Innovation through Reflection: A Call for Teachers

“Didn’t we have bigger dreams for instructional technology?” ~ Phil Hill at ITC 2015

It is a truism that learning can happen in any environment. Learning does not require a teacher, though traditional education relies upon the sage-on-the-stage (or at least the guide-on-the-side) model. But even in traditional education, learning can happen when any two people are present together. The roles of teacher and student can fluctuate, the specifics of what is learned can be fixed or fluid, and how learning occurs can change with the tick of a clock; but learning takes little more than conversation, interaction, engagement, and reflection — between a learner and teacher, or between the learner and her environment.

Digital learning today is chocked full of apps, devices, interfaces, systems for managing learning, systems for personalizing learning, and practices that respond to or are complicit with those systems, devices, and apps. Teaching has become an act of engineering — of combining together the right brew of on-ground and online, of hunting and gathering LTIs, of inside- and outside-the-LMS, of aggregating and curating, of data collection, and of mediated communication and interaction with learners. The teacher has all but left the chalkboard behind in favor of shiny new instructional technology. Where once we had to be boots-on-the-ground with our students, patient and skilled as a parent, now we can manage dozens of interactions with the click of a button.

For many teachers, digital learning is still a brave new world, and it can feel heady to rush to adopt new technology. Gradebooks and discussion fora and video lectures and eportfolios and collaborative learning spaces and assessment tools and badges! and synchronous conferences and dazzling analytics — all of these can seem a field of flowers ripe for the picking. But more and more, learned educators and a few brave souls in the educational technology industry are advising caution. Sometimes, they say, that field of flowers across the yellow brick road deserves a bit more consideration.

“It’s not about the technology, it’s about teaching and learning,” Richard Edwards proclaimed with no little insistence during his keynote at the 2015 ITC conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. He spoke about the “Cover of Wired Magazine” syndrome which leads us to believe that new equals better and new equals necessary, and that by bringing technology to bear upon learning, learning will flourish. More, there is a pressure to innovate, to use technology in teaching and learning, even when it’s not wanted or needed. Innovate or die, goes the maxim. But shiny doesn’t always mean better.

Audrey Watters, in her Hack Education post “Moving Beyond Personalized Instruction”, says that

“There seems to be such a failure of imagination around ed-tech, and that’s a shame… education is caught up in a sort of ‘truthiness,’ believing that things work because they just sound like they should.”

Too often, the creation and adoption of new technology occurs without any critical examination of that technology, and this can happen at any level of education, from the administration to the teacher or the learner. Where a teacher might once have made the conscious choice to rearrange tables, to pass around handouts, or to use the chalkboard during class time, now technology is ubiquitous, insistent, and often obligatory. Discussion fora and gradebooks peck at the classroom window, assessments nearly write themselves, and the LMS database knows more about students than teachers do.

Leaders in education are issuing a call for a return to teaching, to the art and craft of care and listening, discernment and pedagogy. This is what Amy Pilcher means when she says “Use technology, but not too much technology”, and “Don’t use technology you’re not comfortable with.” Teachers must develop digital literacies like those that Howard Rheingold advocates in Net Smart; the capabilities of “crap detection” that he espouses for searching out reliable information on the Internet are just as important and practicable when assembling a digital classroom. Rheingold reminds us that, “even the smallest amount of attention is immeasurably more useful than none at all.” And, unfortunately, up to now the adoption of technology in education has been met usually with less than the “smallest amount of attention.”

This must change. Innovation in education does not lie in shiny new instructional technology, but in the choice of technology (from chalkboards to LMSs to iPhones) and the practice of good teaching. As Edwards reminds us: “Let chalk be chalk. Let iPhones be iPhones. They are two different things.” Innovation, he says, is iterative not instant, and we cannot bring tech into a course without renovating that course. The wise teacher will reflect before adopting and implementing. The wise instructional designer will look for balance in all things LTI. The wise technologist will slow his roll and let the seeds of past inventions find use in classrooms. It’s innovation through reflection. Moving forward by standing still.

Perhaps most importantly, as Audrey Watters points out, the challenge before us as teachers, administrators, and technologists, “is to provide the vision and the leadership to show how education technology can be transformational”, and not to assume that it already is.