What is the appropriate role of wireless technology in schools?  When we look at the history of technology implementations in schools, we see any number of failures that have led to cynicism regarding technology on the part of educators, a tendency to roll one’s eyes and wait for the “silver bullet du jour” to pass.  In my opinion, the reason for the “failures” lies in a mismatch of capabilities and expectations, in a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of schooling, the role of teachers, and the capacities of students.

My opinions have been shaped by my decades of experience as a high-tech executive leader.  I have had the good fortune to work in a field (wireless communications) as it was emerging, with world-class experts defining its future from the offices down the hall.  I was able to participate in a functional learning organization in the sense that Peter Senge describes, where new knowledge, explicit and tacit, is constantly being created, shared, and revised.  I saw experts applying their talent to real and challenging problems, reflecting on their work, thinking deeply in privacy and discussing and collaborating in group settings.  I saw a participative community that included all levels, from expert to apprentice, building and learning together.

I have also seen corporate environments across our industry where learning is equated with training.  Where employees wait for pre-digested tasks to be assigned to them and they perform the same rote work year after year.  Productivity is incentivized by the very extrinsic rewards (and/or punishments) that have been shown in current research to reduce motivation and decrease performance (see Daniel Pink’s Drive for a discussion of this phenomenon) and employees are evaluated by a set of metrics that are often divorced from authentic accomplishment or contribution.

Finally, I’ve had the opportunity to create and run a separate organization within a corporate environment which supported the intrinsic motivations of individual employees, recognized and rewarded a diverse array of authentic contributions, and produced results that were greater as a whole than the individual parts.  From this experience, I learned that not only did our collective productivity increase as individual autonomy increased, but our overall engagement, enjoyment of our work, and ownership of our individual and collective goals increased as well.  We worked harder and enjoyed it more and we were constantly learning, as individuals and as an organization, and raising the bar on what we expected from ourselves.  This ongoing learning, this increased mastery, and the consequent increased autonomy made our workplace joyful.

Yet, the shift to this culture was difficult for many people.  There were some that were, to my way of thinking, ruined by their educational experiences.  These were the employees that believed that they would be graded better by their managers if they came up with the right answer that the manager wanted without cheating by asking others for help.  In reality, those employees were valued more by their teams when they came up with thoughtful alternatives and trade-offs that improved individual and team decision-making using good judgment about how to optimize their time between individual work and getting help from those with useful perspectives.   I came to question the capacity of schooling to prepare students for what I considered the essential skills and dispositions of modern work.

As I began investigating the role of wireless technology in education, I found much in education science that validated my skepticism, and serendipitously found a rich body of work to learn from and apply to the evolution of my organization.   I came to believe that education and industry had much to learn from each other – that industry could learn from education science about how individuals learn and grow, and that education could learn from industry about how functional learning communities and communities of practice can empower professional educators.

One of the fallacies that has stunted education, life, and work is the metaphor of school as a factory, churning out citizens ready for work.  If we consider the role of schooling to be preparing students for work that involve passively waiting for directions and for passive citizenship, then schools must teach compliance and educators must teach rote performance.  If corporate organizations are machines and schools are factories and students are cogs that either pass or fail quality tests, then constant testing with inauthentic metrics not only weed out the bad parts but prepare students for a career of extrinsic motivators.  And under this metaphor, we would expect that computers could replace teachers – they are excellent at distributing content and performing low-fidelity assessment.  But these very assumptions and metaphors are what education science tells us is wrong with much education reform and educational use of technology.  If they were correct, we could expect that previous attempts to “solve education” with technology would have succeeded.

In my opinion (your mileage may vary) the role of schooling (somewhat parallel to the role of leaders in the workplace) is to develop the talents of each individual student; to nurture their independence, creativity, and problem solving; to foster their joy of learning; to support them in gaining the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to apply what civilization and culture have to offer (science, art, mathematics, history, literature, etc.) to new interests, challenges, and problems and to contribute, as active citizens, within the communities of their choice. And although schools as institutions seem almost deliberately designed to do the opposite, our schools are full of individual teachers who, every day, strive to achieve these goals for each of their numerous students.  These teachers face obstacles ranging from having too many students to be able to provide the personal attention necessary to each student, to being isolated in their profession without a community within which to hone their practice.

