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Challenging Tech Needed: APPly Now!

A little over a year ago, I remember sitting with some very intelligent people, suggesting that education publishing needed to not only get into the app marketplace, but develop ways to use apps more deeply than click offs on a screen, or as placeholders for a bunch of mismatched resources. Beyond the silence—eyes rolled back and glossed over. They just didn’t get it. Many education companies believe that being able to say that you have an app creates the perception that you are running ahead of the pack.

A few things hit home for me while visiting a small education conference in Boston. First of all, I had a meeting where I was asked some very creative and thought-provoking questions. One of them was, “Would it pay to gather app developers with the mission of creating education apps to move education to and beyond the Cloud?” It was a great question, and my answers were multi-faceted, but also may explain why things in education don’t change quickly, or at all.

Having spent a lifetime teaching kids, then teachers, and administrators, I pointed out, that in order to do what they suggested, where the real lessons needed to be taught—teaching the education marketplace. If you look at the education industry, especially the software and hardware sectors, you mostly still see the “We make widgets and we will continue to make widgets, and you need widgets, and you’ll always need the same widgets” approach. Now, if you’re looking at all this from the company side of things, everything looks wonderful—just as everything always looks great inside the walls. But, that inside-the-walls mentality can kill industries that could advance and lead.

Here are some examples of the perception of doing something:

1. Creating an iPad app that does very little other than act as a remote for product operation. That completely misses the point of having an iPad—for all of the teaching things that can be done with it, using it like a TV remote is way off the mark.

2. Claiming that your software allows 3D interactivity, when in reality (sorry) all the software does is bring up an image, disconnected from the lesson—and can only be simply manipulated or spun like an animated gif. To date, none of the 3D options promoted live up to their hype, nor truly become a seamless part of a full-bodied lesson. Most are multimedia light shows on larger screens or boards. 3D on smaller screens is where it will really come to pass, if the emphasis for making it happen is placed there.

3. Many of the brilliant app developers fail to know the wonder of what they have done, and how their apps can change learning. They sometimes fall into an App trap, with companies that really need and app for survival, or to explain the reason why every teacher or student needs their particular product or solution, “This app is the reason you need our product.” Well, sorry, no it’s not the reason. The reality is that many apps can fit many different products and company needs. App developers are really in the driver’s seat here. Now, that’s not to say they should take education companies to the cleaners, but understanding what they can offer, with their creative, hard work, will help developers avoid won’t getting hung out to dry in one widget factory somewhere—helping to sell an outdated product concept.

The bottom line is that most educators are still at the beginning stages of teaching with technology. I know, there are a lot out blogging, in social media, and presenting, but the numbers there are still few compared to the vast majority of educators in classrooms. At that recent conference I attended, a vendor asked an educator if she used technology in her classroom, and she responded that her school really didn’t do that. I smiled, but was sad at the same time. So many of us have spent our lives pushing for education and education technology change. Should blame be placed?

Well, as an old friend of mine said the other day, “I’ve watched the trends come and go, and the pendulum swing back and forth, and we still jump on the newest bandwagon.” He reminded me never to talk No Child Left Behind or Common Core with him—ever again. I couldn’t promise that. I do believe that part of the blame is the politics of education, and part of it the building of products that meet those political checks and balances. If the education marketplace, and education press has a nearsighted view of what teachers and students really need, then that’s the presentation build, and that’s what will be advertised, and that’s what educators and students will get. Unfortunately, though I hate to say it, because it is something a very narrow-minded administrator said to me many years ago, “Teachers only know what they see and hear. What you’re talking about is only important to you. When it becomes important to others, then I’ll start listening to you.” I really hated that then, and I hate it now. Changing that is the reason most of us began sharing louder. If a teacher sees and hears one solution or product or software possibility—chances are that’s the one they will use—and chances are that’s the one they’ll think is great—and chances are they’ll use it beyond obsolescence—without question.

I had the great honor, quite a few years ago, now, to help teach teachers in a new technology-based learning environment. In a recent visit, back there, I discovered the technology hadn’t changed in 6 years; it was the same as when I’d left—same software and same hardware—and most likely the same limited possibilities on much more fragile equipment. It’s so easy to fall back into the education technology desert, especially in bad economic times, and especially when the school day is so full that even music, art, and recess seem to be on borrowed time, and teachers are on edge with lay-offs, but it’s so difficult to rebuild an oasis. Left uncultivated, sometimes nothing rises out of the ashes.

So, what’s the cure? Well, it’s not just one thing, but rather a combination, and it will take much more than my off-the-cuff remarks—for sure. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Gathering a group of app designers/programmers together with an education agenda would be a good step. Those meetings would have to be moderated by someone without an agenda, too, and who knew both sides of the street—education and technology.

2. Something equivalent to a tent meeting with a really appropriately forceful education technology evangelist would need to happen—to sort of slap the education marketplace into another gear and the middle of the 21st Century. It’s all too comfortable keeping the vehicle in first, and never shifting. Unfortunately, it’s not good for the transmission—and in education terms—not good for the transformation needed in which the education technology marketplace really shares the lead.

3. More education leaders need to step up to the plate to say that the technology being dished out for curriculum and learning change, hasn’t changed enough to meet a new age of digital handheld computer kids. Again, teachers who are fed mush might like it if they haven’t tasted anything else, but shouldn’t we offer a more diverse, creative, and exciting education tech plate?

I really know that times are difficult for districts and for the education marketplace as well, but hearing a teacher say that her school doesn’t have tech makes me crazy, and it should you as well. While technology isn’t the answer to all education problems, it can help with some of the solutions. But there’s the rub, those solutions need to move forward. At a time when most consumers are talking cloud, most educators and students in classes haven’t a notion of what that is or even what it means. We really should be at the Cloud stage now, and thinking post-Cloud, but if the tech cards being dealt are pre-Cloud, there is very little hope for change—in a child’s school life—and possibly for the next generation of students—and beyond.

During all your faculty meetings, and administrative council meetings, stress the need to get out of the chalkboard classroom, and in all your education market corporate board meetings suggest ways to creatively get beyond just dishing out the same old, because the same old is what you know—and has worked in the past. It’s not good enough now. Finally, if you are one of the few tech savvy educators, who boast hundreds of Twitter Tweets, or present national education/tech conferences, or even a reporter/blogger of education or education tech news and you haven’t made a commitment to get others involved beyond your own talk—it’s time to start. Education and the technology to support it should not be directed by only a few, and based on simple and worn out ideas/goals. Make change. Demand change. Get involved in change. Talk, but just don’t talk change. This movement, that should involve everyone, has been waiting at the station for a long time, and is long overdue in today’s classrooms. If we get beyond one-sided directing, more educators will be brought to the stage, along with more appropriate and challenging education technology for our students.

Written by

34-year veteran educator, ed tech author, and education marketplace reporter.

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