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Broadening the impact of technology

Are single-lane technologies worth the investment?

The New Media Consortium (NMC), together with the Consortium for School Networking (COSN), released its annual K12 Horizon Report, which can be very useful for educators contemplating how much they have accomplished or where to go next with their technology initiative. The full report can be accessed here.Although the 2015 K12 Horizon report largely speaks for itself, in this piece I will offer a bit of translation, along with a new twist for thinking about this venerable report. With full disclosure, I served as one of more than 50 panelists who developed this report over many months. I believe I can add beneficial nuance to the findings, from an inside perspective.  

Technology challenges facing schools

The 2015 Horizon Report devotes considerable space to identifying some of the stubborn obstacles facing K12 technology efforts. These obstacles are divided into three categories: Solvable (those we understand and know how to solve); Difficult (those we understand, but any solution remains complex); and Wicked (those that are exceedingly difficult to define, let alone solve).

When reviewing the K12 Horizon Report, it is always heartening to see a trend or development come across the radar that validates one of your existing technology initiatives. It is also insightful to see a yet untraveled pathway beckoning us, crying out for our future technology investment.

But do you ever feel that the technology journey is so daunting? That the sheer number of technology choices or lanes is overwhelming? If so, there’s hope. You see, sometimes a single technology can have a broader impact, cover a richer swathe of learning experiences, than we think. In this way, an innovative technology can pack a bigger instructional punch than we originally imagine.  

Here’s just one example. One technology drawing consistent crowds at educational conferences for the last three years is the zSpace STEM Lab.  zSpace is a Silicon Valley company offering what I call “a near-holographic hardware platform,” one which really turns heads. This last year, the zSpace STEM Lab earned best of show award at the huge ISTE ed-tech conference in Philadelphia. The zSpace STEM Lab is a unique visualization technology, but more importantly, it demonstrates how a single technology can exemplify many of the possibilities found in the Horizon Report:

  • Authentic Learning. Educators frequently lament that so many learning experiences are purely academic, removed from any reasonable applicability to life. When learning takes on the appearance of a real workplace challenge, we call it an ‘authentic’ learning experience. “6th grade is using zSpace Franklin’s Lab,” says Joyce Barry, Chairperson of Science, Research and Technology at the Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District, “to introduce our students to basic operation and design of electrical boards. Then they go back into the tech shops and design their own electricity boards, returning again to their design stations to create their electricity boards.” She adds: “This is something that we would never been able to afford or be able to let them do for safety reasons.”
  • Collaborative learning approaches. The growing phenomenon of collaborative learning in classrooms is now conspicuous. In most zSpace STEM Labs, I have noticed that students are paired together to work on and solve unique and authentic learning challenges.
  • STEAM learning. STEAM refers to science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. It speaks to the workforce needs of modern society. As a result, STEAM initiatives are really gaining traction in U.S. and international schools. Now, imagine a tool that combines each of the elements of STEAM in one learning experience. To me, that’s another way to go outside the single lane trap.
  • Shifting students from consumers to creators. More and more, teachers are shifting their thinking away from students as consumers of technology. Instead, educators value students being able to produce with technology. In recent exhibit hall walkthroughs at educational conferences, I notice that almost every product is focused on pouring information into the minds of empty-vessel students, using the technology du jour. It truly strikes me as anachronistic. Actually, it’s the pathway to extinction, because more and more educators are making the shift to “students as creators” with technology. The design, construction, hypothesis-testing, and hand-on emphasis of the zSpace STEM Lab appears to support this transition well.
  • Deeper Learning and MakerSpaces. The shift to deeper learning signals that it’s time to move beyond the typical low-lying fruit of recall, memorization, and motivation. Motivation is a nice contributing outcome, but we need deeper and more results-oriented learning.  Students need to design, to build, to explore, to do, to enact, and to perform their learning. This is something that’s easily done with great visualization and design tools like zSpace, which is a ‘maker’ technology by design.
  • Rethinking the Roles of Teachers. According to the Horizon Report, “teachers simply cannot take on the same roles they have traditionally held as lecturers and information dispensers.” The Report adds: “This …underscores the need for teachers to rethink their pedagogies and curriculum in ways that enable students to customize their own paths.” See this video for an example of a successful Los Altos School District pilot project that is changing the role of the teacher.
  • 3D Printing. This video for an example of zSpace embedded within a 3D printing and design ecosystem.  
  • Complex Thinking. According to the Horizon Report, the term “complex thinking” refers to the ability to understand complexity, a skill that is needed to comprehend how systems work ...” The Report tells us: “Another key skill of complex thinking is the ability for students to make complex ideas understandable, using data visualization, media, and other communications techniques.” Visual technologies like zSpace help make this possible for educators.  

I’d like to end this article with some key questions. What technologies are you using? Do you find your current efforts consistent with the vision of the future evidenced by the K12 Horizon report? Can the technologies you pursue have a broader impact than you originally imagined? Do you have to stay in one lane with your technology? Are single-lane technologies worth the investment? What’s in your pocket?

—Len Scrogan is  a past teacher, principal, and technology director and currently a Digital Learning Architect at the University of Colorado-Denver.