Here, to my way of thinking, lies the appropriate role of technology, particularly wireless technology.  Personal, connected devices, in effect, remove many of the obstacles to professional educators teaching in the way that they wish they could.  They also lower the barriers to educators who are seeking other like-minded professionals with whom to discuss their practice by extending the pool of colleagues beyond the particular building in which they work.  Technology is a tool that amplifies the work of teachers and learners – excellent educators use the tools to scale the depth and breadth of their work within classrooms, while poor educators fail in the same ways with technology as without it.

My belief is that with few exceptions, our educators are professionals, and given the tools to make it possible, they naturally shift their classrooms to more authentic learning, to a culture of student ownership of their own learning with teachers as guides and coaches, and to a collaborative culture where students develop a true learning community.  I also believe that this shift will occur differently depending on the specific students, educators, buildings, and communities involved, that it is the art and science of professional educators to create this learning environment in a given classroom at a given time.

Similarly, I believe it the art and science of principals to develop communities of practice within their buildings where the individual teachers daily talk about their students and their work, reflect on their practice, and collectively raise the bar regarding what they expect from themselves.  I believe that this occurs by recognizing the contributions of each educator to developing students as independent learners and agents and to improving the collective community of practice both within the building and within each educator’s extended personal learning network.

Given the right tools, and the freedom to use them, I believe in the capacity of teachers and learners to evolve vibrant learning communities that blur the boundaries of formal and informal learning.   I believe in the capacity of educators to evolve effective communities of practice within their building and, virtually, with educators across the globe.  I believe in the capacity of students to take ownership of their learning and use the resources of schooling to achieve their academic goals.  The appropriate role of wireless edtech is to serve teachers and learners in these endeavors, removing obstacles and lowering barriers to effective formal and informal education.

Within the context and support provided by such communities I believe in the short-term potential of content delivery applications to be useful, if limited, tools for personalizing learning and hope they will someday evolve into apps that support students in making and doing and constructing together rather than individually and passively receiving information.  And yet I fear for the viability of this fragile vision in the face of the overwhelming momentum of the school-as-factory metaphor.

The school-as-factory metaphor demands high yields as part of the current accountability frenzy.  This means higher test scores for more students, even though those test scores measure only the smallest part of what I, for one, value in my children’s education.  Worse, in a tacit subscription to the work-as-machine metaphor, we as a society support the fallacy of extrinsic motivators, using the already flawed student test data as metrics to perform quality control on educators and to attempt to motivate them with rewards for test scores.  The multiple variations on this theme seem logical within the framework of these metaphors but ignore both the research on human motivation and any authentic measures of achievement and meaningful work.  In short, they lack respect for the profession of educator and for authentic learning and teaching.

Within the metaphors of school-as-factory and work-as-machine, the arguments that test scores drive accountability makes sense.  Since most of us were schooled in factories and work in machines we are unlikely to detect the fallacies in the argument – the way intrinsic and extrinsic motivators work are counter-intuitive to us.  Since the valuable work of educators in nurturing student’s creativity, passion, and initiative is invisible through the lens of test scores, those who are most effective in those areas are likely to either be dismissed or discouraged, leaving not only their classrooms the poorer but costing the hoped-for communities of professional practice one more valuable contributor.

How will we use technology in schools?  I fear we will use it to more efficiently deliver content to passive learners and to assess them against rote skills and facts.  I fear we will use it to more efficiently rank educators as cogs in an impersonal institution. And it often seems that the things I hear and read reinforce and validate these fears.  And still, the things I personally see do not.

I see classrooms and schools that combine personal devices with the freedom to experiment and find more authentic ways of teaching and learning.  I see educators who experience teaching with personal technology and who insist they can never go back to teaching the way they did before.  I see students who explore informal learning through whatever technology is available to them.  I see the potential for personal learning enabled by technology tools to essentially “go viral” in a society that is hungry for education that makes sense to our personal goals.  Despite my fears, I am optimistic that through the work of individual educators, schools, districts, and states, we will see the appropriate role of wireless educational technologies emerge.