The Problem with Tech vs. Paper and Pencil Reasoning

It’s Indiana Digital Citizenship Week. I’ve been looking forward to this week for ages. Much of this week, I’ve been stalking the Twitter stream to see how classroom, schools, and districts are participating. Each evening, my family has endured my enthusiasm as I highlight finds and speculate about the impact of this effort.  Last night was a bit different. For most of the day I was away from my devices, my team hosted the Greet and Treat at the Department of Education. It was an opportunity for other teams to come and learn about our work. Most everyone I meet wonders what the Office of eLearning does-and colleagues are no exception. If you visit any of our social media profiles, you find our condensed mission statement: Working across the state to improve student outcomes through the intentional use of technology. But over time, I’ve begun to wonder myself…what does that even mean.

By default, when we tie a mission or a vision to student outcomes, the immediate correlation is assessment outcomes. Why we equate our kids to assessments is a systematic problem, and sadly one that we have hardly begun to chip away at. With all that in mind, I should be more understanding when educators lament how integrating technology into the classroom is actually causing students to do worse on tests, but I’m not. I feel frustrated, misunderstood, and I fight off wanting to respond, We are NOT working across the state to improve student test scores through the intentional use of technology. The answer is much more complex than that and I realize that how we present our work doesn’t necessarily help our argument. (Seriously, I feel Brian Knight‘s and the ETCoaches blogging challenges calling my name so I force myself to stay focused on this in a more meaningful way.)

It was what happened in #INeLearn Chat last night that caused me to wake up with my ah-ha 8 hours after the conversation. Actually, it was more like three days after a string of conversations came together for me in my unconscious rest. We have to stop comparing technology integration to what could be done with pencil and paper. Here’s my laundry list of reasons:

  1. The problem with with Tech vs. Paper and Pencil Reasoning is that it assumes that we are simply substituting one tool for the other.
  2. When we assume we are substituting one tool for another we get trapped in the simplicity of thinking that kids and teachers simply need to learn how to use the new tool. As a result, we think that if we train them how to use the device, how to use the software, how to access their shiny new accounts, that all will be well and integration will be smooth.
  3. When we believe that training teachers and kids on how to use a tool is enough, then we failed to address that if instruction doesn’t change; if learning isn’t transformed, that all we have done is complicate matters. Now we are dependent on good connectivity. Now we are dependent on making positive digital citizenship a part of our school culture. Now we have to deal with the consequences of not having done those things.
  4. When we get overwhelmed with the risks and the challenges that come with providing our students with devices in the classroom, we begin to accept the rationale that there are times it’s easier or more appropriate to use paper and pencil rather than technology.

Okay, I’m going to let that sink in for a second. I mean, don’t we all think that sometimes?

What’s the danger in that? It’s true isn’t it?

I still love my old books. If you check my Amazon account, you’ll find that I still buy paperback-even the occasional hard copy. But I LOVE my digital downloads too. When friends have babies, I buy them books not app cards. I make decisions about use, convenience, and meaning. Print books hold sentimentality for me. I’m not sure if it will be in my day that they become relics, but I know that they will. I mean seriously, how many of you have scrolls stashed away in your house or classroom? Think about it. Not all that long ago in the timeline of civilization was a group of people who could not conceive that some printing device would ever replace the art of writing out text…you see where I’m going here.

When we say that we appreciate a handwritten note over an email, we are simplifying things. What if someone were to compose a digital appreciative message that managed to not only thank you, but in turn inspire and uplift hundreds, possibly millions of others? Would it have been better that they wrote you a thank you note? Would it somehow have meant more?  Of course not. We have to stop introducing these arguments into the conversation about technology integration in schools.

Let’s focus on those authentic things we need students to learn. How can the devices that they have access to transform how they interact with content? How can they enable students to see learning as a process and not simply a final product? When we contemplate these questions, I think it becomes clear that the answers involve more than seeing technology as an alternative to paper and pencil. We must see that teachers need more than training to be effective in integration. We have to be prepared to rethink what we have experienced and known about school all our lives.

Today is the last day of the first Indiana Digital Citizenship Week. I cannot express how much it means to me that Indiana educators and students have engaged in the celebration. I’ve said it several times this week, they are what brought the event to life. I am so grateful. The #INDigCitWeek hashtag will sit quietly waiting for next year. But, hopefully that’s the only part of the week that will go up on a shelf or be put away in a drawer. Monday should be the first day in continuing the work of living out your school’s vision for digital citizenship.

I won’t be able to send everyone a handwritten note, but know that you made a difference this week. And I appreciate you!