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Another question to ask about new technologies

March 7, 2008, 11:34 am

In this post, I put forth three questions that are good for creating a little objective distance between you and that shiny new technology you saw at the conference are MUST HAVE in your classroom. On the plane to San Antonio, I was thumbing through the SkyMall catalog and found another question to add in to that mix. It was inspired by this:

playset.jpg

This is the “Learning Tower and Playset”. As you can see, it’s intended for kids to climb, so they can get up and see what’s happening on a table or countertop that’s normally too high for them. It also doubles as a playset; the platform that the child stands on can be removed and the kid can get inside it, and there are accessories that come with it so the child can use it as a puppet show theater or a make-believe drive-through window.

This product, like the technology we teachers use and think about using, does solve certain problems. My kids love to get up on a chair or stool and watch me cook and sometimes help me cook. But chairs and stools can be unstable, especially given that kids tend to lean over when they are looking at or reaching for stuff on a countertop. Both of my girls have fallen off whatever they were standing on for this very reason. So the Learning Tower solves the problem by giving the child a stable platform with a big base and a sort of enclosure at the top to prevent the child from falling off.

But this product also creates problems as well. The base of this thing is two feet square. That doesn’t sound very big, but that is an enormous chunk of real estate in my kitchen. Even the stepstool that L often uses, which is maybe 12 inches by 10 inches, seems to get under my feet at the worst possible moment all the time. I can’t imagine putting a playset in the kitchen.

So that’s the fourth question to ask when evaluating new technology:

  • What problems does this technology create?

And rest assured, every technology creates problems. Take something like Maple, for instance. It’s a hugely useful tool that solves many problems for math students and mathematicians. But it also creates problems. We have to train students, and ourselves, to use it. We have to put up with network installs that never seem to work. We have to think about where the money is coming from to pay for it and maintain our license. And so on. Even the computer itself creates problems, not the least of which is the environmental problem created when the computer is manufactured.

So it seems that to evaluate a new technology, you have to look at a sum balance given by the usefulness of the technology in solving an existing problem, minus the redundancy that technology has with other existing technologies AND the minus the extent to which the technology creates new problems. You’ll never have a problem-free technology, so the question is whether, on balance, the technology solves more problems than it creates is really the key.

I might corner one of the exhibitors here at the ICTCM and ask her/him all four of those questions; a vendor who gives a straight answer to the fourth question might well be worth doing business with.

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