Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tools, Schmools

Last week, I stumbled upon an on-line discussion about classroom Digital Storytellling. For me, it couldn’t get any better! I mean here were teachers who were going to be sharing strategies for writing, developing character, ways to mine for stories, using figurative language, discussing shot duration, panning, transitions, soundtrack, voice inflection…the nuts and bolts for developing Point, Dramatic Question, and Emotional content. Instead, here’s what I found:

What Digital Storytelling program do you use?

What followed was a software discussion, comparing the benefits of iMovie, PhotoStory, Pinnacle Studio, and Adobe Premier. There was even a plug for Animoto (yikes) Needless to say, my heart sank. As I thought more, I realized that this situation happens over and over among ed tech people; the discussion of tools often outweighs that of learning.

It happens elsewhere too. Mac and PC users argue about platforms, and everyone wants to use the newest Web 2.0 tools out there. We can show students that blogs, wikis, RSS feeds exist, and how to use them, but unless these tools support some fundamental literacy, it’s all just a hi-tech smokescreen. Joe Lambert refers to high-tech flashiness to compensate for a lack of substance as “Digital Spectacle” (See Animoto). Unfortunately, we do get caught up with the seduction of the tools.

After a presentation last month, a teacher approached me asked me, “Jon, which works better for kids to create, blogs, wikis, or web pages?” I didn’t know how to answer her. So I thought, and asked her back, “What do you want your students to do?” The point is this: a plumber doesn’t prefer her pipe wrench over her power-rodder. She uses each of these tools when she needs them. Blogs and wikis each are great tools if used to extend the learning of a fundamental literacy, and are rooted in sound educational pedagogy.

We do have some great examples of technology used for learning in our school (and probably yours too!) Several teachers use individual student blogs as a means to enable constant feedback on papers from the teacher and peers, promoting extensive revision. Another teacher uses wikis as a place for students to prepare and share collaborative research findings, and, in turn, devise student-generated assessments that their peers use as final tests. Our library has created a “Reader’s Advisory” wiki to enable students to share opinions on books they’ve read. Junior English teachers use custom RSS feeds for students to have time-sensitive articles delivered to their front door to enhance research on their advocacy projects. And of course, we have the myriad applications of student-generated movies ranging from pure Digital Story to documentary, to public service announcements. The difference with all of these applications is that the technology supports the goal, not vice versa.

The bottom line is this: it isn’t about the tools, it’s about skill building and learning. Purchasing the finest set of power tools would not compensate for my gross ineptitude at carpentry. The same holds true for the thousands, yes thousands, of free, inexpensive, and, even costly tools available for educators (and students). Unless these tools are utilized appropriately to extend learning, they are worthless.

Don’t get me wrong, in the hands of a master, web 2.0 tools and other applications can bring about superior results. I can catch many more walleyes using a sensitive (and expensive) graphite rod than I can with a bargain-basement fiberglass one. Then again, I am much better at walleye fishing than I am at carpentry. The same holds true for the master educator who embraces and uses the tools appropriately.