About Useless Gadgets

This article appeared in my Zite news feed this morning.  “Schools ‘wasting £450m a year’ on useless gadgets“.

Those of us whose job it was involved acquiring technology and helping classroom teachers use technology effectively live in dread of titles like that.  The really offensive term to me was “useless gadgets”.  For as long as I’ve been using technology in education, I’ve used just a whack of gadgets.  I wonder — what makes a gadget useless?

Reading the article from the Telegraph, they specifically identify tablet computers, computer software, and electronic whiteboards.  I  kept reading to see if the author actually would explain why the gadgets were labelled as “useless”.

I’ve certainly been involved with computer software all my career, even serving terms on the Ontario Software Acquisition Program Software Committee.  In that role, I’ve worked with many teachers helping them understand the functionality of the software and where it fits into the Ontario Curriculum.  The OSAPAC Committee, in fact, has a sub-group whose job it is to identify Curriculum Connections so that teachers using the software could get a sense of where it fits into the big scheme of things.  Within my own district, I was part of a team that rolled out IWBs to the system.  In our case, I had the eyes, ears, and candor of a group of Computers in Education School Contacts, a small but dynamic team of Early Years Literacy teachers, and a spectacular teacher-librarian who got the original SMART Board, nicknamed it “Big Bertha” and used it to raise her library program to a new level.  Even today, these leaders work with their colleagues to ensure ongoing implementation success.

Any time I talk about technology, one of the things I stress is that technology does allow us to do things differently but more importantly, it allows us to do different things.  In my mind, that’s the ultimate promise of technology and why we spend so much money, time, and should devote a significant effort in acquisition decisions and implementation once the technology has been purchased.

The article, in particular, takes some pretty tough shots at the implementation of tablet technology.  But, as I sit back and think, the one piece that’s missing in all of the scenarios that are described is the lack of support for teachers as they try to use them.  I can speak with confidence that the job of a teacher is absolutely jam-packed.  From knowing the curriculum, to differentiating for student success, to assessment and evaluation, to a changing curriculum in a changing world, to pressure from administration to raise test scores, to dealing with individual students’ social issues.  The absolute last thing, and probably the dumbest educational move, is to buy a bunch of technology and drop it off expecting it to perform all of the promised results.  It’s a formula for failure.

And yet, the article would have you believe that the technology is useless and that teachers are somehow pulled in to using it.  There is no mention at all about how much support was given or whether there’s an implementation plan or just who a teacher is to turn to for answers to questions.

I wish that the article had dug deeper.  I think more details about the actual implementation plan are needed before any piece of technology can be labelled “useless”.

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3 thoughts on “About Useless Gadgets

  1. I like to think that some apparently mindless articles like the one you described are put there to make the readers think and react, hopefully, with thoughtful responses like yours. I can add one more thing to the technology discussion: it all flows much better when we keep the learning, specifically the curriculum outcomes, foremost. The question then becomes, “How can the students best achieve this.” This means that the answer requires us to look for the best affordable technology to get the job done. Yes, tablets are quite often candidates; with their affordability, durability and just plain usability they will, in all likelihood, become the ‘Swiss army knife’ of the coming decade (if you are interested I put a piece on my own blog a few weeks back on tablets et al) but we should also be mindful of others: digital interfaces for phys/chem labs, ordinary musical instruments for music, PCs or laptops for writing and 3-d design, IWBs for presentations, smart phones for social networking and basic reference, traditional sports and lab equipment and, yes, tables with paper and pen/pencil for think-pair-share and other activities. Perhaps the best advice for all of us is to keep the lines of communication open between us all, to the extent that we can because, as I see it, the best that has come out of modern electronic ICT is that it has connected us all and helped is to take a better, collective, look at this fine old enterprise we call Education.


  2. Thank you for the reply, Maurice. You are absolutely correct in your final assertion that we need to keep communications open – share what works and share what doesn’t so that we ultimately zero in on the best possibile implementation.

    As for tablets as the Swiss Army Knife, that’s an interesting description. My jury is out on that; I’m also intrigued by items like the Chromebook. I really like my iPad and have used it for so much but I still find that I think better and construct better with a traditional laptop. I’m not sure enough, at this point, to indicate that this is a final solution or just a limitation of my thinking and physiological preferences. The one thing that can be sure is that the future is highly unlikely going to be centred around the traditional desktop.

    Now, I’m off to see if I can track down your tablet post. You’ve got me interested.


  3. Pingback: About Useless Gadgets from Doug off the record | Innovations in e-Learning | Scoop.it

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