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Educational technology as the SkyMall catalog

If you’re like me, when you travel by air, you invariably pick up and read through the Skymall catalog with great interest. I find it fascinating. Mostly, though, I find myself repeatedly thinking and/or saying, “What problem does that solve?

In other words, for most of the products I see in that catalog, I cannot imagine why they were ever invented. They’re clearly targeted at consumers with disposable income, because nobody else could possibly think that they NEED to have the product. Consider, for example, these remote control-operated flickering LED candles. As of the writing of this post, they were the featured product in the “Home Living” category of the online catalog. “A click of the remote turns all 8 Flickering LED Candles on or off at once.” Well, hallelujah! I’ve been struggling for years with that whole candle turning off problem…

Yesterday, many of the folks I follow on Twitter shared the following video

North Point\’s iBand

I suppose there’s something “neat” or “slick” about an iBand, but I couldn’t help noticing the guy who was effectively playing a tambourine using a ~$600 gadget. Furthermore, I asked myself if this band was doing something that was not possible without their iPads. Playing instruments on the iPad… what problem does that solve?

Unfortunately, I have this same (or a similar) response to much of what I see touted within the educational technology community. I see technology applied in ways that are not novel and/or that don’t add value to the learning process. In fact, I’ve been fairly vocal in my opposition to iPads as computing devices for students. I’m not entirely opposed to them. For example, if the touch screen interface affords particular learning opportunities for students with disabilities, and those affordances justify the costs, go for it. But, as currently configured, iPads are NOT real computing devices and don’t add value beyond what’s possible for the same amount of resources.

On the flip side, consider students writing in blogging platforms or in Google Docs. These writing spaces are digital and digital IS different. Instead of just simple text, students can now fairly easily compose multimedia narratives. Also, the writing process can be much more collaborative, in a real-time sense. ┬áHypertext replaces footnotes… etc. There are significant problems “solved” by moving writing to digital spaces. Or, more accurately, there are tremendous affordances to writing online as opposed to on paper or even in a word processor.

Thus, I hope that as educators consider integrating new technologies into the learning process they ask themselves questions about the value proposition the technologies bring to the table. Are you really addressing a problem or are you doing it just because you can?

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