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The Meaning of Innovative

“In the West,” one expert said, “we end up with solutions looking for a problem, or we build things because we can.”

Much of my time lately has been spent reading applications—a record number, in fact—for the 2010 Sylvia Charp Award, presented jointly by T.H.E. Journal and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) for the effective, innovative districtwide application of technology. The winner is announced on our website ( 2010 Sylvia Charp Award ) and ISTE’s website (iste.org). The winning district will be honored at the ISTE 2010 ed tech conference, which takes place June 27–30 in Denver.

What is innovation? Certainly, I and the other Charp award judges have seen a lot of different representations of it. A recent article in The New York Times challenged my notion of what the term truly means. I was intrigued by the headline: “Where a Cell Phone Is Still Cutting-Edge.” The article addresses “a global flowering of innovation on the simple cell phone…People are seeking work via text message; borrowing, lending, and receiving salaries on cell phones; employing their phones as flashlights, televisions, and radios.” It goes on to describe these and other innovative uses of cell phones around the world that are not even being tried in the US, and contrasts that with Americans’ fascination with “ever sleeker, faster, fancier devices” such as the new iPad. “In the West,” one expert said, “we end up with solutions looking for a problem, or we build things because we can.”

That got me to thinking: What existing technologies are we overlooking in schools in our quest for ever sleeker, faster, fancier devices? How often are we purchasing solutions and then looking for problems to solve with them? I looked back over the 70-plus applications for the Charp award and didn’t see one whose major focus was using older or common technologies in new and innovative ways.

I confess that I suffer from this very problem. I recently sent out a request on a listserv looking for advice on purchasing a netbook. One response I got was, “What is your problem? What do you want to use it for?” My first instinct was to be insulted, but then I considered the question: What was my problem? I actually hadn’t thought it through. In this case, I had an answer: I needed something light and portable that would let me do basic computing without further damaging the vertebrae in my neck.

Far be it for me to advocate a reconsidering of Apple IIes, Radio Shack TRS 80s, or the Commodore Pet, on which I used BASIC to program an image of a rocket launch. However, taking advantage of available devices just makes sense. Imagine the pluses that student-owned cell phones could bring to classroom curriculum. I’ve heard all the doomsaying—the distractions and cheating they will cause—but instilling a culture of responsibility around their use can help alleviate those fears. Then we might learn from the kids some innovative ways of using them.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of THE Journal.

About the Author

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

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