Anyone remember New Coke or Crystal Pepsi? Or maybe Windows 8? Anyone still listening to music on a Microsoft Zune player? What do all of these failures have in common? Despite much anticipation, marketing, and consumer research, these products were all failures. So, why do we always feel the need to improve items and ideas that are already working well? This question has been asked too many times to count. Sometimes, there is a legitimate reason to introduce a newer device or an actual improvement. The original iPod for example, eventually led us to today’s iPhone. Many times however, too much emphasis is placed on the “what” without thinking about the “why.”
This principle is definitely true in education. Fifteen years ago, schools were just beginning to consider a seemingly amazing device called the “Smart Board.” The devices changed the standard chalk board into a fully interactive and touch screen collaborative device. These Smart Board devices were not cheap. The average cost per unit started at $6,000. Yet, despite this hefty price tag, schools quickly adopted this new technology as a standard classroom fixture. In fact, some countries including the UK have provided government funding to place Smart Board devices into every classroom. This idea sounds amazing, but of course there is a catch. Using a Smart Board device properly requires training and guidance that many schools have not provided. Fast forward to today, fifteen years later and many of the Smart Board devices are just being used as standard projectors. Now, keep in mind that a classroom projector costs today around $600, not $6,000. Let’s also not forget that touch screen computers are no longer considered to be an advanced technology. Most students who purchase new computers today are buying touch screen enabled machines. Many teachers have even requested that the Smart Board devices be placed on the sides of the classroom so that they do not lose their traditional whiteboard space. When you think about a school with 25 classrooms, this is a lot of money that could perhaps be used for other purposes. Did these devices really need to be placed in every classroom? Were they an improvement over the old way?
Sometimes the educational world is caught up in the new “buzz words” of the generation. When I began working as an educational technology director for a school in Baltimore, students would regularly prepare certain materials at home or in groups, and would then be expected to come to class ready to present or discuss their assigned work. To me, this always sounded like good education. Sitting through a 45-minute frontal class lecture can take its toll, even on the most motivated students. By having students preparing some of the content, the teacher was making the students active participants in the lesson, rather than passive attendees. Fast forward 10-15 years and the idea of the “flipped classroom” seems to have taken educators by storm. Millions have been spent on developing online “flipped” materials designed to enable students to do more independent work. I am all for content development, but the “flipped classroom” idea has been going on for ages. In fact, anyone who has spent time in a Bet Midrash/learning study hall knows that this is how Jews have been learning since the beginning of time. The first part of the day is generally spent with a chavruta/partner preparing assigned materials. Only after several hours of preparation do the students and teacher come together to review and discuss the assigned content. This sounds like the “flipped classroom” model to me. Perhaps, teachers just need a bit more training to use the model properly. Again though, while the new tools may create more “flipped classroom” options, the idea has been around for centuries.
Another “buzz word” that has become popular during the past few years is “digital literacy.” The idea itself is very important. With the increase in technology use, students should be taught how to use the available technology in a safe, yet productive manner. This is extremely important for all students, and it is something that I have personally helped many schools to implement for both teachers and students. Often however, with new available technology, much of the educational aspects of “digital literacy” have been replaced with monitoring tools and firewalls. While safety tools are important, the training and educational aspects are often underemphasized. Recently, I gave an Internet safety session to a group of 10th grade students at what is considered to be a strong private school. The school has high academic standards, and technology is used in almost all subjects. The school asked me to speak to the students to ensure that everyone was using technology safely. When I spoke with the students, I asked them how much training in safe computer use they had received since 6th grade. Most of the students admitted that other than an occasional assembly every other year, no one had reviewed proper Internet safety or best practices with them. The students told me that they were just told not to post private information, but beyond that general statement, they were never told or shown how to use technology properly.
In today’s world with virtually everyone using some type of social media platform, and access to multiple Internet enabled devices, “digital literacy” needs to be more than telling our students not to publish private information. When our children turn 17, we do not just hand them the keys to our cars and tell them to figure out how to drive. “Digital literacy” is more than automated firewalls and Internet filters. When the Internet became available for all students, I remember that “digital literacy” was actually a part of the curriculum for many schools. I actually found an old text book on my shelf, published by Pearson, that was designed for a course in computer literacy. The copyright date of the book is 2001. According to Pearson and Amazon, there are no more recent editions. Let’s think about this for a moment. Our kids are walking around with more technology and more capabilities. Shouldn’t this book have been updated, not discontinued? Even after all of the technology advancements, the “old way” still seems important.
Of course, new technology advancements and ideas are a central part of today’s world. New equipment and principles are important and have enabled us to perform tasks that would have been unimaginable a few short years ago. Our students now have access to amazing new learning resources that are designed to provide them with more opportunities for success. Sometimes though, we need to look more closely at where we are placing our resources and attention. I have a good friend who pre-orders the new iPhone models so that he can be the first to have the new versions. I have asked my friend several times why he does this. He pays a fortune for devices that have not even been proven to be better than the previous options. This need is just part of his personality. Sometimes though, newer does not always equal better. Unfortunately by the time we often realize this, we have already wasted countless dollars and resources to discover that we should have stuck with what was already working well. Sometimes “reinventing the wheel” is just not necessary. New ideas are great, but make sure that the they actually represent an improvement before making the commitment.