One way to know if you really understand something is to try to teach it. Or blog about it. As a non-techie type of educator, I didn’t know how confused I was about ed tech until I attended the EdSurge Fusion Conference 2017 and started writing about my experience. My main point of confusion was the fact that personalized learning, the use of computer software programs that tailor learning to student’s individual preferences and needs, was at times conflated with the desire to teach students skills like coding and robotics to prepare them for the jobs of the future. These two concepts within education technology (or “ed tech”) are actually very different. Personalized learning is consumer-oriented, with students using computer software to learn skills better. Preparing students with so-called “21st-century skills,” however, is about teaching kids the skills to not just use technology but actually create new technology. That’s the difference between learning math and science from a private tutor and using math and science to build tiny fusion rockets to take humans to Mars. Two wildly different educational goals.

Personalized Learning Puts the ‘Ed’ in Ed Tech, But Let’s Acknowledge Its Limits

Perhaps one can say that personalized learning puts the “ed” in “ed tech,” and schools with coding and robotics classes puts the “tech” in this commonly-used and oft-confused phrase. I didn’t hear that distinction being made very often; both concepts were discussed as if they were one in the same. And I was defenseless to stop my toes from curling when I heard people suggesting that personalized learning was going to mitigate the growing workforce crisis in which thousands of highly-skilled tech jobs are going unfilled because the American workforce doesn’t have those skills. Putting my 3-year-old son on ABCMouse.com may help him learn his alphabet sounds better, but that’s a far cry from giving him a technical foundation to one day become the next Steve Jobs.

In Ed Tech, Can A Focus on Futuristic Skills and an Rich Academic Curriculum Co-Exist?

And when I taught third-graders in Chicago Public Schools, I rarely did so in the context of preparing them for work. I mostly wanted them to get along with each other, be able to read at or above grade level, and be able to add single digit numbers without counting their fingers. Maybe I need to change. Maybe I’m one of the teachers in education that conference speakers said need to get with the times and become more forward thinking. After all, it’s well documented that many more of the jobs of the future will require computer skills. Still, [pullquote]I worry about an K-12 educational philosophy that shifts focus away from traditional academic knowledge and moves toward job skill development[/pullquote]—especially in the lower grades. Sure, every student should graduate from high school with enough math, science and technical skills to get an entry-level job or be successful in college. Yet, I’m concerned that an overemphasis on teaching computer skills so that kids can one day join the workforce will narrow the curriculum and distort the definition of an “education.” I, for one, want kids to read Shakespeare and recite Maya Angelou. I want them to debate the philosophies of Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X (or at least know who they were). I want kids to study the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Mayans and the Incas and apply that knowledge to inform them of the royal indigenous heritage of people of color. Kids should be exposed to various forms of art and music. They should do science experiments in fully equipped laboratories. In so doing, they will learn to resolve conflicts and work on team projects—and spend a small, dedicated amount of time on personalized screens. To be clear: I believe that personalized learning is a tool that, with ample funding and coaching, any teacher can realistically employ to help their students learn. But there has to be a way to offer students a rich, well-rounded education that includes technology and personalized learning. I didn’t see the kinds of examples at the conference that would bring that vision home for me. It was a great first EdSurge Fusion Conference, and I’m hopeful that these issues will be addressed more next year! Putting the tech in ed tech could be even more challenging. I fear that the well-intentioned push for 21st-century skills—coding, robotics, software design—could crowd out time for teaching kids about life through history, art, music and literature. When taught well, these academic disciplines can enlighten kids’ assumptions about the human experience and give them the depth of knowledge that causes them to think critically about how the past has shaped our present and challenges us to build a better future. To me, that’s what it means to be educated. Having computer skills and being able to develop new technology may make our students employable, but not necessarily educated. Right now America is plagued with extremely wealthy, highly-employed people who are narcissistic, apathetic and unlearned. This can’t be the new definition of success!

We Need Tech Partners to Put Real ‘Tech’ Training in Schools

I’m struggling to figure out how American teachers—most of whom themselves cannot code a single line of computer language, and many of whom work in schools are so underfunded that don’t even have laptops or certified math or science teachers—will be able carry this heavy ed tech mandate. In school districts like Chicago, where 90 percent of the students live in poverty, much of what was shared at the conference felt like Marie Antoinette saying “let them eat cake.” I walked away still skeptical about the role schools should play in preparing young children for the technological revolution in the job market. I asked myself what responsibility does the technology industry have for developing its own pipeline of workers through education and training? I propose that tech firms like Google, Amazon, Facebook and the like, partner with low-income schools and run technology labs in the building. Let the tech companies fuel their own workforce pipelines by training students, and let non-techie teachers like me learn a thing or two from them, too. Perhaps Benjamin Schrom of Google would agree. Schrom creates virtual reality software for the classroom, yet he stated that being a generalist and having non-technical skills like humility and working well in teams are the qualities that describe the most productive employees at Google. This is how he closed his panel discussion entitled, “Artificial intelligence: Creative Future or Chaos”:
In terms of how a school might wrestle with technology…you don’t want technology to begat more technology, which happens often. It comes back to this point: what technology should do when it’s working is to make more space to not use technology. So the critical conversation is how do we use technology to create less space for technology and more time for things that aren’t technological? And then what do you want to do with that time, that space? That can be a hard place to get to because so much about technology is conceptually about employment, but it really is a tool for figuring out the purposes of education.
So there you have it. When it comes to the “ed tech” debate, I’m willing to use personalized learning to help students get better at the “ed,” but someone way more skilled than me is going to have to provide students with the kind of “tech” that the job market demands.