A school excited about its new 1:1 technology program, but a parent petrified by promising to pay $300 to replace a broken computer – because they don’t have $300.
  • A teacher energized by “flipping” his classroom so his students do their initial schoolwork at home and their homework at school, but if a sixth grader’s internet connection is intermittent – and an older sister has dibs on the computer – it’s hard to keep up.

As a person who has directly experienced the power of ed-tech to transform my own learning, my counsel would still be: “Every time we think about the ceiling, we need to think about the floor.”

If we don’t, we will create environments in which some kids always have sharpened pencils and others are consigned to scratching out their homework on whatever scraps of paper they can find.

Oddly enough, it’s only when we think constantly about technology and the digital divide that our students can quit thinking about it – and tackle more important questions, such as why eagles soar, penguins swim, and ostriches scamper along the ground.