10 Ways to Make Tech New Again (and Your Soul Shiny)

list of rules
[This is a guest post by Jesse Stommel, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Technologies at University of Mary Washington, and Sean Michael Morris, Instructional Designer at Middlebury College. They co-direct Digital Pedagogy Lab. Find them on Twitter @Jessifer and @slamteacher]

Will you lose your job to a robot? According to The New York Times a couple of years ago, possibly. And this cute test from Oxford University’s Martin School lets you check whether it’s a real possibility. (As it turns out, if you’re a teacher in higher ed., the test thinks it extremely unlikely.) Dystopian futures are always good for a night of entertaining conversation. But is this grungy pessimism really the way we should be meeting the challenges of the digital age?

But wait: unadulterated optimism isn’t going to help us either. Thanks to the rise and relative fall of MOOCs, educators all over the country are suddenly very aware of what a hype cycle is. There’s nothing that chokes of disillusionment more than the over-promising of Silicon Valley — except perhaps the click-bait titles of most edtech journalism that reports happily on the exploits of Silicon Valley (to which the title of this piece is a not-so-subtle nod).

In fact, the way forward isn’t the rainbow-flavored optimism of techno-futurists, nor the slow dung beetle roll of technophobes. Inquiry, inspection, critical thinking (alongside the confidence to hack the tools you just don’t like enough) are going to serve us better than either rose-colored or Henry Bemis’s glasses.

Mark Twain says that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all in one’s lifetime.”

There’s a lot to unpack in this quote, some baggage, and a lot of context. But taken literally, this is the reason we launched Digital Pedagogy Lab’s series of on-ground institutes: the recent event in Cairo, the upcoming event at UPEI, the main 5-day event at University of Mary Washington, and more. From the start, our plan was never to create an increasingly large mega-conference at a single location. We wanted to grow out, not up, because dialogue needs context — needs many different voices emerging from multiple places. Our thinking about edtech can’t be about thought-leaders working at a distance from the day-to-day practice of education. The more important work happens right in the muck — and demands hope, a willingness to collaborate, and that we always keep at least one eyebrow raised.

This activity that we devised for the first Institute is one example. In it, we take Howard Rheingold’s notion of “crap detection” and turn it upon the tools we ask (and sometimes require) students to use. Jesse has done similar activities with undergraduate students, as a way of approaching a digital assignment where students choose the tool they’ll use — a way of shifting the conversation from how to whether, investigating tools before we decide to use them.

description of critical evaluation activity

Here’s another (only somewhat cheeky) example of this kind of work:

10 Steps to Make Edtech New Again

  • Throw out what you know. The invention of the LMS was a mistake. No one has perfected digital learning yet.
  • Take several steps back. Do some thinking on paper. Thinking is different with a pen than with a keyboard.

  • Strip out all the digital tools you use for at least one day. But keep an inventory. You’ll need this later.
  • Pick just one new tool and commit to it fully. Let “Hypothesis” or “Wikity” punctuate your sentences instead of “um” and “uh” and “right?”.
  • Let a student hold office hours for you. Consult with them about what makes tech in learning tick.
  • Think less about disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and think instead about un-disciplinarity. Break all your rules of rigor.
  • Make a list of one rule you’ll stick to. It should be based on all the previous steps in this list.
  • Take a look at the inventory from Step 3. Apply your one rule. Decide to use all the tools that meet your new standard.
  • Throw a Tool Party. Serve cake and ice cream (weather permitting).
  • Give at least one other person this list.

Most institutions of higher education are currently in the throes of invention and reinvention. It would be understatement to say that the work can be fraught. And it is within this particular fray that we think it necessary to create a different set of more nuanced and critical conversations about the complex relationships between technology and education. The work of edtech should not be about proselytizing for particular technologies. Rather than fetishize tools, we want to stir discussion about them.

What questions do you think educators need to ask of our technologies?

[Photo by flickr user Fio licensed CC BY-NC 2.0 and used by permission]

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