Lead With Learning: Why Purpose Can Save Educational Technology

Published July 17, 2015

Shawn Mahoney

Dr. Shawn Mahoney, Chief Academic Officer, McGraw-Hill Education, School Group

Imagine new parents in any country around the world, holding their child for the first time. What do you think they wish more than anything for the child? I imagine it’s likely health, a better future, and the opportunity to reach their full potential. I doubt they are wishing for adaptivity, personalization, and efficacy.

In other words, adaptivity, personalization, and efficacy may all be important constructs to us as educators. Yet it is “why” we are concerned with these concepts that have the greatest potential to impact learning. Too often in education we become distracted by the academic—the labels on the policies and products. We get distracted by buzzwords we hear in the background as we diligently prepare for spring testing or to implement a new protocol for IEPs or to select the devices for our digital conversion.

Adaptivity, personalization, and efficacy are at risk of becoming buzzwords. The context for how these concepts are actualized matters.

This editorial is a moment—a deep breath between class periods or board meetings, so to speak, where we can remind ourselves that the terms and the buzzwords are not the thing. Adaptivity, personalization, and efficacy are not the thing. They are a means to an end.

That’s why I am writing to you about the “why” behind the “what.” Our purpose in education is aspirational. The word itself has roots in Latin, meaning to lead out. The aim of education is to help individuals reach their full potential. Education is a passport to a better future—a key to unlock personal choice.

In an age where technology, policy, culture, and knowledge meet, it is our job to put them into context in a holistic system to support the potential of every learner. Technology in and of itself isn’t the thing. Purposeful technology is.

We must remember why we do the work. Technology is when students click around in a science simulation just because we can build it digitally. Purposeful technology is when students are immersed in an augmented environment that allows them to create hypotheses about why the fish are dying in a contaminated pond and then allows them to test their hypotheses using variables in the system.

The entire context for a learning ecosystem must be flexible as no two learners or educators have the exact same set of needs. Our ecosystems must lead with the learning. Learning science in service of the art of teaching is the aim. The nature of learning and the nexus with technology, especially educational technology, have been the topics of consideration for decades. In fact, the quotation below is from Lister Sinclair in 1975, who at the time was the VP of Program Policy and Development at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

A tide of youth is rising, a generation, waiting, counting on us. They arrived at a decision moment in human history. They must learn more, learn better, and learn faster than ever before. They are faced with a sea of information that modern life demands. They must master it or drown. Much of what they are now being taught is obsolete and much of what they will need to know has not yet been discovered. They must continue to learn until the end of their days. In a scientific and technological age, education is the key to strength.

Mr. Sinclair had it right. Education is the key to strength. And technology is a tool that can help us master the sea of information and demands—when the technology is purposeful.

Yet, why is it then that technology often feels like it is another burden? Remember the myth of Sisyphus, the poor guy condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll down again. Technology often feels like the boulder, another something that we must push up the hill indefinitely—another device upgrade just as we are getting used to our old tool, another operating system update just as we got used to the existing user interface, a system crash just before we saved. Technology can feel like the boulder.

What if we took back control and reframed the myth? Maybe technology is the boulder, but purposeful technology is the force that enables us to move smoothly with less effort. Purposeful technology should feel like the right tool, at the right time, for the right purpose.

Do you have technology, or do you have purposeful technology? Does your technology feel like the boulder, or does it feel like technology is enabling you to go farther and faster with ease?

Let’s be clear about the boulders. Buzzwords are boulders. Adaptivity can be a boulder. Adaptivity is only meaningful when we recognize it’s a means to an end—a tool that at its best creates responsiveness. Imagine: A third-grader struggling with multiplying fractions gets the help she needs at just the right time. This is purposeful technology.

Personalization is only meaningful when we recognize it, too, is a means to an end—a mechanism for engagement that leads one as a learner to a new or changed sense of self, enhancing one’s capacity to persist in the face of challenge. Imagine: A 16-year-old in a dropout prevention program has a key learning moment in his online Algebra I course that gives him the knowledge and confidence to push forward and obtain his diploma. This is purposeful technology.

Efficacy is an important aim in and of itself. And yet it is also inextricably linked to a higher purpose. Efficacy is about outcomes—the learning that transpires as part of a carefully designed and executed experience. And it is also about self-efficacy—the belief in one’s ability to learn.

Efficacy is a practice that importantly allows educators to attend to the progress of learners over time—can my first-graders read sight words? And efficacy is also about the affective elements of learning—our ability to succeed in specific situations—our fundamental belief in ourselves; our capacity to grow, change, and move from novice to master. Do my first-graders view themselves as readers and writers in their digital portfolio, showing me they are seeing themselves as learners? This is purposeful technology.

Adaptivity is about responsiveness. Personalization is about an experience that motivates you to engage and persist toward your individual goals. Efficacy is about outcomes and self-efficacy. These ideas should not just be buzzwords. These constructs are both the drivers and the manifestations of purposeful technology, not just boulders piling up on our implementation plan.

Imagine again what those new parents want for their child, what you want for your child, for the next generation, or even for yourself…

Why you want these things—these dimensions of life—is the context that gives meaning to the specific. The context for adaptivity, personalization, and efficacy matters. The context and design are the differences between whether you feel like you are implementing boulders or rolling down the hill.

Let’s use this brief pause to commit to one another: We will always ask the question, “Why does this matter?” We will ask ourselves if our technology feels like the boulder or the hill. We will make astute choices and let our actions be guided by a vigilant commitment to the “why” behind the “what” that gets us out from behind the boulder and using gravity to our advantage.

The learning context has everything to do with whether or not technology is an enabler or an obstacle. The learning context must drive the thoughtful implementation of purposeful technology.