Every Tech Tool in the Classroom Should Be Ruthlessly Evaluated

Educational technology in schools is sometimes described as a wicked problem — a term coined by a design and planning professor, Horst Rittel, in the 1960s, meaning a problem for which even defining the scope of the dilemma is a struggle, because it has so many interconnected parts that never stop moving.

When you have a wicked problem, solutions have to be holistic, flexible and developmentally appropriate. Which is to say that appropriate tech use for elementary schoolers in rural Oklahoma isn’t going to be the same as appropriate tech use in a Chicago high school.

I spent the past few weeks speaking with parents, teachers, public school administrators and academics who study educational technology. And while there are certainly benefits to using tech as a classroom tool, I’m convinced that when it comes to the proliferation of tech in K-12 education, we need “a hard reset,” as Julia Freeland Fisher of the Christensen Institute put it, concurring with Jonathan Haidt in his call for rolling back the “phone-based childhood.” When we recently spoke, Fisher stressed that when we weigh the benefits of ed tech, we’re often not asking, “What’s happening when it comes to connectedness and well-being?”

Well said. We need a complete rethink of the ways that we’re evaluating and using tech in classrooms; the overall change that I want to see is that tech use in schools — devices and apps — should be driven by educators, not tech companies.

In recent years, tech companies have provided their products to schools either free or cheap, and then schools have tried to figure out how to use those products. Wherever that dynamic exists, it should be reversed: Districts and individual schools should first figure out what tech would be most useful to their students, and their bar for “useful” should be set by available data and teacher experience. Only then should they acquire laptops, tablets and educational software.

As Mesut Duran — a professor of educational technology at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, and the author of “Learning Technologies: Research, Trends and Issues in the U.S. Education System” — told me, a lot of the technology that’s used in classrooms wasn’t developed with students in mind. “Most of the technologies are initially created for commercial purposes,” he said, “and then we decide how to use them in schools.”

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