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Technology is like electricity

Can you imagine what it would have been like to live around the advent of electricity? It was only in the 1930s, Google tells me, that US homes had electricity in the urban areas. What must this have meant for the average urban family? Reading at night, listening to music, keeping food fresh. Of course, electricity was always ‘there’ (somewhere). The difference came when it was harnessed, supplied and there were appliances like lights, refrigerators and gramophone to realise its potential. The community quickly became reliant on the appliances. They were only reminded of the source (electricity) when there was a power outage or when the bill came in the mail. Electricity changed the world.

Earlier this year I was a panelist at the Bett educational conference in London. Across the four days thousand stream through the doors. Bett is the biggest annual education event in Europe. Each year this is a meeting place for educators, suppliers and purveyors of technological innovation that can change how we teach and how students learn in the 21st century.

Technology is an important part of the Bett experience. The panel, hosted by Stephen Heppell was represented by people from schools like mine, considered “schools of the future”. We were deep in conversation about learning and design of the space, when an audience member asked the question, “Here we are at Bett, technology is all around us, but none have you have mentioned it at all. So what part does technology play?”

My instant response simple. Technology in schools should be like electricity – it should go unnoticed.

Remember the early days of technology in school? I was undertaking further university study in the mid-80s. The lecturer was showing us how we could electronically access papers and journals from universities in the US. My head hurt as I tried to understand the beginnings of the internet.

In the early 1990s I was teaching kindergarten. We had stand-alone Apple Macintosh Classics, one in each classroom. We used KidPix to make pictures and Clarisworks for word processing. Soon we were starting to network computers. By this stage I was an IT support teacher in a primary school, helping teachers integrate technology into their classroom practice. In reality, I spent a lot of my time under desks on my knees, plugging and unplugging cables often asking, “Have you tried turning it off and on?”

At the time, technology was beginning to be a big deal in education; many had started to see the possibilities. It was a ‘boast-able’ commodity in school. I can remember attending a computer training workshop and marvelling at the possibility of sending a picture by email. The truth was, there was very little we were doing with the software that made the output any different to pen and paper tasks.

But today, just like electricity goes unnoticed in our day-to-day lives, technology also is equally invisible. We don’t talk about electricity in education do we? When people talk about Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS), they describe it as technologically advanced. Our principal was quick to see the advantages of technology. He was an early adopter of it. But in essence, technology is invisible now. Just like electricity, it’s there, it’s an enabler, it makes the connections work.

Ten years ago technology was a big deal at our school. The Deputy Principal was charged with the task, “To expose, empower and enable staff to make the most of the technological teaching tools available to them and to students.” Networked desktops and computer labs were rolled out across the school. But they were for a purpose, to enable the fledgling learning management system, Moodle, that remains today as our digital learning space. Blue-wired networked desktop computers prevailed, but it was never about the technology.

The remnants of this are still visible in some of our learning spaces at NBCS, the telltale signs are the power points circling the periphery of the room. The computers have always been the means to the end: providing an education for our students that capitalises on the affordances of technology. But I stress, none of this was about the technology itself, simply tools that empower learning.

What is technology? defines it as, “the sum of the ways in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilization.” Less about bells and whistles, more about ‘material objects’ that enable other activities to occur.

As we approach the latter half of the second decade of the 21st Century we need to be less enamoured with the ‘sparkly’ elements of technology. We need to be less impressed by the sales people and more focused on considering present needs, while simultaneously anticipating the future. We need to ask what our students need now, and how can we ensure that we are agile enough to roll with the changes?

The recent ABC series “Revolution School” reinforced this point. A student, struggling with school, wanted to leave at the end of Year 10. Her teachers took a “whatever it takes” attitude for her to complete the work she needed to get done. They just needed one more essay. It was delivered by a series of text messages to the teacher’s phone. The essay was thoughtful and reflective and met all the criteria for the student to succeed. The method of delivery mattered less than the goal of success for the student.

The irony of the description of the advent of electricity is not lost. Like electricity, technology has always been ‘there’, we just needed a way for it to be harnessed and supplied. While our ‘appliances’ are the ways we experience electricity, ‘apps’ seem to perform the same function with technology. Let’s keep perspective, the opportunities that technology brings to our young people and their future are immense.

The power points around the periphery of some of our spaces that were state-of-the-art ten years ago are a physical reminder to me of how important the design of school spaces is. A reminder that how learning is presented and the technology we utilise are continually in a state of flux. Investment decisions are critical. We need to consider adaptability, agility and flexibility. We cannot be lured into thinking that we have ‘arrived’. Our eyes need to be looking at the immediate and also toward the horizon.

Anne Knock

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