The Rise and Fall of Educational Technology: Did We Miss the Point?

##AUTHORSPLIT##<--->We need educational technologists who are developers of learning tools, not just software-installing computer practitioners.

RECENT RUMBLINGS about the “death” of educational technology are sufficient reasons to examine the growth and direction of this young discipline. While the implementation of computer technology in schools or any other organization is a formidable task, it is not the only measure ofeducational technology’s success or failure.

First: The Educational Technologist
Perceptions about practice. Is it possible that students can take a semester-long course in Instructional Computing and not know how to turn on a desktop computer? You bet. Today’s students enter labs filled with computers already running and they log in, often simply by scanning their ID cards. They never need to turn on the computer, so they don’t learn where the monitor switch is or how networking hookups work. Students in academic settings work with software, not hardware. There is nothing wrong with this, but pre-service teachers who enter a school system and show their students and other faculty members that they cannot start up the computer raise questions about college technology programs. There is a chasm between what is seen as important in an educational technology setting of a university and what is seen as important in a K-12 setting.

Theory vs. practice. To an educational technology course designer, the world of modern computing is wide, and designing a program of study that covers a fair amount of the field is challenging. For example, there is the history of computing; using the computer for things such as word processing, building databases, making movies, creating music, developing budgets, creating charts, and carrying out other low-level tasks; doing educational “research” and becoming familiar with famous researchers; learning about laws related to computer use; understanding innovation diffusion; and much, much more. The question is: What is an educational technologist?

To be really useful in a K-12 setting, educational technologists have to be practitioners. They have to know how to set up computers, install software, and get students using the machines and programs. Yet, this interpretation of the educational technologist role shifts a great deal of power from educators to software companies, and not always to educational software companies. For training, schools increasingly rely on companies that apply a business model to education, and focus on software training rather than curriculum- based learning.

And even in a university setting, the definition of an educational technologist changes. When one interviews for a college position, he is asked questions such as: “Which researchers influenced you?” and “What have you published?” There is nothing wrong with this focus, but it d'esn’t take into account student creativity development and enhancing learning techniques using a computer.

Not surprisingly then, educational technologists fall into two camps: general practitioners who promote the use of commercial products in K-12 settings, and theorists who essentially talk about technology. Largely missing are developers who are interested in building effective simulations, refining interfaces that promote learning, and building softtools for learning.

Internet killed the software star. Back in the pre-Web world, educational software was valued; independent companies and individuals were creating educational software. The world had gone graphic, and although many of our programming and authoring environments were underpowered when it came to graphic implementation, we wrestled to create visuals to enhance learning. Instructional technology gurus of the day were groping for interface design rules to follow, or inventing the rules themselves. Of course, Tim Berners- Lee made all of those discussions moot when he invented HTML and created text pages full of links. The effect of the Web was staggering. Everyone started cranking out hyperlinked pages, mostly text, of course, since bandwidth wasn’t what it was today. Soon, we stopped talking so much about the application of graphics in the interface; we were too busy surfing the Web. Cool sites began appearing, and we had all we could do, examining clever pages. In fact, we became more absorbed with new media than we were with education.

Constructivism, reflection, and talk. But not everyone was enthralled. In fact, many educators had never looked at software or opened a Web page. Most had never tried creating media others would use, and this is an important point: Thinking about hypermedia interfaces adds a dimension to the communication stream that g'es beyond building convincing textual arguments. It forces one to think about the vast number of variables associated with perception. More importantly, it challenges the notion that the author is in control. In colleges, constructivism was, and still is, the rage. People construct their own knowledge, build schemes and frameworks to house that knowledge, and massage it through reflection. But building explanations and conceptualizations is very different from trying to imagine how the world at large would respond to them. Such development empowers learners by putting them in charge of hundreds, perhaps thousands of decisions. The “product” represents the instantiation of all of those decisions, and it can provide pride not granted by a mandatory, directed writing assignment.

We never taught administrators anything! Educational technologists have often had the sometimes flattering, but dubious, distinction of developing the technology budget. In some cases, this job became a raison d’être. Of course, the creator of any budget has a forum in which to apply a vision, to buy the products that take the institution to the next level. When technologists talk to administrators, they talk about next year’s budget, or budget cuts, or hardware, or security problems. The discussion centers on technological support rather than academic computing. By losing their academic focus,educational technologists have lost academic credibility.

At the collegiate level, administrators have seen their jobs become more and more computer related. They hire network people,Webmasters, database personnel, support staff, training staff, consultants, and others with very little knowledge of what these people really do. Once hired, these people become“technology people” who are asked for their opinions on everythingtechnological. Groupings related to job function (e.g.,academic support, administrative support, and technicalsupport) seem to be appropriate, and managing technologistsrequires different skills than managing teachers. Schooladministrators are poorly prepared to handle the challenges ofrunning and administering a wired (or wireless) facility.

How Do We Fix It?
Many good programs exist, and good things are happening in the educational technology field. But in many ways, we have lost our way. We need to return to fundamental questions about the use of technology in education. If we spent as much time thinking about learning as we do about security and budgets, we could improve our programs.

Encourage the use of media. We live in a media-centric world. Students learn how to read a book, but rarely learn how to “read” a video. They are easily manipulated by video and animation and have much to learn about it. Students can make a movie or a cartoon about any topic, including those that take a great deal of research about topics that appear on high-stakes testing. Encourage the use of a wide range of media: magazines, newspapers, Internet, etc. Promote media development as a means to an end, not an end.

Bring academic computing back into teacher discussions. If you are an educational technologist, try to break the habit of always discussing security, or the “next big thing.” Try to address each teacher’s needs individually. Pay attention to academic successes and discuss them with others. Most educational technologists are very curious about and interested in the way people learn. So is everyone else.

Help students develop tools for students. In student-centered environments, the role of reporting is elevated since students share ideas they have investigated individually or in groups. Encourage teachers to think expansively about reporting, and to go beyond “book report” styles. Students can develop help pages or manuals that teach others about what they have created or what they understand well. Sharing student work with other classes and grades on an intranet or the Web can encourage students to take extra effort in finishing their projects. Think of ways to tap into this student knowledge base and build an infrastructure to support it.

Don’t think about how. When developing a plan for technology in the school, try not to focus on technology and its implementation, but on end results. You may find that you have the tools to implement your plan, but need dollars for training, or need to free up teachers for training. You want to educate students, prepare them for the future, and improve their test scores. Now you are thinking like an educator!

Expand the dialog. In addition to increasing the number of discussions about academic computing, technologists need to help administrators understand what various technologists do. Pass on articles about various job functions to administrators, highlight relevant sections, and help administrators understand the difference between academic computing and technical support. Until educational leadership courses and district-level school programs are enhanced to better prepare administrators, support from in-house tech staff is crucial.

In the end…Building learning tools may be more important than talking about them. Creating may be an ideal way not only to learn about things, but to envision what they may become.

Sebastian Foti is a Fulbright Scholar working for the University of Florida Alliance, promoting collaboration between Florida’s educational institutions, teachers, and students.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.