How do we decide if/which technology is appropriate?


There’s been much discussion lately on twitter concerning technology in education (e-books, ensuring equitable access to technology, etc.) and it got me thinking.

I added my own comment to the #edchat (“We need to be sure to fit the technology to the content and not the content to the technology”) and wrote a blog about e-books from my perspective as a textbook author.

But the discussion got me thinking.  What kinds of questions would we ask ourselves to determine if and when a technology is appropriate for a given situation?

I’m definitely not a proponent of using technology for technology’s sake.  Using something just to say we’re using something isn’t the point at all.

It’s true that our students will be surrounded by technological tools in the future and we want them to be comfortable with using them, learning to use new ones, and thinking of new and different applications and technologies.

But to do this, it’s important that we teach them how to decide which tool is appropriate or most effective for a given task.  And to do that, we need to model it and explicitly explain our reasoning for selecting a given technology for a task.

I have an idea of a list of questions I ask when I decide to use (or develop) a technological tool for a task, but I certainly don’t have all the answers, so please take a moment to add any questions or criteria you feel is lacking in the comments below or through Twitter and I’ll post them here!


My list of questions to ask before using a technology:
  1. What are the educational goals/outcomes of this task?
  2. Does the technology allow me to do things that I simply could not do without it that will help me meet the educational goals/outcomes?
  3. Does the technology make aspects of the task more simple, transparent or automated that allow the students to focus on the heart of the task rather than get caught up in less important details?
  4. Is the educational task made easier, more effective or more efficient by the use of the technology or does the use of the technology just “clutter up” the task for the students?
  5. Is the technology user-friendly or intuitive enough to fade to the background and allow students to focus on the task rather than the technology?
  6. Do I have reliable, easy access to the technology for individuals or groups of a size that is appropriate for the task?
  7. Am I familiar enough with the technology to be able to quickly troubleshoot and help students not get stuck on the technology itself?
  8. Are the educational goals/outcomes going to meet better or more efficiently if I use this technology?
  9. Does it make sense to use it with your content, class structure, etc.?

Here’s some elaborations/examples on each of the questions…

1.  What are the educational goals/outcomes of the task?

Is the goal to learn the technology itself?  If so, then the other questions may or may not apply.  It is appropriate to sometimes learn a technology before then applying it to an educational goal related to your specific content.

It’s important to not try to learn too many things at once – students quickly reach cognitive overload when trying to learn a new technology at the same time as trying to learn content!  So if you need to do both, you need to have one activity that is simply about learning the technology (using content they already know and are comfortable with) and then have a separate activity where students use the technology for some content-related goal.

However, if the goals are content-related then it’s important to know what the educational goals are before attempting to answer the remaining questions.

2.   Does the technology allow me to do things that I simply could not do without it?

I teach science and there are simulation applications out there that allow me to do things I can’t otherwise do – have a frictionless system, watch an experiment proceed at a higher rate so that a 10 hour experiment is modeled in 10 minutes, view processes at a molecular level, etc.

But remember that it’s not just about doing something because you can.  Is it educationally appropriate for the task and the level of student to be doing frictionless experiments?  Depending on my educational goals, it might or might not be.

Another example of this is using PowerPoint presentations with a projector.  If I’m just using it for text and simple diagrams or figures, I might as well save the money on the projector light-bulb use and use my whiteboard.  However, if I’m moving electrons from one atom to another to show bonding in a molecule, that’s something I can’t do on a whiteboard and it justifies the use of the technology.


3.  Does the technology make aspects of the task more simple, transparent or automated that allow the students to focus on the heart of the task rather than get caught up in less important details?

I’ve studied cognitive load theory a lot and one of the ways to reduce cognitive load of students to allow them to learn more from a task is to make steps or sub-tasks that are the main focus of the learning automated or transparent.

For example, if the educational goal of a task is to teach how to graph, then you should not automate the graphing process but if the process of creating the graph itself is not the main educational goals, using technology that automates that process and then allows students to use cognitive resources for other aspects of the tasks is a wise use of technology.

4.  Is the educational task made easier, more effective or more efficient by the use of the technology or does the use of the technology just “clutter up” the task for the students?

If students have to focus too much on the technology – if it’s clunky, difficult, not really built for the task you’re using it for, has excessive amounts of “set-up” before students can get right to the educational goals then it will not help achieve those educational goals.

Having a technology that you can “pre-set” or “pre-load” with settings is highly advantageous to allow you to get right to the point.  (Unless of course the educational goal is to learn how to set-up a particular type of technology…but then you’re back to question 1 where I said if that’s your educational goal then many of these other questions do not apply!)

5.  Is the technology user-friendly or intuitive enough to fade to the background and allow students to focus on the task rather than the technology?

The best use of technology for educational purposes is when the technology itself fades into the background and allows students to focus on the task it enables rather than focus on the technology itself.

6.  Do I have reliable, easy access to the technology for individuals or groups of a size that is appropriate for the task?

It may be the best thing in the world but if you don’t have enough computers or enough time to rotate students through stations and are forced to have 4-6 students at a computer, it may not be beneficial to a large portion of those students.

7.  Am I familiar enough with the technology to be able to quickly troubleshoot and help students not get stuck on the technology itself?

I know we all have limited time to prepare activities and learn new technologies – but if you’re not familiar enough to troubleshoot the inevitable problems that students are going to have using a technology then it’s better to wait and implement it when you can do so.

8.  Are the educational goals/outcomes going to meet better or more efficiently if I use this technology?

There are some things that I COULD do with technology but the educational goals are met just as well without the technology and it’s actually faster to do it without the technology.

Time is probably the most valuable commodity to a teacher.  If the educational goals can be met equally well both with and without the technology, then time is a deciding factor–will the technology make the task take longer (getting it all out, setting it all up, getting kids logged in, troubleshooting, etc.) or will it save you time (will the tasks that it can automate or you having pre-done settings make things go quicker than doing it without technology)?

If educational goals are met equally both with and without it, then using technology simply to make things go faster is just fine as a reason to use it!

But using technology to make things go faster at the expense of focusing on the educational goals (for reasons discussed above such as the technology getting in the way of the content) then saving time is not a valid reason for choosing it!

9.  Does it make sense to use it with your content, class structure, etc.?

This is one of the most important and perhaps most overlooked whenever someone is recommending a new technology as a wonder-tool in the classroom.  Maybe it just doesn’t work for how your class is structured.

I have read about and know of teachers that use communication tools such as discussion boards and wikis wonderfully in their classroom–paying attention to all the things pointed out above.

However, as much as the appeal of using technology to communicate with peers appeals to me, it just doesn’t fit into my classroom.  Students don’t do work outside of class unless they fall behind (which is a topic for a completely different blog post) so the only time they’d be using the wiki or discussion board would be while they were physically in my classroom.  And what’s the point of using computers to post on a discussion blog when you’re sitting in the same room as the people you’re discussing with?

I know that you can do it across class periods, or there are other ways to make the conversation be with people outside of those sitting in the same room, but for me, my content, my educational goals and my classroom it just doesn’t make sense to do it.

Please add any of your “questions to ask before using technology” in the comments or through twitter and I’ll post them here!

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