It’s September already, so I’m trying to figure out where the summer has gone and have begun dreading the coming snow. It’s also time for my annual “Back to School” column. This year, we begin with some video watching…

  • If you’re primarily interested in higher education, watch this video
  • If you’re primarily interested in K-12 education, watch this video

Of course, you can watch them both, but the themes are similar.

Both videos imply a 20th (or 19th) century education model for dealing with 21st century challenges and opportunities. Everything from class size to irrelevant curriculum, from lack of involvement to ineffective teaching, all seem to point to an education system that at best is treading water and at worst is falling behind the rest of the world (as several studies, like this one, point out).

Technology to the rescue?

The power of these two videos is the exposure of some of the biggest education challenges we face in both higher education and K-12 education. The weakness of these two videos is that they seem to suggest that the solution lies in technology. Really?

If only we put technology into the mix—big time—our problems would be solved. Students do not do a very good job in writing research papers, but they do write thousands of emails. Same thing, right? They don’t read (expensive) textbooks, but they do read Facebook. What’s to worry?

I just finished six years on my local school board. Our school district has embarked on an infusion of technology into the classroom, putting tablets and laptops in the hands of students and faculty, at all grade levels. A good idea? I think so, but success depends on how well they do it. So let’s not rush blindly onto the technology bandwagon. As the educators I worked with often reminded me, technology is not curriculum—it is an enabler. This is key. In higher education and in K-12 education, I have seen what happens when you just dump a ton of gadgets into an educational setting without changing the fundamental pedagogical strategies used to take best advantage of those gadgets. You probably have as well.

Don’t be fooled

The history of education is littered with the good intentions of one technological innovation after another that tried to deliver educational improvement by using the same educational strategy in a different, more economical (so they say) manner. What’s that they say about “lipstick on a pig”?

Solving the problems depicted in the videos is very important, but they solve them by just giving everyone an iPad or other device. Technology helps keep everyone informed. It extends reach and access. It helps accelerate learning and makes it personal. It brings the outside world in and can make learning more authentic and less risky. It supports knowledge sharing and creates institutional memory. It can even save a little money.

But it won’t do any of these things if you don’t use it right. Redesigning the learning experience and taking advantage of the unique capabilities of technology to foster a resource-rich and collaborative environment is critical. A boring classroom lecture is just as boring online. Despite the “cool factor,” bad content doesn’t magically become more useful when delivered on a tablet. Moving to technology means moving to new curriculum and instructional designs as well as new ways of teaching.

One example: flipping out

There are many entrepreneurial, out-of-the-box, innovative ways do this; here’s just one example to consider. The Khan Academy, begun by former hedge fund analyst (really) Sal Khan, began as an effort to use very simple web technology to tutor his cousin in math. Today, over 3,000 free tutorials are on the Khan Academy website. Okay, you say, so it’s neat technology and there’s lots of good stuff out there; is that it? No, and here’s where it gets interesting.

Technology is just part of the equation. In Khan’s case, the other important part is “flipping” the curriculum along with teacher retraining. Simply put, what was once homework is now done in class, and what was once done in class is now homework. Students review the videos—the content—at home, at their own pace, and as many times as needed, and then practice, discuss, collaborate, experiment, and apply what they learned in class. The teacher becomes less of an instructor and more of a facilitator and coach. This reversal of the traditional educational model recognizes that you just can’t change the medium in which you deliver content, you also have to change the way you teach it. Learn more about Sal Khan and the Khan Academy here, here, and here, and then brainstorm with your team other creative, innovative, and impactful ways you can change what you do to make learning technology much more effective.

So the next time you experience boredom, frustration, or irrelevance in an educational setting, or the next time you ponder putting the “magic pill” of technology in the hands of students without changing the environment in which that technology is used, just remember this ancient Chinese proverb: “If you don’t change your direction, you’ll end up exactly where you are headed.”